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Kent's forgotten jail - Canterbury Prison which held the Kray twins and double murderer Michael Stone

The quiet market town of Canterbury began to swell in the 19th Century, ramping demand for a new jail house, or gaol.

And so Canterbury Prison was built on land adjoining the Roman road of Longport, which exists today.

Canterbury prison. Photograph: Alan Wells
Canterbury prison. Photograph: Alan Wells

Architect George Byfield in 1805 drew plans for not only a jail but a separate workcamp, or ‘house of correction’ joined together by a ‘sessions house’, or court.

Completed in 1808 to the tune of £14,856, the plot would become a wholesale mini-village designed to hand out criminal justice, and replace Her Majesty Prisons’ less ambitious jail in St Dunstan.

With a capacity of 41 men and women housed on separate wings, inmates were divided between the jail and workhouse, the latter for administering a sharp shock of labour to frivolous offenders, typically life’s drop-outs and drifters.

Female staff play croquet in the prison grounds in the 1880s. Picture: Dave Lambourne
Female staff play croquet in the prison grounds in the 1880s. Picture: Dave Lambourne

But as Georgian England transitioned to the Victorian era, the two establishments would gradually merge inside the 19ft walls, bringing with it the introduction of the medieval treadwheel circa 1837.

Intended originally to be pointless and punitive, resistance was provided by straps and weights across some 41 UK prisons.

But as philosophies changed the energy would power pumps towards mills for making grain, in Canterbury’s case for channelling water to nearby residents and the hospital.

Exhausted prisoners were forced to grind for nine hour days, and combined with lack of health and safety accidents were commonplace.

An image of Canterbury prison taken in the 1880s. Picture: Dave Lambourne
An image of Canterbury prison taken in the 1880s. Picture: Dave Lambourne

William Scamp in 1886 required his left hand to be amputated after catching it in the machinery according to official records, which also offer a sobering glimpse of what could land a suspect inside.

Bound by chains, as prisoners from St Dunstan’s were caravanned to the new premises on a December morning in 1808, petty thief John Betts, 17, slipped off his cuffs and disappeared into Canterbury’s streets.

An article appeared in the Kentish Gazette a week later offering a reward for Betts, describing him as “A labouring man, aged about 17, light brown hair cut short, thin made, about 5ft 4” high, a native of Dover.”

“A reward of five guineas and all reasonable expenses upon delivering him into custody of the keeper,” the article added.

In fact most offenders were young males and their offences were largely petty theft or pick-pocketing.

Canterbury prison. Picture: Alan Wells
Canterbury prison. Picture: Alan Wells

Other common crimes included fighting, being absent from duty under the influence of liquor and having tobacco in one’s possession without being able to account for it, according to the National Archive.

Men were still being imprisoned for doing nothing more than having consensual sex with other men, towards the end of the Victorian period.

But most common offences by women were linked to prostitution and were, essentially, 'victimless' crimes - soliciting, vagrancy, drunkenness, drunk and disorderly.

Children branded as criminals could be given the same punishment as adults for much of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Joseph Grigg who was warder of St Augustine's Gaol from 1860-1880 and was a veteran of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Picture: Alan Wells
Joseph Grigg who was warder of St Augustine's Gaol from 1860-1880 and was a veteran of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Picture: Alan Wells

By the 1860s it housed 152 males and 14 females in 132 cells. Inmates were expected to work on tailoring, shoemaking, growing vegetables within the prison walls and pick oakum as part of their punishment.

For much of its history the jail was for local people holding remand prisoners before trial, convicts awaiting transfer and inmates serving short sentences.

But soaring prison populations meant smaller jails became dangerously overcrowded; high levels of suicide, self-harm and violence were prevalent through to the 21st century.

And as the governor tried wringing the prison into shape, it was only in the 1970s when learning became available in a new education block, providing classes for about 60 men in the evening.

One of the wing's at the former Canterbury Prison on Saturday. Picture: Chris Davey
One of the wing's at the former Canterbury Prison on Saturday. Picture: Chris Davey

Following a scathing inspection report highlighting severe overcrowding the Ministry of Justice closed the prison in 2013.

By then, the building had three wings, a chapel, reception, education block, hospital, gym, kitchen, library and workshops.

Holding a maximum 400 prisoners in its pomp, the jail saw numerous high-profile criminals incarcerated there, including Reggie and Ronnie Kray.

The infamous Kray twins are known the-world-over as two of the most feared and brutal London gangsters during the 1960s.

Ronnie, the elder of the twins by 45 minutes, was convicted at the Old Bailey of the murder of George Cornell, while Reggie was locked up for the murder of Jack “the Hat” McVitie.

The Kray Twins. Picture: Daily Express
The Kray Twins. Picture: Daily Express

Both were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1969.

Double murderer Michael Stone bludgeoned Dr Lin Russell and her two young daughters after setting upon them in a Chillenden country lane in 1996.

The former drug addict from Gillingham was handed a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years behind bars after he was convicted of two counts of murder and one of attempted murder after a retrial in February 2001.

Stone, who attempted to convince investigators Levi Bellfield is the real killer, has since had numerous appeal bids quashed, the latest in 2019.

Michael Stone. Picture: Kent Police
Michael Stone. Picture: Kent Police

Former Pakistan cricket captain Salman Butt served seven months for a spot fixing scandal.

Butt was handed a two-and-half year sentence for his part in a conspiracy to bowl deliberate no balls and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments during a Test match against England at Lord's in 2010.

His team mate and former world number two Test bowler Mohammad Asif was also jailed for one year after pleading guilty to his part in the scam.

Now, the prison forms part of Canterbury Christ Church University after it purchasing the estate in 2014.

The Princess Royal meeting people during her visit to Canterbury Prison on Tuesday. Picture: Chris Davey
The Princess Royal meeting people during her visit to Canterbury Prison on Tuesday. Picture: Chris Davey

Timeline

First World War - Used as an archive store for the Home Office.

1922 - Closed to reopen in 1930 as a Public Record Office repository.

Second World War - Transformed into a naval detention centre before reopening as a local prison in 1946.

The compound was expanded to the north with many new buildings constructed.

1973 - Entrance, wall and railings listed as Grade II as part of the listing resurvey of the City of Canterbury.

2007 - Converted to hold only foreign national prisoners in the UK.

2008 - Princess Royal visited as part of celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the prison.

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