• Daniel Lambert, a gaol keeper from 1791, was famous for his size and went on to tour the country as a ‘natural curiosity’
  • A small part of the old borough gaol wall (demolished 1880) can be seen on Highcross Street
  • The last man to be exhibited in a ‘gibbet’ after execution was in 1832

Damp, dirty, overcrowded

In the 18th century Leicester had four gaols (the Georgian spelling of jail) on or near Highcross Street. In the late 18th century the visiting philanthropist John Howard found them to be damp, dirty and overcrowded. Inmates might be forced to work on a treadmill or turn a winding machine known as ‘the crank’. Food consisted of oatmeal gruel, bread, meat, potatoes, and cocoa. After Howard’s visit the gaols were rebuilt. In 1791, the County gaol was replaced by a new gaol built to the design of a Mr Moneypenny (said to have become its first inmate as a debtor).

Daniel Lambert

Famously, Daniel Lambert weighed 52 Stone 11lbs (335kg) at the time of his death in 1809. He would have known the gaols of Leicester well as his father was the keeper of the County Bridewell on Blue Boar Lane (Bridewells, or Houses of Correction, were prisons for a variety of minor offences). Daniel took over from his father in 1791 and was recorded as being a kind gaoler, but in 1804 the Bridewell was replaced by a new House of Correction for females, which was added to the gaol on this site. Daniel Lambert then left the service and travelled around the country, establishing an international reputation as a ‘natural curiosity’.

What is left to see?

The Gaol was demolished in 1880 but a small part of one of its walls was left in place and can still be seen today from Highcross Street. Parts of the wall can also be seen in the shop next door and the old foundations extend back to the cellars of neighbouring buildings.

"In the castle style"

The new county Gaol (now HM Prison Leicester), opened in 1828, was a striking castle-like structure designed by county surveyor William Parsons. It didn't impress traveller and writer William Cobbett when he visited this “very fine town” in the 1820s. He said of the new prison “..as if proud of it, the grand portal has little turrets in the castle style….Instead of expressing shame at these indubitable proofs of the horrible increase of misery and crime, they really boast of these “improvements”…. jails and tread-mills and dungeons have now become the most striking edifices in every county in the kingdom.”

Public hangings

Temporary scaffolds were erected outside the main gates of the county gaol for executions, attracting huge crowds. In 1832 James Cook was executed here for murder in front of a crowd of 30,000. He was the last man to have his dead body exhibited in a “gibbet” which was hung at the junction of Saffron Lane and Aylestone Road. Replica gibbet irons can be seen in the Guildhall.

HM Prison Leicester now operates from this site.

Visitor information
Can be seen from the street

Gallery

Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Early 20th Century Leicester

(1910 – 1973) The diverse industrial base meant Leicester was able to cope with the economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. New light engineering businesses, such as typewriter and scientific instrument making, complemented the more traditional industries of hosiery and footwear manufacturing.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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