Crumlin Road Gaol: the old Belfast’s prison between death penalty and ghost stories

The Crumlin Road Gaol is an attraction promoted with some enthusiasm in Belfast: the city's old prison, closed in 1996, is famous for death penalty and ghost stories.

My opinion is that it is always worth to visit key places in every city we go; however, when we talk about historical buildings, we are not always finding pleasant places. The one I will talk about today is that case: I’ve been visiting the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast and I didn’t realise of how much this tour could be emotionally heavy until I reached the place.

The Crumlin Road Gaol is an attraction promoted with some enthusiasm in Belfast: the city’s old prison, which takes its name from the street in the North quarter where it is located, is closed from 1996, but not less creepy.

As many Belfast’s important buildings (like Queen’s University and the Palm House in Botanic Gardens), also the Gaol has been designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and it dates back to victorian epoque: both the prison building and the Courthouse in front have been built between 1843 and 1845 on the model of the Pentonville prison near London, and what we can see and visit today is just a little part of the big complex, that includes various buildings and also a cemetery.

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The now decrepit Courthouse is the building that indeed captures the eye once arrived in Crumlin Road: beautiful and mysterious, even more since the clear state of abandon that made the roof collapse and partly brick up its glasslesswindows, it extends on the other side of the road from the jail, that instead is recovered.

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We enter the building and we are directed to the start point of the tour; could I go away without taking a pic as a prisoner? Of course not! Unluckily (or luckily) it seems I don’t have a real jail face, since other visitors had to remind me that you don’t smile in mugshots!

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At his arrival, the guide makes us sit all together in a little room and explains some security rules: the main problem seems to be the one with people moving away from the goup and getting lost, being the prison pretty big and in some points maze-like. The guide asks also if there are any former prisoners among the visitors: he explains that often it happens that those who have been convicts in the past are coming back to see the place as free people. I wouldn’t ever imagined that a thing like this could be possible, but it seems to be pretty common. The guide says that former prisoners are the ones who get lost more frequently, since their perception of the place is completely distorted and also many years passed from the time of they were inside.

After these recommendations and our promise to not leave the group and wander in the jail by ourselves, we proceed towards the first room: the reception.

This is the first place where the gaoled were taken: they had assigned a cubicle (a pretty stifling place, narrower than a beach changing room to give you an idea) in which they had to get rid of their clothes and leave all the personal belongings inside the bag with a number hang to the door.

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From this moment ahead, the number on the bag will be the code that will take the place of the convict’s name inside the building. From a door in the room there was a space with showers; after cleaning themselves, the new prisoners were provided with a uniform, and from there taken to their cell.

A thing the guide highlights is the floor, still the original.

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Anyhow, the flooring seems to be just only one of the original components of the place: the guide says that really few things changed in the gaol in 150 years. You can imagine the disease of the prisoners during the most recent years, forced inside a jail of half Nineteenth century: it had to be pretty hard.

The visit continues in the basement, where a guardian in uniform gives his welcome, making us jump for surprise before we understand it is just a wax statue.

Why the basement? Forget security cells hidden underground (luckily, I’d say): under the prison there’s the Tunnel, the 84 mt long underground passage that connected the Crumlin Gaol to the Courthouse in front and were the prisoners were walking when going to their process.

My sister, who came to the visit with me, doesn’t seem very happy to go down there 😉

And she is not wrong: the Tunnel is well known for ghost stories. It is not difficult to understand where they come from, since the walls of the gaol, in more than 150 years of life, have seen the imprisonment also of women and children. Furthermore, it is no mystery the fact that in the Crumlin Gaol death penalty was put to use many times (17 to be exact).

The guide shows us the pipes at the side and tells of how in the past, when the prison was active, those were the only source of heating of the Courthouse. The Tunnel was the warmest place of the gaol, so hot to result suffocating since of the steam coming from the hot pipes in contact with the water on the ground. In Belfast was said that the guards working in the Tunnel had the best skin in the city 😉

After the visit to the Tunnel, we go back upstairs and in the while we pass in front of the “holding cells“, the cells in which the prisoners were waiting their turn to walk the way to the process. Here, a guard asked them a number of questions to be sure to take the right prisoner to the Courthouse.

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After the holding cells, the visit continues in the noble part of the building: the Governor’s office and corridor.

The corridor, a long room with two doors at the far ends, was the zone where could be found the doctor, the chaplain and all the services; today nothing remains of that. What’s still there is the Governor’s office, where the administration of the gaol was carried out.

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This, the guide explains to us, is the only place in the prison where you walked on a carpet instead of the hard pavement. The carpet is still the original one. At the wall, framed, there’s the list of the governors who succeeded at the direction of the Gaol until 1996.

But now, end of pleasantries: it’s the moment to visit thetrue heart of the gaol.

Composed by four wings, it still has the original iron balaustrades and spiral staircases.

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The wing we can visit is the “C”, made by a central point on which the entries to the other wings and to the prison’s chapel (now not there anymore) branch out.

I wonder why we immediatly feel observed 😉

We enter the C wing, the one where there are some of the cells used during the various periods of opening of the prison. I have to admit that to go beyond the gate gave me a certain impression. The one below is the view from inside the wing towards the “free” part of the jail. Who knows how many prisoners directed their glance countless times on that sight, dreaming of freedom?
Beside there is the vision towards the inside of the wing, with the stair to the upper floor.

We walk all the wing C’s corridor and on both sides there are the true offices and cells with inside the reconstruction of how they were looking at the various times of use.

At the end of the corridor the guide, that until that moment left us free to walk and look around by ourselves, calls for our attention: he warns us that the ones who doesn’t feel to, can stay outside during the next 10 minutes of the visit. I’m sure you already understood where we were: in front of the zone reserved to prisoners sentenced to death.

We decided to go inside. I have few pictures of this part, since I was feeling unease taking them, so I will mostly tell about it with words.

As first thing, we entered a double cell: inside there were a bed, a desk and a wooden cross hanging at the wall. Here it was were the convict was living his last days; from the moment he was entering this room, he wasn’t having anymore human contact with anyone else but the two guards, who were staying night and day with him to make sure he wasn’t killing himself, and his family, that could come to visit the day before the execution. The convict was passing 23 hours per day here, and his exercise hour was announced to all the jail, so the other prisoners were going back inside their cells and not having contact with him.

The day before the execution (no one knew when it was, it could happen in any moment), the Governor was knocking at the door to announce to the convict his death, generally at 8 am of the next day. The prisoner had just more than a night to prepare himself, and during these hours he wasn’t leaving the room.

Around 7 in the morning the Governor and a little group of people were coming, and the prisoner had to mentally prepare himself for the walk to the gallows. He was taken to the adjacent room, in which were only a toilet and a library, and here he collected his forces…until the library was moved, showing a hidden door that, once opened wide, showed the gallows, that was there all time, just few meters from the place where the convict, unaware, lived his last days!

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I guarantee it: when the guide opened the door at the back of the library, all the group jumped with horror. To find yourself in front of the gallows without the time to get ready, until a minute before completely unaware that it was so near, is a true shock, even if you are not sentenced to death. You can imagine the poor man that was going to die that day. The noose in the centre of course was his, while the two ropes at the sides were used by the guards to keep him up: the sudden view of the death room, the surprise and the horror, often were making the convict faint. The two guards, one for side, helped themsleves with the ropes to keep him on his legs and put the noose around his neck.

Once everything was positioned, the guards were making a signal to the executioner, who was watching the scene from a side window, and a trapdoor was opened under the gallows.

When the death of the convict was sure, the body was put down to the lower floor, where there was a room with a coffin ready, waiting for him.

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A detail shocked me even more, if possible: inside the Crumlin Gaol 17 prisoner were executed, all men. The bodies were buried inside the prison’s cemetery, without gravestone nor name. Pursuant to the belief, this was preventing the soul of the convict from having peace and forcing him to remain between the walls of the Gaol forever: this was part of his sentence!

The torture instrument that you see in the picture is not originally from the Crumlin: it comes from a prison in England and dates back to the same period of Belfast’s gaol, where a similar one was used for the punishment of criminals sentenced to flogging.

This is the last room of the tour. The guide takes us back to the Governor’s corridor and from there he shows us the exit. The air never seemed so fresh and the streets of Belfast so attractive: this is how our visit to the Crumlin Road Gaol ends.

Crumlin Road Gaol
Visitor Attraction and Conference Centre
53-55 Crumlin Road
BT14 6ST

Every day
First tour: 10.00
Last tour: 16.30

More info on the official site: Crumlin Road Gaol

Some picture inside the article are by my sister, Alessandra Agrini 🙂

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