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The Old Gaol Welcome to a Place of History
The Old Gaol



History of Abingdon Old Gaol

Bridge Street
South from the Market Place down to the riverside runs a street which has borne several names at different points in its history. It was first 'Burford Street', from the Boreford, at the foot of it. The Warden and brethren of St. John's Hospital had licence in 1280 to enclose a waste place, 13 perches long and 13 ft. wide, lying between the wall of the hospital and the 'highway leading to Boreford, and to hold the same, provided that they did not build shops or houses with egress towards the highway. Before the 16th century the street seems to have been lined with shops, for the most part butchers' shops, and in 1556 it had an alternative name of Butcher Row. In 1557 the corporation ordered that all those shops in Butcher Row not in the occupation of butchers already should be emptied of their tenants and let only to butchers. Not until they were all full might butchers' stalls be set up in the street itself. The street is now known as Bridge Street, from the river crossing at its southern end.

Abingdon Bridge
Abingdon Bridge was built in 1416 by local town initiative, not by the Abbey. A guild named the Fraternity of the Holy Cross was chartered in 1441 and given responsibility for its upkeep. It is actually three bridges, Hart or Town Bridge (from the ancient White Hart Inn which stood on the site of the present Old Gaol ‘from time immemorial’), Burford (a corruption of Borough Ford) Bridge over the main navigation channel of the Thames, and Maud Hales Bridge, built by the widow of a wealthy local businessman. Long-distance traffic which had previously crossed the river at Wallingford now did so at Abingdon, bringing great economic advantage to the town.

The building was a notable feat of organisation and engineering for the time. The workforce is said to have numbered three hundred, and was kept supplied by the women of Abingdon with bread, cheese, and cooked chicken. There were initially eleven arches, later extended to fourteen, and the project included a causeway on the further side of the river and a second bridge at Culham. After the dissolution of the Holy Cross guild in 1547, responsibility for maintenance devolved on the local charity of Christ’s Hospital, which was relieved of this duty only in 1927.

Major improvements to the bridge began in 1790, but until 1829 it could take only one-way traffic. With the passage of time, the foundations deteriorated and in 1925 an inspecting engineer declared the bridge unsafe and had it closed without warning. For some four years, a temporary wooden structure carried traffic between Nag’s Head Island and the Oxfordshire bank. The damaged arches were rebuilt in concrete but faced with the original stone to retain their medieval appearance, and a wide new navigation arch was created.

The Old Gaol, was completed in 1811, and built under the direction of Daniel Harris, Governor of Oxford Prison, who used free convict labour to carry out his civil engineering projects. The Old Gaol was built using prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Glowering over the Thames the strange octagonal shape with three wings can be seen clearly from the bridge. The design was part of a new enlightened approach to prison management, the central octagon being the main core of the building in which all the main functions and services operated and the cells being placed in the easily-managed wing-blocks with the benefit of outer walls on both sides allowing all cells to have light and fresh air from windows.