As part of my work I spent Wednesday in Norwich Castle - looking at paintings and other works in the galleries and touring the exhibits in many rooms with special needs students. For part of the day, there were talks - about a painting of Horatio Nelson's dying moments and artifacts from the Regimental Museum.
While the castle was originally built to defend the 'fine city', its most intense use was as a prison in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The castle was but one building in a complex of cell blocks dominating the town at its very centre. Many of the prisoners were on death row in the castle, waiting their public hanging beneath the archway leading to the prison. Public hangings ceased in 1868 and Norwich's last was in 1867. I'm given to understand that the last public execution for sheep stealing was in Bury St. Edmunds in the late 1820s.
Still, Norwich Castle Prison was considered a humane prison in its haydays! Men were variously beaten, tortured or put on what we'd recognise as chain gangs. Women and young people were merely flogged with the cat o' nine tails and other weapons, yet, there was always a physician on hand during such floggings so that the prisoner wouldn't die of his or her wounds. Splendid.
Into the 19th Century the practice was to hang the prisoner publicly and place his or her body in a gibbet cage erected close to the scene of his/her crime to deter others from breaking the law. So, as the prisoners waited their execution blascksmiths would measure them up for their gibbets and, nearby, hammer and forge these cages of death into shape.
It is likely that prisoners who stood a chance of being released were chained. However, in Norwich Castle Museum many were not chained, for those awaiting execution were allowed the privilege of remaining unshackled. Ah, such humanity.
I undertook research about Gallows Hill near Birstall, Leicester, some years ago and the bones of a publicly hanged man remained in the gibbet cage nearly thirty years...
It is important that we know our history and excellent that places like Norwich Castle have lost their function of rule while acknowledging the grim reality of its past. Towards the close of the 19th Century a new Norwich prison was built outside the city boundary. It is the site of HMP Norwich today. Not available to public view, the gallows chamber has not been demolished.
We'd come to the castle to see Nelson's painting of his end in 1805. In the painting, he is heroically portrayed centre stage, officers and sailors in attendance, taking him off to a doctor, while down below on deck ordinary naval fodder lie dying without such help.
2005 is to be a celebration of Nelson's death two-hundred years ago. He was defending all the things like Norwich Castle Prison which made Britain great. 2005 is also the Year of the Sea. I know which I'd rather celebrate.