Back to the past: The birth of Buckingham’s Castle Gaol

The Old Gaol in 1965 PNL-140205-143142001

The Old Gaol in 1965 PNL-140205-143142001

Is Buckingham unique? Can you name another town that, following a devastating fire, built a Gaol at its heart?

I must admit that I can’t. After its 1725 disaster, Buckingham had to fight to retain its County Assizes. The town’s blackened, down-at-heel appearance impressed neither visiting judges nor lawyers from London, and the parlous state of its lock-up brought shame upon Buckingham, as this piece from a 1743 edition of the Ipswich Journal shows: “Last Thursday, the Assizes ended at Buckingham, when seven prisoners were tried, two of whom were capitally convicted. The noted Sansbury was one of them who was the most audacious highwayman that was ever known in those Parts.

“At his Trial there was so great a Mob of Deer-stealers, & etc that the Proceedings were stopt [!] for some time, as it was supposed they came with an Intent to rescue him.

“After the Trial was over, Mr Woodcock, the Jailer, complaining that he was in great danger of losing his Prisoner, the Judge order’d him to be executed the next morning at Seven o’Clock, which was accordingly done. [On Hangman’s tree at the crest of the hill up Moreton Road].”

Browne Willis, Buckingham’s first historian and its former MP, was determined to right matters. He started to collect money to build a secure Gaol. Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, who owned Stowe (its estate was a frequent target of poachers), took up the cause with enthusiasm, paying for much of the new Gaol. Even better, Cobham’s considerable influence over Parliament, in which his young followers were called Cobham’s Cubs, ensured that an act was passed in 1747 declaring Buckingham to be forever the site of the Bucks Summer Assizes.

Cobham was vainglorious, so a large inscription board above the Gaol’s entrance recorded his generosity but not his self-interest in having capacious lodgings for his poachers!

Cobham’s Gaol was starker than it appears today with an entrance facing the cattle market. It was a castellated, forbidding, four-square, stone redoubt; the ugly brother of an “eyecatcher” at Stowe – Stowe Castle which is a mock stone castle wrapped around country cottages.

Later, Gilbert Scott softened the impact of Buckingham’s Gaol by adding the semi-circular ‘keeper’s cottage’ with money collected locally to toast Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837.

The new Gaol wasn’t named the Old Gaol, only age could bestow such a sobriquet. Recently, Lyn Robinson, of Maids Moreton, found its former name on an 18th century map – Castle Gaol – and that’s confirmed in an 1821 report on prisons.




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