Lock the malefactors up


Lewes, as the county town, has long been a place in which to lock wrongdoers up at her majesty’s pleasure.

It is thought that medieval malefactors were held in dungeons in Lewes Castle, but by 1487 the town petitioned Parliament to establish an official jail in the town, as at that date there was none in the entire county!

It was probably at this time that the vaults under the old Star Inn (now town hall) were first used, as it was there that the Protestant martyrs were held prior to their immolation in the reign of Mary I.

Prisoners at this time were commonly confined underground.

Later there was a lock-up within the old West Gate (at the Bottleneck) but in 1610 a new House of Correction was built somewhere on the south side of Cliffe 
High Street.

Then in 1789 land off North Street was purchased, and a new prison opened there in 1793. This was enlarged to 70 cells in 1817, and a treadmill that took 16 men to operate was installed in 1822.

The footings of some of these cells were exposed recently in archaeological excavations prior to the construction of the new police station.

After closure in 1853, this prison was used to hold Finnish prisoners of war captured in the Crimea (who were very popular locally) and then as a Royal Navy prison and a territorial army base.

Construction of the present Lewes Prison on a site then outside the town began in 1849, and it opened in 1853.

While the cells and facilities have recently undergone refurbishment, the physical environment in the older, listed, section of the prison remains Victorian.

Pictured (from Bob Cairn’s Lewes Through Time), the stagecoach at the top of Western Road, crossing into Brighton Road. To the left is the prison’s flint wall and the road to East Grinstead.