History of the Gaol

In March 1798 the Belfast Newsletter announced that the County Grand Jury of Down intended to build a new gaol for the County. It was to be modelled according to the recommendations of the penal reformer John Howard. The architect was Charles Lilly who also carried out work on Down Cathedral. 

The Gaol opened in 1796. It was hoped that the new building would have none of the overcrowding associated with the old prison system and would be an important tool in the reformation of society. 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 and abetting a large scale rescue of prisoners!

Conditions soon became so bad that a new gaol was planned. This eventually opened in 1830. The old Gaol was then used as barracks for soldiers.  The South Down Militia used it for much of the nineteenth century. 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.

Today visitors to the Museum can walk through the restored buildings of this fine Georgian gaol and see something of the conditions in which prisoners were kept.