The buildings that house York Castle Museum used to be York County Gaol, the main prison for the whole of Yorkshire. There have been prisons on this site for over seven hundred years. You’re in the oldest of the surviving prison buildings, which opened in 1705.
It’s called the Debtors’ Prison because it was the first purpose-built prison for debtors in the country. Before 1869, people could be imprisoned for commercial debt – they weren’t considered criminals, but if they got into debt and couldn’t pay it back, their creditor could apply for them to be held here. They were held until either they – or a kind friend – paid off their debt, or until they had served their time. Although creditors were free to forgive debts, this was very rare.
The building was also used to imprison people who were awaiting trial, people who had been convicted of a crime, and sometimes also prisoners of war. But they weren’t the only people to stay here. As you enter what is now our First World War exhibition, the first rooms you encounter are too grand to be a cell. That’s because these rooms were a fashionable apartment, where the Keeper – the person who ran the gaol – lived with his family. And they weren’t the only ones – plenty of families have lived at York County Gaol over the centuries, made up of staff members and their children.
Beneath you are the offices of prison staff. For security, there were no doors between this part of the building and any of the cells.
As you move through the First World War exhibition, you’ll encounter the original terracotta floor tiles of one of the governor’s rooms, and later the flagstone floor of the Debtors’ corridor, which runs nearly the full length of the building.
The rooms that lead off from what is now the Trench used to be debtors’ day and night cells; in the larger rooms, can you find the diagonal walls, where the old fireplaces used to be? Debtors had to cook their own meals and pay for their room and everything else they needed to live. Only the poorest of debtors received any help – when the prison was new, they received only bread. Later, the allowance was increased to include clothing, fuel, bedding, and potatoes.
In general, debtors were treated better than the people imprisoned in the felons’ cells, on the ground floor. In 1705, the ground floor had very few windows and extremely poor ventilation. It was often overcrowded; some prisoners got sick, and some even died. There was also poor security, and some prisoners managed to escape. All of this led to the building being remodelled. On the outside, the front is costly stone, but the walls inside are brick, which is far easier and cheaper to alter.
The Debtors’ Prison has been altered many times over the past three hundred years. You might notice evidence of those changes are you pass through.
You can learn more about the history of the prison and the lives of the prisoners in our exhibition downstairs, in the felons’ cells. If you have any questions, our Visitor Experience Team Members would be very happy to help.