The forgotten Chelmsford prison with a grim past that's now a hairdressers

An illustration of the County Gaol and House of Correction -Credit:Essex Record Office
An illustration of the County Gaol and House of Correction -Credit:Essex Record Office

Each month there are a number of people from Essex who are sent to serve custodial sentences in prison. The current prison in Springfield has been in place for many years with plenty of tales known by locals.

But there is also an often-forgotten prison that used to be in the city centre and was where a chain hairdressers site now stands. Chelmsford's first gaol, or jail, was built on the south bank of the River Can during the 17th century.

Historians believe it was built around 1658 before being demolished and rebuilt in 1777. The only landmark that remains to remember where it was is the Stone Bridge near Moulsham Street.

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The prison had a striking design but had cramped and unhygienic conditions. Prisoners were often ill, suffering from 'gaol fever' due to being constantly locked in their rooms due to poor security.

The sewers were in a very bad state but, despite this, eleven prisoners used them to escape in April 1817. They were soon recaptured but had still managed to make it as far away as Stock, Good Easter and Chadwell Heath.

According to the Essex Record Office, Peter Lake was admitted in 1616 for vagrancy and "keeping the company with the wife of John Mayfield as if she were his own wife", while Susan Larkin was admitted in 1617 for "living lewdly and out of all order to the disquiet of her neighbours". Women accused of being pregnant out of wedlock were often admitted to the House for a whole year.

Alterations to make the Moulsham Gaol more secure and safer were made but a new prison was eventually built at the top of Springfield Hill between 1822 and 1828. This 'new prison' also has an extensive history with many people facing the death penalty whilst there.

For a period both prisons were in use simultaneously. Female prisoners were held in custody at the Moulsham Gaol after 1846 and the new prison remains in use today. Nowadays, the prison can only be remembered by an information sign attached to a wall nearby.

Today, the former site of the Moulsham Gaol is home to a number of modern shops. Toni & Guy currently sits on the corner, adjacent to the River Can and the Stone Bridge, and Recess Café and Lance James Jewellers also occupy stores on the site. While the Moulsham Gaol was demolished 160 years ago, its gruesome yet fascinating history lives on.

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