Kirkcudbright History Society benefited from the vast amount of research into the Kirkcudbright Prison done by Dr Donald Cowell as his talk on “Kirkcudbright Prison in Victorian Times” enthralled the members at their February meeting.
From being a volunteer researching documents in the Stewartry Museum to spending days in the National Records Office in Edinburgh, he covered how he had become interested in the subject.
The importance of distinguishing between the prison i.e. the tower at the rear and the Court buildings was emphasised. Although none of the original plans have been found, much is known about planning and discussions over the building. This even included, at one point, the inclusion of Thomas Stevenson’s expertise in building towers as he was at that time involved with the building of the lighthouse on Ross Island.
The prisoner’s conditions were a surprise to the audience. Life wasn’t the hardship expected. The main criticisms in the Inspector’s Report of 1837 included the facts that they were too well fed and they could go to bed when they wanted. In fact it was so comfortable that the remark was made “that poachers have no objections to passing the winter inside”.
A variety of legislation was covered. The Prison (Scotland) Act 1839 was perhaps the most influential. This introduced more control over prisons and prisoners e.g. prisoners were given work for ten hours a day. This covered for example net making and repairing, shoemaking and the teasing of ropes for oakum. The latter being sent to Liverpool for caulking of ships.
Kirkcudbright prison’s governors were all influenced by Mr William Brebner one of the foremost reformers of the day. He was Governor of Bridewell in Glasgow and was reckoned to be the leader in humanitarian prison reform. Reforms included emphasis on personal cleanliness and literacy classes for those in need.
Reasons for being in prison ranged from being debt to being a lunatic. The main reason though was being a criminal. One reason for it being unusual for a debtor to be in prison for long was that their creditor had to pay for their food.
In 1877 funding of prisons passed to Parliament and in 1883 the prison closed and any prisoners were transferred to Dumfries.
This importance of this closure and its effect on the local economy was illustrated by slides showing a variety of receipts and invoices from local merchants involved in supplying goods and services to the prison as well as the trade already mentioned with Liverpool.
The next meeting of the Society is on March 11th when the meeting will be followed by a light hearted photographic quiz, “So you think you know Kirkcudbright?”