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ELY MUSEUM

THE HISTORY OF THE OLD GAOL

Emily Allen – Custodian at Ely Museum

It was in January 1728 that Nathaniel Alvine became “Keeper of His Majesties Gaole and House of Correction at Ely”.  Ely Gaol, which was established on its current site by Bishop Peter Gunning in 1679, often found itself in a poor state of repair. Due to a chronic lack of funding, the gaol fell further into disrepair, while often also being overcrowded and rife with disease. 

Alvine noted the poor state in which he found the Bishops Gaol, stating that there were “no irons nor locks for the felons” upon their incarceration, and that “neither the gates are of sufficient strength to keep any Prisoner within the yard” As a result of this lack of security in the building, prisoners continually broke free and made their bids for freedom across the Fens! Alvine even tells of a prisoner who escaped “through the wall that held him from sweet liberty and disguising himself as a woman, got clear away down the river!” – several reports over the following years report similar incidents, and it appears that this was a common problem at Ely Gaol! 

In addition to the awful conditions endured by the prisoners, life for Nathaniel Alvine, who also lived in the filthy, freezing gaol, would have been difficult too.  Despite having his own family to support, Alvine laments that “neither my father or my predecessor have been paid the legal pension to the great detriment of both our families” 

With a string of poorly, if at all, paid gaolers and a building in desperate need of repair, it is easy to see how by 1770 the gaol was considered to be in a “poor, if not ruinous condition”. 

Eventually, by 1836 the gaol was permanently closed and prisoners moved on to Cambridge County Prison. This gaol building eventually became Ely Museum in 1997

emily@elymuseum.org.uk  Tel: 01353 666655

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