About two months ago, I was in the centre of Berwick killing time before going to a meeting. The Townhouse Coffeeshop under the Town Hall beckoned. I ordered a mug of black coffee and the nice waitress asked, “Would you like anything else with that?”
“Yes please, could I have a major research project, please.”
No, I didn’t really say that but I might have, as I had noticed an iron grill on what appeared to be a window.
Iron grill on inside of window with aperture above.
Iron grill on outside of window.
“That’s odd!”, I thought, “I’m in a cell. Why am I in a cell?”
Why indeed? Everyone knows (and if you don’t, why not?!) that the Town Hall boasts a wonderfully preserved gaol on the second floor.
My thought process went along the lines of, “So if the cells are upstairs, why am I in a cell downstairs? That doesn’t make any sense. I suppose there could have been cells upstairs and down but that would make things awkward for the gaolers, surely. Hmm. Are these part of the previous town hall?”
A quick description of the place for those that don’t know it. The ground floor of the Town Hall is divided into three rows. The cells occupy the central section. They are each approximately 4m by 2.5m. The stone walls are approximately 0.8m thick and the roof consists of a simple brick lined barrel vault. Each has a door on the west side. Cells 1 and 2 are used as storage. Cells 3 and 4 are used as a serving area and seating area. The partition between Cells 3 and 4 (evidenced by a “scar”) has been removed at some point as has the south wall. The seating area has been extended into the buttermarket by means of a modern “conservatory” extension.
Ground floor plan of Berwick Town Hall.
I had a little snoop about. Not only was there a grill on the inside, which was hinged to open inwards (that’s odd) but there was a fixed iron grill on the outside of the window. And above it and elsewhere are curious small apertures. And not only that; they don’t go straight through the wall but are “dog-legged” and have iron bars in them at each end.
Thus nothing could be passed through and therefore they must have been for ventilation. This suggests that this was a “maximum security” gaol. The windows exist on the west side in Cells 2, 3 and 4. They splay out towards the inside . In windows 3 and 4 there is a fixed iron grill on the outer side and an inward opening iron grill on the inner side. In cell 2, the splay is not as pronounced and the inner grill is fixed. Holes at the outer edge of this window suggest there had been a fixed grill similar to the others.
But hang on! If there are these ventilation holes up above why are there these huge openings below? A bit of research was needed.
Not much has really been written about the building of the Town Hall. Even John Scott’s definitive tome, The History of The Guild of Berwick-upon-Tweed has barely 2 pages on the subject.
The received wisdom is that there have been several “Town Halls” on the site, the one prior to ours being built in 1670. This was getting dangerous and falling down in 1749 and a local “carpenter”, the freeman Joseph Dodds, was ordered by the Guild in July 1750,
“It is this Day agreed with Mr Joseph Dodds that he take down the old steeple and Town house for the Materials except the Bells and Clock and Clear the ffoundations"
Our Town Hall was then built in two stages: the main "Guild Hall section” between 1749 and 1753 and the “Buttermaket section” added on and completed in 1764.
Well, after two months of trawling through the Guild books from 1667 to 1784, I have an answer to this riddle of the coffee shop cells! And so much more.
It turns out that all was not as it seems and that the building was far from complete in 1764. They are only just hanging the doors on the upstairs prison cells and finishing off in 1769!
This raises an interesting question. What did the authorities do with the prisoners (that must have existed) between 1749 and 1769? There may have been another prison – there had been in the past.
Or, that the old Town Hall wasn’t levelled to the foundations, and that the prisoners were simply kept there while the new Town Hall was being built around them! It must have felt like they were being entombed.
And the windows. I hit pay dirt this week. From 1774 (the “piazzas” are the two arched outer rows of the coffee shop):
“ To Cut and properly face up three windows, in the three different Cells in the Piazza.
And likewise three Iron Frames grated to be fixed in the several Cells below in the Piazzas for light and air about twelve or thirteen Inches Square”
What we don’t know is why they added the windows and grills. Is it the case that the cells were still being used on the ground floor in 1774, even though the cells on the second floor had been finished, now with the added “comfort” of light? Was Cell 1, with no window for the very worst offenders?
This could be the case as the outer grills are fixed. The inner ones however are not and only exist on two of the cells. If they were cells, why would you have grills the prisoners might open when there is a fixed grill on the other side?
They were not being used as cells two years later. John Howard (of Howard League for Penal Reform fame) visited in 1776 and wrote in his short report:
“The four rooms of cells on the ground floor are damp, and prisoners are not put into them.”
It may be that the inner grills were added later. It has long been known that the ground floor was leased by the Guild as shops; a record in December, 1780 talks about letting the “back piazzas” (the row to the north by the pedestrianised path). It might be that the other areas had been let before. It is complete speculation, but maybe shopkeepers added the opening grills on the inside; the space within the wall being used as a lockable “display case”.
Another thing to realise is that the arched windows on the outside of the building were originally open. The shops must have been rather like market stalls, open to the street.
Hide Hill by Alexander Carse (from Dr John Fuller’s History of Berwick-upon-Tweed, 1799). Note the open arches at the side of the Town Hall.
This was certainly the case with Marshalls fishmongers that operated until the 1960s when the building was refurbished. The “back piazza” was used by Urquhart and Patterson, hairdressers since about 1900.
Renovations of the Town Hall in 1951. Note the awning over the shop on the right hand side.
Urquhart and Patterson, Ladies and Gents hairdressers.
So there you have a first instalment of this remarkable story. Bear with me while I write up the whole thing as there is a lot more to tell you about.
Meanwhile, if anyone can tell me about the layout of the shops and hairdressers I would love to hear from you.
Or just pop into your local 18th century cell block for a coffee!
Or visit the later 18th century cell block upstairs in the Town Hall. Tours at 10.30am and 2pm Monday to Friday. I think its a couple of quid but well worth it.
My sincere thanks to Dawn at the Coffeeshop and Michael Herriot, Custodian at the Town Hall for all their help in my research.