What Is The Oldest Prison In The UK and Who is the Oldest Prisoner
Photo Shepton Mallet Prison
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Shepton Mallet prison was built in 1610 and is the country's oldest jail. It is a grim stone structure and is still operational. It housed French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic Wars and during World War II, Cell 10 was used to protect some of the nations treasures including the Doomsday Book, a copy of the Magna Carta and the logs of Nelson's Flagship, HMS Victory.

History of Shepton Mallet prison


In 1625 a House of Correction was established on the site of the current prison. This was following an act of 1609 passed by King James I which stated that all counties should maintain such an establishment. The House of Correction was used to house people awaiting trial, debtors and those sentenced to short terms with hard labour for minor offences.


In 1777, the philanthropist and noted prison reformer, John Howard published his book The State of Prisons in 1777. The book argued vehemently that major reforms in the penal systems where needed including; the separation of men and women based on the severity of their crimes, the need for increased levels of hygiene, wholesome food and humane treatment of inmates which included regular medical checks. Howard visited the prison at Shepton Mallet and was appalled at the conditions he saw.


As a result of the 1779 Penitentiary Act which required prisons across England to be reformed, additional land was purchased in 1817 and existing buildings were rebuilt and extended on the current Shepton Mallet site.1830 and 1900Between the 1830s and early 1900s Significant alterations were made to the site with various additions, rebuilds and conversions taking place.


In 1930 it was recommended that the prison was shut due to falling inmate numbers. After nine years lying empty the British Military took hold of the prison in the 1939 and the buildings were used as accommodation for soldiers, secure storage for military papers and public records including the Magna Carter and Domesday Book. From 1945 the prison was used as a military prison for those discharged after completing their sentence. Famous inmates during this time included the Kray twins.


In 1966 the prison returned to civilian use until its closure in January 2013. At the time of its closure Shepton Mallet was considered the oldest operating prison in the UK.

Who were executed?

Bear in mind that a conviction for murder in Britain at this time carried a mandatory death sentence and that it was not unusual for civilian murder trials to only take a day or two. Rape did not carry the death penalty in British law but did in US Military law. Execution by shooting was not permitted for murder in Britain but was under US Military law. Rape was punishable by death in most of the southern states of America and in fact the last execution for rape in the USA took place in May 1964 when Ronald Wolfe was gassed in Missouri. Just over 300 rape executions (where the victim lived) were carried out between 1941 and 1964.

Here is a brief account of some cases :

Pte. David Cobb, a 22 year old black G.I. was the first to be hanged, on 12th March, 1943. Cobb, from Dothan, Alabama, was stationed at Desborough Camp in Northamptonshire and had been on guard duty for some time during Sunday the 27th of December, when he was reprimanded by 2nd Lieutenant Robert J. Cobner. He protested and Cobner ordered the sergeant of the guard to arrest Cobb. Cobb threatened the man, who backed off so Cobner unwisely decided to attempt the arrest himself. Cobb fired his rifle at Cobner fatally injuring him. He was tried by US court martial at Cambridge on the 6th of January 1943. His trial occupying less than one day. His death sentence was confirmed in due course and reviewed by the authorities before he was executed by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint within the new execution facility at Shepton Mallet.
Pte. Harold Smith a a 20 year old from LaGrange, Georgia had gone AWOL (absent without leave) in London in January 1943 and with another young soldier was staying in a hotel enjoying the town until their financial recourses dried up. He then returned to Chisledon Camp near Swindon to find his own unit had been posted elsewhere. He found a loaded pistol and then got into an altercation with Pte. Harry Jenkins whom he shot dead. He also fired at another soldier before escaping back to London, where he was arrested by a British policeman. He was handed over to American authorities and was court-martialled at Bristol on the 12th of March 1943. He made a full statement admitting his guilt and was duly hanged on the 25th of June, 1943 by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint.
John Waters from Perth Amboy in New Jersey was, at 39, rather older than the rest of these soldiers. He had been seeing a local woman, 35 year old Doris Staples, in Henley on Thames where he was stationed. There relationship was deteriorating and on the 14th of July 1943 he went to the drapers shop where she worked and shot her five times. The police arrived while Waters was still on the premises and a short siege began which was ended when the police threw a teargas canister into the shop and broke down the door. Seeing that he was cornered, Waters shot himself, but did not make a very good job of it. In due course he came to trial at Watford, Herts. (on the 29th of November 1943) and was convicted and sentenced to death for Doris' killing. He was hanged on the 10th of February 1944 by Tom Pierrepoint, assisted by Alex Riley.
25 year old Pte. Wiley Harris Jr. from Greenville, Georgia, was another black soldier who was stationed in Belfast in Northern Ireland. He had gone out with his friend Pte. Robert Fils to a bar for the evening where they met a pimp called Harry Coogan who offered them the services of a young woman. These Harris accepted and he and the girl went to a nearby air raid shelter to have sex with Coogan keeping watch outside as this sort of activity was illegal. As they were getting started Coogan shouted to them that the police were approaching. Harris and the girl got dressed and emerged from the shelter to find that there were no police and Harris then demanded his money back. A struggle ensued between Harris and Coogan in which Coogan punched Harris. This caused the fight to escalate to the point where Harris stabbed Coogan 17 times. The court martial were not prepared to accept self defence in view of the number of stab wounds and so Harris was convicted. He was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Alex Riley, on the 26th of May 1944.
Madison Thomas, a 23 year old from Arnaudville, Louisiana, was another black soldier convicted of rape. His victim was Beatrice Reynolds, who was returning home after helping out at the British Legion hall at Gunnislake in Cornwall on the evening of July 26th 1944. Thomas accosted her on her way home and she tried to get rid of him by talking to her friend Jean Blight but without success. He hit her and pulled her into a field where he raped her and robbed her of her watch. Thomas had also spoken to Jean Blight and she was able to positively identify him the next day when the entire camp at Whitchurch Down near Tavistock was put on parade. Blood on Thomas's trousers was shown to be of the same group as Beatrice's. He was court martialled at Plymouth on the 21st of August and hanged by Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint on the 12th of October 1944.

Who is the oldest prisoner in UK?

Photo The Mirror
Photo The Mirror

Ralph Clarke was sentenced to a 13-year term for historic child sex attacks in 2016 at the age of 101.

The retired lorry driver turned 104 this year as new research shows our jails are full of pensioners.

He is one of 13,617 aged over 50 out of a prison population of 82,710 as of June 2019, a figure which has tripled since 2002.

Of those,1,759 were 70 or older.

When was Shepton Mallet prison closed?

What Is The Oldest Prison In The UK and Who is the Oldest Prisoner
Photo Shepton Mallet Prison

The prison was finally decommissioned on 28th March 2013 in a ceremony held on the Exercise Yard, attended by officers and staff, past and present, and many others.

The 189 inmates, who included murderers and sex offenders, at the Category C lifer, Grade II-listed prison were transferred to other jails around the country ahead of yesterday's closure.

Shepton Mallet prison closed in 2013 and since then has been open as a heritage site whilst developers wrangle over its future. People can take guided tours, do the escape rooms, go on ghost tours or join the ultimate experience, a 12 hour stay in the prison - allocated a cell and allowed to wander the darkened building throughout the night.

How to get to Shepton Mallet prison

What Is The Oldest Prison In The UK and Who is the Oldest Prisoner
Photo Shepton Mallet Prison

Postcode: BA4 5PE

Public Transport: Castle Cary train station is 15 minutes away and you can get a taxi or a bus to the prison. Get bus 1, 1A or 1C.

Parking: The prison car park is at the top of Frithfield Lane and is open from 10am until 5:00pm, or later for the Night Behind Bars experience. It costs £3.00 to park. The closest public car parks are located on Great Ostry BA4 5DB and Old Market Rd, BA4 5DX (500 metres).

How much does it cost to spend a Night Behind Bars?

The cost is £54 per person.

Are there any facilities at Shepton Mallet Prison?

There is a small café for snacks and hot drinks throughout the visit. Alcohol is served until 10pm. The loos were near the shop area which is down a few flights of stairs and in a different building from the cells. There are no shower facilities. Most people just slept in their clothes, if they slept at all.

Useful tips for spending a Night Behind Bars

Photo slow travel UK
Photo slow travel UK

There are staff on site all through the night, wandering around making sure everyone is ok and answering any questions.

It is for over 18 only.

There are lots of information boards around the prison to ensure you know where you are and what the rooms were used for.

What is the oldest prison still in use?

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