Last Updated on June 7, 2023 by Louise
In the UK, there are numerous prison museums. These historical tourist attractions explore the darker side of the UK’s history.
Most were converted from former prisons to museums quite recently. Many offer guided tours.
Discover how criminals were punished for their crimes in the past. Hear tales of inmates who were unjustly imprisoned. Learn about the daily life of prisoners. Find out what they ate, how they exercised and the conditions in which they lived. Listen to stories of how criminals were executed and see where it happened.
As well as guided tours, many prison museums offer other events such as paranormal investigations and airsoft games.
Read on to discover the top prison museums in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island.
Table of Contents
The first prison building on the site in Shrewsbury was opened to prisoners in 1793. There were 204 cells (179 for men and 25 for women). Many public executions took place here.
The first execution at the new gaol took place on Saturday, the 15th of August 1795, when John Smith, aged 25, was hanged for stealing 10 cotton handkerchiefs in the shop of John Miner. The last public hanging was of 30 year old Edward Cooper who was executed for murder in 1863. From 1902 and to 1961, there were 8 executions that took place inside the prison.
The prison still standing housed 330 men and 22 women across two wings. The last prisoners vacated the prison in 2013
Today you can embark on a guided tour with a former prison officer. Hear tales of the crimes committed by the inmates and daily life inside the prison.
See the processing areas where prisoners arrived, step into the exercise yard and experience the execution room.
Book Your Visit online at Shrewsbury Prison.
Bodmin Jail, Cornwall
Bodmin Jail Entrance. Picture by Luke McKernan, Flickr Creative Commons
Bodmin Jail was built in 1779. The history of the prison is gruesome, overseeing over 55 public hangings, 8 of them women for crimes which included murder, rape and stealing.
It was the first prison to hold prisoners in individual cells. The last male prisoner left the prison in 1916 and it was officially closed in 1927.
Bodmin Jail has undergone a major refurbishment with part of it being turned into a hotel. If you’ve visited in the past, it may be time to go back.
A visit to the attraction incorporates the ‘Dark Walk’ experience with theatrical effects that allow visitors to immerse themselves in the life & death within the prison walls. It’s tours are only suitable for kids aged 8 and above due to the grim stories and surprising loud noises.
Photo by quisnovus / Flickr Creative Commons
Gloucester Prison opened in 1791.
It has a fascinating if gruesome history, over 123 people were executed there.
In the modern era, HMP Gloucester was classified as a Category B adult male local prison and young offenders institution. It was intended to hold mainly those on remand or newly sentenced and waiting to be sent to another prison.
It was closed in 2013 due to overcrowding.
A guided tour is highly recommended. Learn about the daily life of the prisoners and be informed about the technical aspects of hanging. Gruesome stuff. There are 3 daily tour times. The 5.30pm tour isn’t recommended for kids under 14, so make sure you choose the right one.
Today there are many other regular events that you can go to there. They include a paranormal investigation with haunted happenings event and airsoft games!
Find out more at Gloucester Prison
Oxford Castle and Prison
Oxford Castle and Prison is over 1000 years old. It was built after the Norman invasion in 1066 by Norman baron Robert O’Doyly.
Over time the Castle transformed from castle to a prison. It closed its doors to prisoners in 1996 and is now a tourist attraction.
To get the best out of a visit to Oxford castle and prison, book a guided tour. A costumed guide shows you around the prison.
See the prisoner cells, hear tales of the prisoners and discover how a prison worked for children in bygone times.
Enjoy the thrill of the 100 stair climb up a winding staircase to the top of the tower, where the views are excellent.
Descend underground into the 900-year-old crypt, the only surviving remains of St. George’s Chapel.
Shepton Mallet Prison, Somerset
Photo Credit: Rodw
Shepton Mallet Prison was built in 1625 and closed in 2013. In the early years, prison conditions were grim. Men, women and children were housed together. They weren’t separated by seriousness of their crime. Gaolers weren’t paid. They earned money doing things like selling alcohol to inmates. Promiscuous and drunken behaviour were common. Outbreaks of diseases and fever occurred regularly.
The Victorian era led to different types of punishment such as hard labour and separating and silencing prisoners. Seven executions took place here between 1889 and 1926. The bodies were buried in the prison grounds where they remain today.
In World War 2 the prison became a British Military Prison and was then taken over by the US army. Hundreds of US servicemen were imprisoned here. 18 US soldiers were killed either by firing squad or hanging during this time.
After the war, the prison one again held civilians. At one time the Krays were held here. It finally closed its doors on 18th March 2013.
Today the prison is a historical tourist attraction. Take a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide. Or spend a night behind bars. There is an opportunity to spend 12 hours in a cell of your own! If you’re interested in paranormal activity, Shepton Mallet is said to be haunted and another event that takes place here are paranormal investigations.
Clink Prison Museum
Photo Credit: N Chadwick
The Clink Prison dates back to 1144 making it one of England’s oldest and most notorious prisons. It held prisoners for over 500 years. In 1780 it was burned down in a riot and was never rebuilt.
The museum today is built on the original site. Just one wall remains from the original prison.
The museum is on the gory side and is a great way to bring history to life.
See the torture devices and read the information boards with more in-depth details. View archaeological artefacts, experience the sights, sounds and smells of the prison and hear stories of torment and misfortune of the inmates.
It is a quick attraction to visit. Allow at least an hour, but you might get around even quicker.
Find out more at the Clink Museum Prison.
Dartmoor Prison Museum
Dartmoor Prison has been a prison for over 200 years.
It has a fascinating history. It’s first prisoners in 1809 were prisoners of war from the Napoleonic War.
In Victorian times, it housed criminals of some of the worst crimes.
One of the most famous prisoners at Dartmoor was Frank Mitchell (the ‘Mad Axeman’). He escaped but was never recaptured. It last transpired he was murdered by the Krays.
Today Dartmoor is still a prison. It holds low category prisoners who live in single cells. The aim is to reform the prisoners and they are encouraged to go on training courses to help them on release.
The museum itself is small but packed with well curated exhibits and information. To get the most out of your visit reading the information is required. There are some fascinating things to see including prisoner contraband and weapons.
A visit should take about an hour. The current entrance fee of just £4 is great value for money. Check the website to see updates on how much the attraction costs.
Photo Credit: Asharkshooting
Lancaster Castle dates back to Roman times and has served many functions. It was originally a medieval fortress but over the years the castle has also welcomed numerous Royal visitors and served as a hub of justice with courtrooms, dungeons and a prison.
The castle has been a prison in one capacity or another from the 12th century until 21st Century. HMP Lancaster, a Category C prison was operational right up until March 2011.
Visitors can explore the castle’s extensive grounds and visit the former prison cells. It’s worth taking a guided tour to make the most of your visit. Guided tours of the Castle include visits to its 18th century cells, Pentonville-style male penitentiary, dedicated debtors’ prison area and female penitentiary
The castle and prison has a grim but fascinating history. One notable aspect is Lancaster Castle’s association with the infamous Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. The trials involved the persecution and execution of several individuals accused of witchcraft in the nearby Pendle Hill area. The accused were held in Lancaster Castle before and during their trials, and ten of them were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death.
It was also the first prison to segregate inmates by age and gender.
At the time of writing (May 2023) part of the castle is closed to visitors due to updating a fire alarm system. However, Limited tours, lasting 30 minutes, take place throughout the day but only cover the external courtyards and one of the prison buildings.
Find out more at Lancaster Castle.
Inveraray Jail, Argyle, Scotland
Photo Credit: Simon Burchell
A visit to Inveray Jail is a great family day out. The building houses both a courtroom and a jail
Travel back into the 1800s. Hear stories of men, women and children who were tried and served sentences there. Some of the children were as young as 7. Learn about how grim conditions were and find out the punishments they faced.
The history is fascinating. The details such as the prisoner names, numbers, ages and dates of the stories really bring the inmates to life.
Costumed jail officers walk around and you can ask them questions about what life was like
The jail closed it’s doors on the 30th of August 1889. It was a small jail, with 12 cells, the cost to run it has become inefficient in comparison with the larger prisons of the time.
The National Justice Museum, Nottingham
The National Justice Museum shows the history of crime and punishment from medieval times up to the modern day At one time, it was a one stop shop for criminals. It acted as a Victorian police station, gaol, courtroom and execution site. There are many real prison cells to see that span a long period of history.
Public executions were held on the front steps of the building. Richard Parker was the last person to be executed on the front steps. His crime was murdering his parents after a drunken row.
Today you can book online and visit the museum’s original courtrooms, prison cells and dungeon.
Exhibits include prisoner and prisoner office uniforms throughut the 20th century. Also see objects such as the balustrade from Strangeways prison during the 1990 riot.
There are often colourful characters who will tell you stories of justice from the past. Themed exhibitions and events also take place throughout the year!
Ruthin Gaol, Wales
Photo Credit: Llywelyn2000
Ruthin Gaol was closed in 1916. There has been a gaol on the site since the end of the 1700s. It was small but grew from having just 4 cells to being able to hold 37 inmates in 1837. By the end of the 1800s a new four story building was in place that held over 100 prisoners.
One execution took place here. William Hughes was hanged for murdering his wife in 1903.
A famous escapee was John Jones, known as Coch Bach y Bala. He escaped twice. Once by climbing out of a window using a rope made of bedsheets! He was recaptured both times.
Today you can visit Ruthin Gaol. Discover what life was like for prisoners. Learn about their daily routines, what they ate, how they worked and the punishments they suffered (sometimes for stealing an apple!) Visit the condemned cell. Experience the ‘smells’. Hear the tales of its most colourful prisoners.
Check Facebook for updates on opening times.
Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Photo by Davy Sims / Flickr Creative Commons
The first 106 inmates of Crumlin Road Gaol, were forced to walk from Carrickfergus Prison in chains in 1846. These inmates, were men, women and children. Children from poor families were often imprisoned for offences such as stealing food. Sadly, thirteen-year-old Patrick Magee, who had been sentenced to three months, hanged himself in his cell in 1858.
Public executions were carried out here until 1901. The last hangings took place in 1961.
Some well known prisoners included Éamon de Valera, Martin McGuinness, Michael Stone and Bobby Sands. Two prisoners were killed in 1991 when a IRA bomb went off in one of the wings.
The gaol closed its doors as a prison in 1996.
It’s been a tourist attraction since 2012. Tourists can embark on guided or a self guided tour of the prison. It also is a conference venue, holds music concerts and weddings!
Photo Credit: Nigel Mykura
Dorchester Prison was built in 1795.
The last public hanging that took place outside Dorchester prison was of Elizabeth Martha Brown a grocer aged 45 and mother of 2. She was convicted of the murder of her husband John Brown. She was said to have attacked him with an axe after he took a whip to her. The execution was said to have been witnessed by the writer, Thomas Hardy, who was 16 at the time. He later wrote 70 years later that he was ashamed to have been there.
Later Dorchester prison incarcerated only men. The prison was closed in 2013.
Today, you can go on a guided tour lead by a former prisoner officer, Eddie.
Peterhead Prison Museum, Scotland
Photo by lizsmith / Flickr Creative Commons
Peterhead Prison operated between 1888 and 2013. It was designed to hold 208 prisoners who were sentenced to hard labour. In reality numbers averaged more than 350 with a peak of 455 in 1911.
Known as Scotland’s toughest jail, Peterhead Prison had a history of poor conditions for prisoners.
In 1987, there was a hostage situation where an officer was held on the roof for 4 days. The SAS were called in to end the siege.
Today, visit and see what “real” prison life was like. Hear the officers speak of their experiences as part of the audio tour. Walk through the laundry, shower block and hospital areas.
The Tower of London
Although not it’s primary use, The Tower of London served as a prison throughout most of it’s fascinating history with some very famous inmates.
Its use as a prison began in the 1100s, during the reign of King Henry I and continued until as recently as the mid 20th century.
During the medieval period, the Tower of London was primarily used to imprison high-profile individuals, such as nobles, members of the royal family, and religious figures. Many of these prisoners were held for political reasons, such as treason or plotting against the monarchy. The Tower was also used to hold prisoners of war.
One of the most famous prisoners of the Tower was Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. She was accused of adultery, treason, and incest and was held at the Tower before her execution in 1536. Other notable prisoners included Sir Thomas More, Queen Elizabeth I before she became queen, and Guy Fawkes, who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Prisoners were held in various parts of the Tower, including the Bloody Tower, the Wakefield Tower, and the Beauchamp Tower. Some were held in relatively comfortable conditions, while others were subjected to harsh treatment, torture, and execution.
The Tower of London was still being used as a prison in the early part of the 20th century. Inmates during this time included Nazi criminals Rudolph Heiss and Josef Jacobs (the last person to be executed at the Tower). In 1952, the Kray twins were also imprisoned at the Tower for a few days.
The Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle
If you visit Lincoln Castle, there is Victorian prison inside. The prison has a fascinating history.
Men, women and children as young as eight were held here from 1848 to 1878 for crimes ranging from stealing a waistcoat and Bible, to highway robbery and murder. There were 7 hangings of murderers here. Their bodies were buried in the Lucy Tower where they remain til this day.
Many of the prisoners were segregated from other prisoners to help them reflect on their actions and reform their behaviour.
A visit here is very interactive. Dress up as a prisoner or member of staff. Explore the cells. Imagine the solitude of the single cell, the chaos of the crowded cell, and the desperation of the dark cell.
Find out more at Lincoln Castle
Littledean Jail is a former prison located in the village of Littledean, Gloucestershire. Built in 1791, its was originally a debtors’ prison. Later, it became a house of correction and a police station.
Conditions within the prison were often harsh and overcrowded, with little regard for the welfare of the inmates.
In 1968, Littledean Jail was closed as a prison and subsequently fell into disrepair. However, in the 1980s, the jail was converted into a museum and tourist attraction, with exhibitions featuring the history of crime and punishment in England. Today it’s more of a crime museum than a prison.
The museum is known for its collection of curiosities, including taxidermy animals, shrunken heads, and other oddities. Some of the exhibits focus on dark and unsettling topics such as Fred and Rose West, Witchfinders, Satanism, the SS and the Holocaust, Myra Hindley and the KKK. As you can see the exhibits are controversial, with some visitors expressing concern over the ethics of some of the displays. More light-hearted displays include the Quadrophenia exhibition, Princess Diana letters and the heroics of the SAS.
It’s certainly not a museum for everybody (definitely not for myself). However if you’re interested in crime and dark history, it could be worth a visit. Check out the website and read reviews of this one before you visit to see if it’s for you.
Book a Visit to a Prison with Get Your Guide
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