Door used from 1810 by prisoners entering the Bridewell
In 1553 one of Henry VIII’s palaces was converted into a House of Correction to deal with vagrants. The palace was known as ‘Bridewell Palace’ because it was near the Holy Well of St Bride in London. As other houses of correction came to be built, they too were called ‘Bridewells’.
Wymondham’s first Bridewell
From 1619 the basement of an old medieval house, on the site of the existing Bridewell and museum, was used as a dungeon. Prisoners were kept in chains in the darkness. A 1995 excavation of the courtyard, revealed the original cobbled dungeon floor, which is now on public view.
John Howard and ‘new model prisons’
In 1779, leading prison reformer John Howard visited Wymondham Bridewell during a national tour of English prisons. He described it as ‘one of the vilest prisons in England’.
Howard’s recommendations led to the building of a new Wymondham Bridewell, following the design of his ‘new model prison’ blueprint. These more humane prisons came to be rolled out across the UK and America. Innovations included each prisoner having his or her own cell and men and women being kept separately from each other.
The Howard League was set up to continue Howard’s work and still campaigns for penal reform today. To find out more about John Howard and the Howard League visit www.howardleague.org
Norfolk Women’s Prison 1831-1878
In 1810, the Bridewell was extended to provide a home for the prison governor and additional facilities. It closed in 1825 but reopened as the Norfolk Women’s Penitentiary.
The women prisoners ran a laundry and washing was hung on lines in the old exercise yard, now the museum’s garden. Each prisoner was given a New Testament and one of these was used to make a pack of playing cards, which can be seen in the museum today.
In 1850 a police constable and his family moved into a corner of the Bridewell. He was put in charge of three remand cells, one of which can be seen in the museum.
1878 to the present day
In 1878 the prison was closed and the police moved into other parts of the building including areas now used by the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Red Cross. In 1963 the police moved to new premises opposite the Fairland.
In 1879 the south wing of the Bridewell, now the main gallery of the museum, was converted to a courtroom. Magistrates also had rooms in a part of the building which had previously been the prison governor’s house. Petty Sessions were held there until 1991.
Today Norfolk Constabulary polices an area from Great Yarmouth in the east to West Walton in the west and from Blakeney Point in the north to the Waveney Valley in the south. Wymondham continues to play a key roll in policing in the county as home to Norfolk Constabulary’s Operations and Communications Centre.