403 years of prison regime
The Town of Shepton Mallet, in Somerset, has many claims to fame, the Roman Fosse Way, and its splendid Market Cross. For many years it was famous for the manufacture of woollen cloth and today it hosts the annual Royal Bath and West Show. But how many people passing through its tranquil streets would guess the town’s more sinister claim to fame. Shepton Mallet Prison, dating from 1610, is the oldest jail in the country. It has always stood on the same site and has always been used as a prison.
A book has been produced to chart the nearly four centuries of history. ‘Shepton Mallet Prison", 403 years of Prison Regimes’, written by Francis Disney, BEM, is a remarkable and comprehensive voyage through the stormy pages of its history. The executions, the riots, the trials, the great fire of 1904, are all chronicled in the pages of this meticulously researched book, a true labour of love by Mr Disney, a former prison officer himself.
But the book is not without a great deal of humour as well he quotes a prisoner in the early years of this century, "The pain principle governed the prison system at Shepton Mallet. The discipline was harsh, repressive and destructive and every day brought its hour of desperation. The Governor seemed a decent sort of fellow, but was chained hand and foot by the standing orders which govern the treatment of prisoners down to the smallest detail. Still he was kind to me during my illness and I was really sorry to hear later that he had put himself the wrong side of the cell door for embezzlement".
The book also vividly records the British and American occupation of the jail from 1939 to 1965. During the American period 21 Servicemen were hanged and 2 were shot for crimes of rape and murder. The Military Prison was known as the ‘Glasshouse’ and a place to be feared by all servicemen. Several of the accounts present very grim reading. Part of this old jail was used to house many of the nations treasures during World War Two which included such items as the Domesday Book, Copy of the Magna Carta and the Logs of Nelson’s Flagship HMS Victory. It is also rumoured that many of the Crown Jewels were secretly stored there.
Recent times portrays the help given by staff and prisoners in making articles to be sent to aid the sad plight of the many Rumanian children in 1992. Now updated to include the last days of what was the UK longest active prison.