When news happens get involved. Send your pictures, views and video to us by text and email
WITH VIDEO: Doors close at Dorchester prison for final time
9:10am Wednesday 18th December 2013 in News
THE DOORS of HMP Dorchester have officially closed.
It was with ‘heavy hearts’ that hundreds gathered yesterday in North Square to mark a ‘sad day’ in the history of the county town.
Staff members joined former workers and a host of local dignitaries as the prison’s flag was lowered for the last time.
Video of the closing ceremony
They were reassured that the closure had ‘nothing to do’ with the performance of the prison, which is one of four to be axed across England.
Governor Carole Draper said staff should be proud of their achievements and leave HMP Dorchester with their ‘heads held high’.
She said there would never be a good time for the closure but was grateful it ‘came at a time when other alternatives were available for staff’.
She added: “Dorchester was a high-performing jail and the decision to close had absolutely nothing to do with its performance.
“The decision was made at a time when other alternatives were available for the staff and an awful lot of them have stayed within the prison service. That means that all of their skills and expertise has been retained.”
She said she was touched that so many people had come to the public closing ceremony, which followed a private service for staff.
She said: “This is a significant day in the history of Dorchester.
“The jail has been part of the town for many, many centuries and now staff will never take the walk up to North Square again.”
It is believed that 90 percent of staff have been allocated other jobs while 10 percent have taken voluntary redundancy.
In a statement read out on behalf of staff they said their time at Dorchester would ‘always be in our hearts’ and they were proud to work in a prison where ‘people can be appreciated for who they are, not what they have been convicted of’.
Dorchester became the county town of Dorset due the jail.
Dorchester Mayor Stella Jones said the date of the first prison – 1305 – is ‘so important’ that it is featured on the mayor’s badge.
She added: “Dorchester prison has been at the heart of Dorchester.
“The people welcomed the prison here and the people who worked in the prison were part of the community. It is a sad day when we no longer see them walking to North Square to do their jobs.”
After the lowering of the flag, the procession travelled to the town pump, where town crier Alistair Chisholm gave the last ‘Oh ye!’ for HMP Dorchester.
The bells of St Peter’s church rang out and traffic stopped as officers marched their way down High West Street.
Alistair said: “This really is an historic day in the history of Dorchester.
“I know from the visits I have made to HMP Dorchester that it was an excellent facility.
“The staff were so proud to say ‘we may be a small jail but we are a good jail’.”
The end of time for Dorchester prison
ATTEMPTED jail breaks, ‘entertaining’ episodes and controversy over conditions have littered the long history of the ‘county gaol’.
Dorchester has not been without a prison since the 1300s.
But now seven centuries of crime and punishment are over.
HMP Dorchester is the fourth recorded prison in Dorchester – the last in a line that dates back to 1305, when King Edward I wrote letters confirming the county’s jail would be here.
Town crier Alistair Chisholm said: “Dorchester’s reign as the county town started when it was chosen to hold the county jail.
“One could argue that after its closure, we are no longer the county town.
“It has an integral part in Dorchester’s history and has helped make the town what it is today.”
This first Dorchester prison was at the corner of Icen Way and High East Street, and this end of Icen Way was called Goal Lane.
In the middle of Icen Way was Bell Lane.
And Bell Lane housed the Old Bell Inn, where condemned prisoners would take their last meal before the doomed walk to Gallows Hill.
Dorchester’s second recorded prison was built in 1633, at the bottom of High East Street.
Some years later, various prisoners from the Monmouth rebellion died in this jail.
The third of Dorchester’s prisons was built on the same site in 1784 and remained only until 1793 when it was sold – and replaced by a building on the site of the prison we see today.
This prison cost £18,883 to build on land given by Francis Browne, then MP for Dorset.
Conditions inside the prison were gloomy. Most of what we know has been found in letters written by prisoners themselves.
One of the best-known examples is the story of Gilbert Wakefield, an 18th century clergyman, who was sent to HMP Dorchester for two years after writing a controversial pamphlet about social reform.
Wakefield decided to devote himself to helping other prisoners less fortunate, making enquiries and giving them food and clothing. He would buy large quantities of mackerel for them, which were brought to the jail by Weymouth fishermen.
Upon his release, Wakefield brought many of the cases of the prisoners he met to the attention of Dorchester Magistrates. He appealed for an official inquiry into the jail, but to no avail.
It was his time in Dorchester prison that Wakefield’s family blamed for his premature death.
And it wasn’t until around 76 years later that officials would finally recognise the conditions he had tried to bring to their attention.
In the mid-nineteenth century, around 1877, responsibility for Dorchester jail was transferred to the Prison Commission.
At this time it was surveyed- and the commission found the prison to be ‘generally in such a state and so obsolete in its construction that nothing is left for the government but to set about its reconstruction’.
And so stands the HMP Dorchester we see today.
The past of North Square may be finished but it is hoped an exciting future awaits.
Since the closure of the prison was announced in September, Dorchester Civic Society has been busy setting up a working group to see what can be done to capitalise on the historic site.
The group, which includes an architect, surveyor, town planner and urban planner has set out a ‘vision’ for what it wants to see in the place of the prison.
Alan Rowley, chairman of the Civic Society, said: “The closure is a big day for Dorchester.
“The closure is bad news for Dorchester – loss of employment, the rehabilitation and so on.
“But we have to look for the opportunity in the loss.”
The prison stands on a site occupied since Roman times, including a castle which stood from around 1137 until the 14th century.”
In 1986, rebuilding of the wall around the prison revealed the castle’s defences.
As archaeologist Jo Chaplin told the Echo at the time: “The site has been in continuous occupation since Roman times and successive developments have meant that any remains are very jumbled up.”
English Heritage has surveyed the building to see if anything, aside from the listed gates, needs protecting.
Once this is known, the planning process can begin for what is hoped will be a bright future for an historic part of town.
Comments are closed on this article.