Old Leicester Gaol (LE1)
On Highcross Street, look for the shop dated '1712' in the brickwork. To the left of the shop, between it and the next red brick building, are the remains of another, stone building. This is the only surviving stone work from the old Borough Gaol. Its earliest incarnation is thought to have existed in 1297. Its last was built in 1700-1702, with alterations carried out in 1803. It was demolished, leaving just this trace, in about 1897.
The Gaol had a reputation for being unduly harsh and repressive. One convict described it as ‘Hell upon Earth’. In the mid-nineteenth century it operated a ‘separatist’ regime (enforced solitude), influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s panoptic vision.
A Tale from the Gaol
'A female ward in the precincts of the Leicester Borough Gaol was under construction. There was a need to demolish a portion of the boundary wall. At eight o'clock on the morning of Monday, 19th August, 1867, the workmen were eating their breakfast. John McCarty, aged 25, was undergoing seven years penal servitude for a midnight jewel robbery in May 1867. He had served a previous term for sacrilege. He was exercising with other convicts in the parade ground, well-guarded by two warders. Suddenly he threw his prison cap down, and leaped over a low wall into the kitchen area. There he took off his coat and waistcoat, ran over planks and building refuse, to an angle of the boundary wall where building work had recently been done. He scaled the projecting bricks, not easy, to a height of fifteen feet. From six feet above the street, he dropped down, and ran through alley-ways. The warders gave the alarm by whistle. (They could not leave the other prisoners they were supervising).
Detective Sergeant James Hickenbottom and Police Sergeant Graves went after McCarty along the canal to Aylestone, Blaby Wharf and Kilby Bridge. They were about half an hour behind him. At Fleckney, they went along the tow-path, and saw him coming up at a quick walk. He saw them, and jumped into the canal. He crossed and went into a cornfield on the opposite side. The officers crossed over, and there was a pursuit. He darted into the canal again, re-crossed to the tow-path, and went into a bean field where he hid. Eventually he was discovered almost hidden by briars and weeds. He surrendered. On the return journey to Leicester, he made another unsuccessful escape attempt. He told the two officers that his intention was to hide in ditches at Fleckney for several days, and then go to Northampton. He was safely lodged back in the Leicester Gaol.'
Daniel Lambert - Leicester's famous jailer
The most famous incumbent of Leicester Gaol was one of its jailers, Daniel Lambert. The National Biography describes him as 'the most corpulent man of whom authentic records exist'. Born in Leicester in 1770 of 'normal sized' parents he showed no signs of excess until his 20th year when he began to gain weight. At the age of 23 he was already 32 stone. The reasons for his condition appear to be a mystery for he had an unremarkable appetite and drank only water. His early life is fairly well documented and his earliest days were spent as an apprentice to the engraved button trade in Birmingham, returning to his family in Leicester in 1788. At this time his father was keeper of the Bridewell prison (which later merged with the Gaol). Daniel assisted him until he took over the post in 1791 following his father's retirement. In 1805 he resigned as Keeper of Leicester Gaol to both make a tour of England drawing large crowds, and to receive paying visitors to his lodgings. He was believed to have weighed 52 stone and 11 pounds at the time of his death in Stamford in 1809.