The Debtors' Prison

1701AD - 1705AD

York Castle has long been a place of the Crown's justice and punishment.  At the turn of the 18th century the facilities were brought right up to date with a major new prison building, described by Daniel Defoe as ‘the most stately and complete of any in the kingdom, if not in Europe’.

As the name suggests it was home to debtors, imprisoned only for failing to pay their bills, but the prison also housed some of Yorkshire’s most notorious criminals, such as the highwayman Dick Turpin.

The architect was possibly William Wakefield, a trained lawyer rather than a professional architect.   A native of Yorkshire, Wakefield is known to have designed Duncombe Park and Gilling Castle.

The finished building was a handsome early example of English Baroque architecture, built to reflect County pride.  Nikolaus Pevsner says, 'This building is, next after the Minster, the most monumental of York'.  The tower has an unusual clock, with only one hand, installed in 1716 by  a York clockmaker, John Terry. 

The prison soon became a visitor attraction in its own right.  Promenading gentry were able to view the inmates behind the railings of the exercise yard.

For a while at least, the prison served its purpose in a modern and functional way, with separate areas for men and women.  The debtors were housed upstairs and the felons below.

However the prison quickly became overcrowded and conditions intolerable.  Escapes were made and new, smaller cells were built.  The story of the inmates is now told in an exhibition within the cells, part of York Castle Museum.


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