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’.
The first Bridewell in Wymondham dates from 1619 when 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 a ‘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 Sir Thomas Beevor who produced a ‘new model prison’ blueprint. It opened in 1785 for men and women. These more humane prisons were built in other parts of the country and America. Innovations included each prisoner having his or her own cell and men and women being kept separately from each other. Reform rather than repression was the guiding principle of the new prison.
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 1832-1878
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 in 1832. 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.
The police move into the Bridewell
In 1850 the police moved into part of the building and a police constable and his family occupied a corner of the Bridewell nearest Browick Road. 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 which were used by the Citizens Advice Bureau and still by the Red Cross. The police station was expanded.
In 1963 the police moved to new premises opposite the Fairland, which they left in 1963 to move to the new county police HQ on Harts Farm Road. So Wymondham continues to play a key roll in policing in the county as home to Norfolk Constabulary’s Operations and Communications Centre.
The Bridewell becomes a courthouse
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 1992.
The Bridewell then became derelict until Wymondham Heritage Society bought it with the aid of grants, from Norfolk County Council in 1994. The Society began the conversion of the building to accommodate the Heritage Museum and a number of community and caring projects. It then set up the Bridewell Preservation Trust to manage the building and safeguard its future. Since 1996, it has housed the Heritage Museum, a Red Cross Centre, a Resource Room, a Tea Room, a Citizens Advice Bureau (now moved) and sheltered housing flats.
In 1996 the Duke of Gloucester officially opened Wymondham Heritage Museum and the Bridewell complex.
The building had served as a prison 1785-1878, a police station 1850-1963 and a courthouse 1879-1992.