7 Apr 2013

UK's oldest prison now closed

8:11 am on 7 April 2013

The oldest operating prison in Britain is now closed. Shepton Mallet jail in south-west England was opened in 1610.

Its 189 inmates, who included murderers and sex offenders, have been moved to other prisons.

During World War II, the prison's 75-ft high stone walls housed the Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the logs of Lord Nelson's flagship HMS Victory for protection.

The prison was taken over by the British Army in 1945 before being converted back to a civilian prison in 1965. It was also used by the American military.

Seven prisoners who were executed between 1889 - 1926 are buried in unmarked graves within the prison.

Historian Francis Disney said it was a grim place, built when Shakespeare was still alive.

The BBC reports a special service was held to mark the closure of Shepton Mallet as church bells tolled in the neighbouring town. Prison officers wore full-dress uniform for the service.

Village atmosphere

''It was a bit like a small village society where everybody knew each other by their first names," said former probation officer Howard Hardman, who served there.

"There are only about 36 uniformed officers and 189 prisoners so everybody knew each other by their first names.

"Many of the prisoners were very long serving, they were men who in a sense were stuck within the lifer system.

"Many of these guys didn't want to be moved on, they found Shepton Mallet had been a safe and secure environment."

Mr Hardman said he first visited Shepton Mallet in 1971 as a young probation officer.

"The staff then were talking about whether or not it would close - because it's a small prison that threat has always been hanging over it," he said.

"But it was a shock to everybody, and of course for the prisoners as well, who saw it in a sense as a home from home,'' he said.

"They have had nothing outside, they had been in prison for so long, that there was very little in the world outside for them and they assumed they would continue there indefinitely."

The future of the site is still being considered, but the BBC reports some people hope it will be turned into a museum.