In October, VisitNorwich sent me to PrimEvil so I could write about it for this blog.
Title Image: Norwich Castle Prison, reproduced with kind permission of picture.norfolk.gov.uk
What followed was a pretty harrowing evening for me, a pretty entertaining evening for my companion and a surprising turn of events for the stranger whose hand I held all the way through The Crypt. I am truly pathetic. As a child I used to clip my curtains together so that giants couldn't get through my window - BFG style - and even now I have to mute the adverts for horror films when they disturb my viewing of Love Island or similar.
So this week I went to the Norwich Castle dungeon.
Having been to the castle lots and lots of times, the dungeon tour isn't even something that I'd considered doing. However, writing about Square Box on the Hill last week, my interest was piqued and I was fascinated to hear more about the castle's gloomy past.
Currently, Norwich Castle is a fabulous museum and art gallery. It's central rotunda is bright and airy (it was described as 'spaceage' during its inception in the late 60's), the cafe does great cake, and the exhibition spaces house important works of art, natural history and generations of teapots (one of my favourite things to do when I visit is pick a teapot that I feel best represents me on that particular day. It's the small things.).
When it was first built in stone after the Norman conquest, the castle was used as a royal residence. However towards the middle of the 14th century, the castle was looking more and more forgotten. Stone fortresses were no longer fashionable places to live: they were cold, draughty and susceptible to damp, and eventually the castle became the city prison.
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like. Although nowhere near the population that it is today (7,000 in the 14th century to an estimated 143,000 in 2017), Norwich was a very wealthy successful city with a flourishing trade in textiles and leather. This was also the time of the Black Death, which is reported to have wiped out two thirds of the population here. Amongst all that, the old Norman stores beneath the Castle towers were used to keep prisoners in total darkness underground.
Which brings me to the tour...
My group is met by Tracey in the Rotunda, who introduces the tour and gives a brief overview of the Castle's past as a prison, and its evolution over time. Looking at parts of the castle through the skylights in the meeting area, Tracey starts to build a picture of a time when the walls of the keep would have been lined with 4 storeys of cells, housing some of the poorest souls in Norwich.
We make our way back towards the entrance of the Castle, which would have been the entrance to the prison back in the day. Opening a door to the right of the front desk, she reveals the banner that introduces the tour in earnest: a picture of the famous Norwich 'death heads', 5ft high. I had seen this picture before and it creeped me out then, but now they felt even more poignant as we descended the stairs into a cold room with all sorts of chains, irons and mysterious wooden contraptions.
This room houses the many devices historically used to restrain, punish and humiliate prisoners. In fact, it wasn't just prisoners that suffered such treatment: Tracey shows us multiple 'devices' used to punish nagging wives, or women deemed to have 'stepped out of line'. These include a ducking school for momentarily dunking women in Norwich's river Wensum (which would have been full of all kinds of pollution...) and a nasty looking metal headpiece that a husband could hire from the council, force his wife to wear and parade her around the city streets.
The room also houses an incredible display of keys, locks and shackles. They look incredibly heavy; not the kind of thing you could lose in a hurry. Before the incredible work of prison reformers such as Elizabeth Fry (from Norwich) in the early 19th century, most prisoners were kept in silence, with nothing to do and forbidden to communicate. After this, prisoners were tasked with gruelling work, such as grinding corn on a treadmill or pumping water around the prison. Shifts were 8 - 12 hours long, and sometimes work was completely pointless (Tracey shows you a contraption that's sole purpose is to count the number of times its handle is turned). Prisoners also had to buy their own food and candles.
But the most horrifying thing by far is the body-shaped iron structure which is hanging in the corner of that room. I am not going to tell you what it is as a) I don't want to ruin the surprise and b) writing about it will put me off my lunch. You'll have to go and see for yourself.
From this room, we make our way further into the dungeons. Entering a (somehow colder) room, we turn a corner to be faced with what I'd been dreading: the death heads. There they are. Six casts from real executed criminals, including the infamous James Blomfield Rush. I found this particularly chilling: before you are the faces of real people who met their end in a way that is simply to horrific to even imagine. However, before hanging was outlawed in the late 19th century the public weren't quite so horrified; public hangings were apparently big business: in fact 'gala day' comes from 'gallows day'. The streets would be full of spectators, and all sorts of memorabilia would be sold such as pies, pamphlets and dubious sounding 'last words of the condemned'. In fact, one pie seller even climbed the ladder and one day himself became an executioner.
Heading further down, well beyond where you can hear any noise and even have a hope of catching a glimpse of light, we reach the old Norman stores, which were used as a prison as people awaited their yearly trial. Here, the overwhelming feeling is one of utter sadness. It is cold, and wet, and the floor would often be flooded with a couple of inches of water. There is no drainage so imagine what it would have smelt like down there, with 20 people living in the darkness. Prison reformer John Howard (1726 - 1790) used to have to fumigate his notebook after he visited places such as this.
Again, I won't tell you what it was like; you need to experience it for yourself. All I will say is that Tracey offered to turn out the lights momentarily and I quite strongly did not want that to happen.
At the end of the tour, you leave the grey corridor and enter into the gift shop. That really is a smack to the senses. If anything though, it really brings home how different life must have been for the residents of the prison - whether they were kept under or overground. The castle has many secrets, and after going on this tour I strongly suspect that there are some that we will never know..
Tickets for the Dungeon Tour:
Child (5-18 years): £3
Discounts for Norfolk Museums Pass holders
The battlements, dungeons and fighting gallery tours are only available with the purchase of a general admission ticket.
Castle Ticket (inc Special Exhibitions and Regimental Collections):
Child (4-18) £7.30
Family (1 adult) £23.30
Family (2 adults) £31.10.
Mon-Sat: from 10am–4.30pm
During peak season (27 June – 25 September) opening hours extended to 5pm
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