At the corner of the crossroads in the centre of Berkhamsted is the site of the first bridewell built in 1764. Hertford county records session books record several instances of troublesome members of the community and the difficulties involved with maintaining the gaol in a fit state for human habitation and effective incarceration.

In 1784 (p.414) an order was issued for the alteration of Great Berkhamsted bridewell “according to the Plan now laid before the Court for making three wards therein, the Partition Walls being thirteen feet high, in Brickwork, with an Oak Chevaux-de-freize on the Tops thereof. John Fulcher, carpenter, who drew the plan, is to be paid £5.5s.0d. for his trouble, and is ordered to prepare a description of the work, to be annexed to the plan. The clerk of the peace is ordered to advertise for estimates.” Later the same year (p.20), the keeper of the bridewell was to be paid £7.2s.0d., “towards his Expences in retaking Thomas Wilday, a Prisoner who escaped from the said Bridewell thro’ the weak state thereof.”

In Apr 1787 (p.200), labourer John Ghost was to be sent to the bridewell at Berkhamsted St Peter and to be publicly whipped for leaving his family chargeable to the parish of Tring, this being his second offence. Later the same year (Presentment book, vol.1, p.442-3), he was found guilty of breaking out of the bridewell and committed to gaol for 6 months and to be publicly whipped.

By 1789 (Quarter sessions, vol.15, p.356-62), entries on the conditions at the bridewell intensify: “This prison is in the Town of Great Berkhamsted and is very insecure as a Gaol. The rooms for the Men and Women want Air. The whole extent of the Ground, including a small Garden, is 44 feet by 31 feet 6 inches. The Men’s prison is 16 feet 6 inches by 10 feet 6 inches; the Women’s is 17 feet by 11 feet. The Yard is 25 feet by 14 feet, running Bevel”. “One side of this prison is against a Cooper’s Shop and that Partition is a Mudd Wall, raddeled, and the Inside of the Prison lined with an inch board. They can converse”. “There is a Dungeon, a most dreadful hole without Air, without any Light, 9 steps down, and in several places the Brick Bottom perished and so damp that a Stick may be run down a Foot deep in Damp Earth”. “Strict orders were given by the Committee that in Future no prisoner should be put into this place. The Average Number committed here in a year is about 14″. Finally, “It would be well if Magistrates never committed for more than 14 Days to these Gaols if it can be avoided. The Gentlemen acting in this Division of Dacorum Hundred admits this and see the Necessity of it”.

The “Bridewell”, Old Police Station on the corner of Kings Road and High Street. Replaced by a police station in 1890.
From BLH&MS collection (Ref: bk11945_286)


In 1841, Charles James Fox was the master of Berkhamsted workhouse and his wife Susannah presumably acted as matron and mistress. Of the 48 inmates, 30 were male of which 13 were labourers, five boys were straw plaiters, one each of carpenter, farrier, shoe maker, tailor and gardener. The rest were female mostly occupied with needlework or straw plait. Among the inmates were 47-year-old Elizabeth Thorn and her son Jesse Thorn, aged 11.

In 1837 George Thorn could be found on the prison hulk Fortitude. The gaoler’s report states that he was a labourer of bad character and indifferent connections. He had been convicted three times and imprisoned twice before he was convicted of housebreaking and stealing flour and transported on the ship Waterloo for life to New South Wales, Australia. Perhaps it is not surprising that George’s wife ended up in the workhouse. In 1842, Elizabeth was prosecuted at Wigginton for stealing a gown and given a custodial sentence of three months. On another occasion she was imprisoned for nine months for passing bad money. In Jan 1843, she was convicted of stealing a pail and in Nov 1843 she was transported for seven years on the ship Emma Eugenia. She arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in Apr 1844. The surgeon’s report describes Elizabeth as five feet tall, brown complexion and brown to grey hair, hazel eyes in a small visage, small nose and wide mouth. Elizabeth died in Launceston Tasmania in Mar 1847.

Transportation seemed to be the sentence of choice for women in the first half of the nineteenth century during a period of reform in the criminal justice system. Read more in my study of  Transportation Hardened harridans, decent women and beautiful young girls who were sent to Botany Bay.

Meanwhile, in 1841 John Tawell lived at the Red House in Berkhamsted High Street with his Quaker wife Sarah and four servants. He had been transported to Australia for forgery in 1820, but he managed to obtain a ticket of leave and became rich as a chemist in the new colony of Sydney before returning to England. Afraid that his illicit relationship would be discovered, he murdered his mistress Sarah Hart by administering prussic acid. Though he escaped the scene of the crime, he was arrested as a result of telecommunications technology. He was hanged in Aylesbury in 1845.

Highway Opportunists

Better roads were a boon to those in need of access and rapid escape from the scene of crime. Notorious locally was James Snook the highwayman, who robbed the local post-boy of his consignment of letters and bank notes and had the audacity to escape on the post horse; he was hanged on Boxmoor in 1802 where his memorial stone can still be found.

James McCoull was able to live in style off the profits gained from running a bawdy house and receiving stolen goods from (amongst others) John Collins who hired a single horse chaise for his trip from London and broke into Mr Baker’s linen drapery in Berkhamsted High Street; he named McCoull in his confession. This case indicates that even in 1797 provincial shops were carrying enough stock to attract the attention of thieves from as far away as London and that roads were good enough to make the trip worthwhile; Collins was caught with his accomplices when he had apparently re-visited “with the intention of committing some depredation.”

From MSc dissertation The social and economic impact of transport systems in Berkhamsted, 1760-1825 and subsequent studies on Crime & Punishment in Berkhamsted
Also Parish Constables of Berkhamsted, printed in the Berkhamsted Local History Society’s Chronicle volume III (2006)