Challenge Dan: Time in the cells at Shrewsbury Prison
Our region is blessed with a wealth of great attractions, but for those looking for something darker-than-your-average, with a little bit of spice, a certain place comes to mind...
Watch more of our videos on Shots!
and live on Freeview channel 276
Having been established since 1793, Shrewsbury Prison is now a dark tourist attraction that allows visitors a glimpse of life behind bars in an era when being incarcerated was particularly bleak.
For many years, Shrewsbury Prison was a place of execution, which in older times was carried out in public and drew huge crowds in an unwholesome festive atmosphere. People used to turn up early to make sure they got a good place and posters were produced as souvenirs. For my challenge this week, I was set to do a stint in the cells, and find out at least a little bit about what it might have been like to have spent my final days ‘banged to rights’, and facing the hangman’s noose.
The old Georgian entrance to Shrewsbury Prison is impressive to say the least, and on approach I have to say that my heart was palpitating somewhat. This place was formidable – there really is no other word for it – and knowing that I was due a spell at his Majesty’s pleasure, even for a short time, filled me with dread.
Shrewsbury Prison hasn’t been a functioning prison since 2013, yet its fascia and entrance hall is still enough to strike fear into the heart of your average Joe.
Welcomed into the prison, I was shown around by officer Matt Peterson, an ex-West Mercia policeman, who has been working as a tour guide for some time.
The first thing that hit was the temperature. It’s December; it’s cold. No great surprises there. Yet, there was something particularly foreboding about the chilly temp that set the tone for the atmosphere throughout. As stated by the BBC, Shrewsbury Prison is rated as the world’s sixth dark tourist attraction, meaning those with an an enthusiasm for the macabre have consistently gone out of their way to visit and appreciate this Victorian treasure.
With this, Shrewsbury Prison demands a great deal of respect.
As I was shown around the cells, an appreciation for this age-old institution overtook me. Here, I was witnessing a place that for many had been their last quarters, and the gravitas of that was undeniable.
Perfectly preserved in much of its Georgian trimming, Shrewsbury Prison has served as a filming location for many big-hitting TV shows, including Happy Valley. As I explored C-Wing, it was easy to see why this gem of an historical site had been utilised by film-makers – the chill in my bones was palpable, and it was clear that anyone consigned to a term here in its prime would have felt the full force of the law’s punishment.
But, it was all well and good exploring things from the outside. To truly appreciate the experience, it was time for me to spend some time in the cells...
Matt locked me up in solitary confinement, in a cell that a prisoner would typically have occupied for 40 days. I only experienced said confinement for an hour, yet this was 40 minutes too long, never mind 40 days. Until you are confined to a tiny abode – and importantly with nothing at all other than your thoughts to keep you company – it is impossible to truly experience the ‘prisoner life’. My time in one of Shrewsbury Prison’s cells did not, of course, give me the true picture of what it would be like to be incarcerated for a typical spell. However, to be stripped of everything but one’s clothes and forced into a small room from which there was no escape was a very sobering experience. Noises were louder, smells were more noxious, and sights (few as they were) only contributed to the dismal feeling of being held away from everything I treasured. And, as I say, I was only in there for an hour.
Considering what your typical Georgian or Victorian prisoner would have experienced, this was child’s play, but it was enough to truly appreciate the significance of this slice of our heritage, and others just like it across the country.
Though it witnessed its last hanging in the soberingly recent year of 1961, these days Shrewsbury Prison is a tourist attraction that educates, enlightens, informs and entertains. Knowledgeable tour guides treat visitors to an experience that is far from your typical ‘meat and potatoes’ day out, and the prison also offers overnight cell experiences, escape rooms, and paranormal tours.
Indeed, not for nothing has Shrewsbury Prison been visited by the producers of Most Haunted, with its reputation as one of the most haunted locations in the British Isles preceding itself.
School visits are a mainstay of this fascinating bastion of our region’s history, yet smaller adult groups with a yearning to explore the grittier side of our past are always welcome.
As far as days out on our patch go, Shrewsbury Prison is an absolute must, and those who haven’t ever attended should book themselves in forthwith.