A Brief History of Crumlin Road Gaol

Take an audio tour of Crumlin Road Gaol and read historian John Quinn's account of the life and times of the old prison  

On March 31, 1996 the Governor of Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol walked out of the fortified prison and the heavy air-lock gates slammed shut for the final time. The closure ended a 150-year history of imprisonment, conflict and executions.

The Grade-A listed building, acknowledged as an outstanding example of Victorian penal architecture and planning, was transferred to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in August 2003 for redevelopment under the Government's Reinvestment and Reform Initiative.

For most people in Belfast and across the island of Ireland, Crumlin Road prison evokes memories of conflict. The link is very much justified with an estimated 25,000 people imprisoned there during its history, whether as a result of internment, or on remand of sentence as political prisoners. The use of Crumlin Road Gaol to house internees was not a new concept, with republicans interned between 1922 and 1924, and again in the 1940s and 1950s during the IRA's border campaign.

There is another history to Crumlin Road gaol, one which has perhaps been overshadowed by the NI conflict. The County Gaol for Antrim, as it was originally known, was built in Belfast between 1843 and 1845 on a design by the renowned architect and engineer Charles Lanyon. The new building took over from the original county gaol on Antrim Street in Carrickfergus. Constructed from Black Basalt rock on a 10-acre site at the bottom of the Crumlin Road, it was modeled on London's Pentonville prison and cost £60,000.

Built within a five-sided walled site, the gaol had four wings fanning from a central area known as The Circle, or Control Area. This was copied from Pentonville's ‘Radial Cellular System’, a blueprint reproduced in 54 other prisons. The new Belfast gaol became the first prison in Ireland to be designed for ‘The Separate System’ of confinement, whereby prisoners were separated from each other and never allowed to converse.

The gaol was built to house between 500 and 550 prisoners in single cell accommodation, each cell measuring 12 by 7 feet, and 10 feet in height. In later years, depending on the influx, up to 3 prisoners might have occupied a single cell, as was the case during the early 1970s.

Of the four wings in the gaol, A-wing was the longest with 31 cells on either side of three landings. Extensions to the gaol were made in 1890, clearly seen today in the brickwork on the exterior and inside the front wall.

Other additions between 1880 and 1890 were a prison hospital and the laundry block, located close to A-wing. Victorian gaols were built as penal institutions and were ‘working prisons’, so the laundry would not only serve the prison, but also the local community. The building also housed a tailor's shop and a boot and shoe shop, where uniforms and footwear were made by the prisoners - for warders and inmates alike.

The first official use of the gaol began in March 1846 when 106 prisoners (men, women and children) were marched in chains from the county gaol in Carrickfergus, completing a changeover of the two prisons. Of these original 106, six were already marked for transportation to Australia or Tasmania.

Women were held in the gaol until the early part of the 20th century, in the prison block house located at the end of D-wing. This was next to the Mater hospital, although suffragettes were housed in A-wing during the 1913-1914 period.

In the early years of the gaol, children were also imprisoned for stealing items of food or clothing in a city where poverty in the working-class districts was rife. Sentences for children ranged from one week to one month and could include a whipping. The sentence could increase to up to 3 months if this was not a first offence, as in the case of ten-year-old Patrick Magee, who found himself before the judge for a second time in April 1858 for stealing clothes from a washer woman.

Patrick Magee was ‘sent down’ for 3 months, a sentence that resulted in the boy hanging himself in his cell, on April 27, 1858. That same year a law was introduced forbidding children under the age of 14 to be sent to an adult prison.

In the gaol's lifetime 17 men were executed by hanging, their bodies buried within the prison walls in unconsecrated ground. The only marker was the men's initials, scratched into the wall against the year of execution.

When Lanyon designed the gaol a gallows was not included, and the first executions took place on an open gallows erected at the end of D-wing, in full public view. However in 1901 a new execution chamber was constructed at the bottom of C-wing and this was used until the last hanging in 1961.

Of the 17 executed between 1854 and 1961, 15 were for criminal murder, one semi-political and one, Tom Williams, for political action which resulted in the death of an RUC member. The execution of nineteen-year-old Williams on September 2, 1942, was the most emotive to be carried out in the history of the gaol, and was carried out by Thomas Pierrepoint. Pierrepoint was the most regular of the hangmen to appear in the gaol, carrying out six executions between 1928 and 1942, the last being Williams.

No executioner was ever recruited from within the Island of Ireland, pre- or post-partition. The last man to be sentenced to death was a nineteen-year-old IRA member in April 1973. On the May 15, 1973, the capitol punishment law in NI was brought into line with Britain and, at the height of the NI conflict, the death sentence was removed from the statutory books. With some 19,000 troops already deployed throughout the north, and any sense of normal law already a struggle for the British government to enforce, such an action would have created an even worse scenario regarding international opinion.

When Charles Lanyon completed the gaol he set to work on a design for the new courthouse, built between 1845 and 1850. Situated opposite the gaol, the building was topped by the figure of justice, the work of Dublin sculptor Boyton Kirk. The courthouse was enlarged in 1905, with new end blocks added, the recesses bricked up, and a stucco finish applied to the entire building. The amendments destroyed much of the detail of Lanyon's original work. A tunnel linking the courthouse to the gaol under the Crumlin Road was constructed in 1852, 1.5 meters in depth.

No jail is without its escapes and Belfast gaol is no exception. Despite the prison's heavy security, overseen by the British Army in the adjoining Girdwood camp, several daring escapes were carried out by IRA prisoners during November and December 1971. But some 30 years earlier, on January 15, 1943, the IRA's Chief of Staff and three other republican prisoners (including leading Belfast republican Jimmy Steele), escaped from the gaol, launching Belfast into the biggest security operation since 1922. A reward of £3,000 was put on the men's heads, but was not taken up.

In another piece of history, two republican prisoners held in the gaol for their role in an arms raid, were elected to Westminster in 1954. They never took their seats - they were elected on an abstensionist policy of non-recognition of the British parliament.

Today, people from Belfast and beyond are queuing up to pass the gates of Crumlin Road prison. With its cells vacant, wings silent and yards empty the only echoes come from the builders, charged with the task of making the institution a friendly place for the many visitors wishing to explore first-hand the building's colourful past.