KEVIN GORDON - Lewes Prison - the jail without doors

The granite monument erected by order of the Russian Government.
The granite monument erected by order of the Russian Government.

On 19th October 1854 the Naval Prison in Lancaster Street, Lewes (formerly the County gaol) opened its gates for an unusual group of prisoners.

Two hundred men, three women and a child were admitted to join more than 100 men who were already confined there. These were Prisoners of War (mainly aged in their mid 20s) who had been captured after the Royal Navy attacked a Russian fortress at Bomarsund in the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War.

It became popular for the public to visit the prison to meet the Russian residents

It became popular for the public to visit the prison to meet the Russian residents

During the battle a young English officer, Charles Lucas, managed to throw a live enemy shell overboard and thus became the very first person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Although the men were members of the Russian Imperial Army they were mainly Finns and Swedes and, when they arrived in Lewes from Sheerness, many were ill.

The prison hospital of 30 beds was soon full but the prison doctor Mr Burton soon nursed them back to health.

At first, only one of the prisoners, Lieutenant Bollfras, spoke English.

Inscription on the memorial to the Russian prisoners

Inscription on the memorial to the Russian prisoners

The prisoners, being members of the Lutharian Church, attended worship in local churches but later a Russian Othodox priest was able to enter the prison to assist.

The prison was equipped with a dining-room where 400 people could sit. The men were given three meals a day, breakfast at 8am, dinner at 1pm and tea at 6pm. They had an allowance of over a pound of bread a day and chocolate for breakfast.

The men appeared to be intelligent and it was noted that most of the men could read and write, unlike the men of most English regiments at the time.

One room was converted to a library and there was also a laundry, barbers, shoemaker and tailor. The men slept three to a cell but remarkably the doors of the cells were removed to allow the prisoners free access around the prison.

Public curiosity meant that scores of people visited the prison to meet the unusual residents, indeed it is reported that over 500 people visited the prison in just one day. The gentry were particularly drawn to interacting with the officers who were invited to attend Sussex estates to join shooting parties at weekends. In November 1854, Angela Burdett-Coutts, the grand-daughter of the banker Thomas Coutts, and said to be the richest woman in England, visited the prison and left £5 for the welfare of the men. The Duke of Devonshire gave £250. Another regular visitor was the local MP Henry Brand (later the Speaker of the House of Commons).

Many prisoners were allowed to come and go as they pleased and they were regularly allowed up onto the Downs to exercise and take walks.

The men made plenty of money by making wooden toys. These puzzles and trinkets became much sought after in local toyshops, particularly in Brighton and several are on display in the Anne of Cleves Museum in Southover.

By September 1855 over 9,000 visitors were arriving each month and the prisoners were making considerable money from selling their handiwork. At Christmas it was said that the prisoners had spent over £1,000 in local shops. It was also reported that six of the officers that month had been permitted to spend a week’s holiday in London.

It seems remarkable that the prisoners were given such freedom but it was not always an easy detention. Maybe some forgot they were prisoners at all.

In May 1855 a group of the men refused to pump water from a nearby well. The governor, Lieutenant Mann, decided “No water no tea” and when they didn’t get their supper, some of the prisoners drew their knives on the prison officers. The governor called in the military; 150 armed men from the Sussex Militia soon arrived and searched the prisoners confiscating many weapons. The governor reacted by deciding to put the doors back on the cells.

When they left in April 1856, the streets were crowded to watch the men march to the station, led by the Lewes Town Band. During their stay 28 men died and were buried in the nearby churchyard. The 17-foot high octagonal granite monument was erected in 1877 by order of the Russian Government. Its architect, Philip Currey, was responsible or the restoration of several local churches. The monument (now listed) was restored in 1957 by the USSR Embassy and later by the Friends of Lewes.

Today, Lewes is known for its prison, but I am sure modern prisoners have few of the perks that those Russians had.