Down County Museum

All of Co. Down’s Cultural Heritage under one roof

The award-winning museum collects, conserves and exhibits artefacts relating to the history of
County Down
from the earliest times until today. Its aim is to enhance appreciation of the history, culture and environment of the county through the organisation of exhibitions, activities and events which are informative, accessible and relevant to the local community and visitors.

 

The museum is located in the historic buildings of the eighteenth century County Gaol of Down. The Down Gaol was opened in 1796 and until its closure in 1832 housed many thousands of prisoners. It is the only surviving Irish gaol of its type and period.

 

In addition to incarcerating many people for very minor offences, the gaol held 1798 rebels captured after the battles of Saintfield and Ballynahinch and the United Irishman, Thomas Russell, executed for his role in the abortive rebellion of 1803.

 

The gaol was also a convict gaol and many hundreds of transportees were imprisoned here prior to their journey to the convict colonies of
New South Wales
. The museum began a programme of restoring the gaol buildings in 1981, and now visitors to the site can see the conditions in which the prisoners were kept, visit restored cells complete with displays on individual prisoners, and stroll through the gaol courtyards which today are likely to be the scene of lively events and re-enactments.

 

The museum’s permanent exhibitions include galleries dedicated to the history of the county, the story of the Norman conquest of Down and the history of the gaol. A programme of temporary exhibitions deals with everything from the Victorians to local artists.

 

History of the gaol and transportation

 

Although the majority of inmates were held here for petty crimes including debt and vagrancy, the gaol was a genuine convict gaol from which people were transported to
Australia
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A complete floor of the original cells has been preserved including one which presents a life size diorama of an actual case from 1820 in which two women and their children were transported for fourteen years, never to return.

 

The gaol was opened in 1796. Plans to construct the gaol were announced in the Belfast Newsletter of March 1789. The gaol was intended to be built according to the recommendations of the penal reformer John Howard with a bath-house and none of the overcrowding associated with the old prison system. However the 1790s in
Ireland
were times of economic and political turmoil and the consequent rise in crime soon led to the gaol being overcrowded and insufficient for the needs of the county.

 

There were only 18 cells in the gaol, all of them uniformly small, yet up to 130 prisoners were accommodated at once. They were fed on a diet of potatoes, oatmeal and water, with some bread. The water supply was poor, the cells unheated and unglazed. In 1818 there was a serious outbreak of typhus in the summer, so serious a gaol infirmary had to be established.

Discipline was very bad, breakouts were common with at least three transportees making a successful bid for freedom. In 1804, the turnkey, Owen White, was even sacked for aiding an abetting a large-scale rescue of prisoners.

 

Conditions soon became so bad that a new gaol was planned. This eventually opened in 1832. The old gaol was then used as barracks for soldiers. American and Canadian servicemen were stationed here during the second world war. It had a variety of uses in the 1950s, 60s and 70s before falling into dereliction. It was rescued by Down District Council in 1980 and purchased as a site for the
County Museum.

 

Transportation from Great Britain to
Australia
began in 1787 but it was only in 1791 that the first ship left Irish shores. The merchantman the ‘Queen’ left Cobh (Queenstown) on November 26 carrying 148 male convicts, at least 24 of whom were from
Ulster
. Over the next seventy-seven years between 45,000 and 55,000 Irish convicts are thought to have been transported. Most of them were destined for New South Wales (which included Victoria and Queensland until the 1850s) and Van Diemen’s land (now
Tasmania
).

 

But in 1787 transportation was not a new phenomenon. Under Elizabeth I ‘such Rogues as shall be thought fit not to be delivered’ were banished from 1597 onwards. Under George I a regular system was established and Acts of Parliament outlined a series of transportable offences.

The loss of the American Colonies in the War of Independence, however, meant that another destination for convicts would have to be found, and quite urgently, as the gaols were already overcrowded. Australia was chosen for its distance, its size and resources, and because it offered opportunities in agriculture, whaling and trade with the
Far East.

 

As a punishment, transportation appealed to a broad range of groups. Many penal reformers welcomed the idea of transportation because it held out the possibility of a new and reformed life within a disciplined and godly context. 

Many others from the propertied classes recognised it as a good means of ensuring retribution and deterrence at a time when public opinion and even juries shrank from the death penalty. Above all, it served a practical need as prisons were overcrowded and ineffective, regarded more as dens of vice than centres of punishment or reform.

 

However, most convicts were transported for very petty crimes. The museum’s convict database shows that most male convicts in Down were found guilty of larceny involving small amounts of money, cloth, handkerchiefs, leather or pieces of jewellery. Two thirds were sentenced to transportation for seven years and most of the rest were sentenced to a life term.

 

The 66 women transported from Down Gaol over the same 40 year period were mostly indicted for stealing money, clothes and cloth along with shoplifting and forgery. The vast majority were under 30 years of age and at least 15 of the 66 (for some no age is recorded) were under 20. The youngest girl, Jane Armstrong, was transported aged 13 or less for stealing two silver spoons.

 

Almost all the women were servants of some sort, mainly in country households.

 

Among the more unusual of the convicts were very young offenders such as Archibald Miskimmon, convicted at the age of 6 or 7 in 1827 for stealing another child’s coat. The Judge observed that 'a more extraordinary delinquent had never appeared in that court' and sentenced him to transportation for life.

 

Still younger children were imprisoned with their convicted mothers and shared their exile. This was not a humanitarian gesture - it was often cheaper than putting the children in the workhouse.

 

Further information from www.downcountymuseum.com, +44 (0)28 4461 5218.

Topics