Hansbrow’s Hotel

by John Strivens


James Hansbrow, Keeper of Lancaster Jail, was not a happy man. Sitting in his small office in the administration tower he cleared the mess of papers and reports to one edge of his desk and took up his pen for the twentieth time that evening to try to complete his report for the impending inspection of his jail. Ever since he had received notification of the imminent arrival of the Inspector of Prisons he had been unable to relax, fretting about the problems he faced and the potentially damaging report that, he was certain, was going to be written. James Hansbrow was a conscientious and kindly man, genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of the motley collection of 501 prisoners that he supervised. His staff mostly did their best, particularly his son Arthur who served as Assistant Keeper, but there was no denying that a combination of overcrowding, the recent introduction of newly appointed paid monitors and the ineffectiveness and dishonesty of some of his turnkeys had caused a crisis in the prison. Things had come to a head the night before when he had overheard a group of laughing men in the Reading Room refer to his jail as “Hansbrow’s Hotel”.

It was not, he felt, his fault. The prison housed 369 crown prisoners, which was bad enough, but the situation was made impossible by the debtors from all over Lancashire he was forced to house. 22 years previously that interfering Quaker Elizabeth Fry had visited his predecessor Thomas Higgin and she had described the prison as clean and healthy but, even then, overcrowded. She had also had the temerity to state that no escape had taken place from the prison for years but ascribe this to the “kindness and vigilance” of the governor rather than the security of the building. This was not the kind of comment he wanted to encourage at present.

The debtors! There were 132 of them, lounging about the courtyards inside the main gate, eating far more than the sixpence a day he was given for their upkeep and able to do much as they liked within the prison. He was forced to supplement their diet with money from the county allowance and from charity collections and yet James Stockdale Harrison, the surgeon, complained that they constantly had access to “spirits and gin” and that they were seldom in their cells when he called on them! His own feeling was that far too many of them could be found in their beds, even in the middle of the day. The last straw had been provided some days earlier by the Chaplain, Joseph Rowley, who had informed him that divine service for the female prisoners had had to be suspended because they had to cross the debtor’s yard on their way to the chapel and could not do so without harassment. On the other hand, Cecilia Leach, the Matron, had been delighted with the new arrangement because she had found the conduct of the women prisoners on their return from crossing the yard to be “excited and very bold”.

However, James Hansbrow knew that this was not the worst of his problems; general discipline in the jail was not what he felt it should be. Prisoners had far too much free time. There were so many of them to accommodate that men worked for a laughably short time on the treadmill and actually volunteered for it in order to avoid less sociable work. They enjoyed unrestricted access to mail from outside and there was free communication between the prisoners at all times. He knew that some prisons rigidly enforced a silence rule over the inmates but he also knew this could not be achieved in Lancaster. There had also been an unfortunate incident involving a trusted labourer who had been passing contraband to one of the most dangerous and subversive prisoners, James Druce. That labourer had been dismissed of course, but only last month the governor had intercepted a parcel smelling strongly of tobacco which was addressed to Richard Ogden and had been brought into the prison by one of the contractors who supplied cheese, rice and salt to the jail. Typically both Richard Ogden and the contractor denied all knowledge of the parcel and each other and the governor was forced to give away the tobacco and put the two shillings found in the parcel in the debtor’s charity box.

His mind wandered back to the previous February when there had been a number of unfortunate incidents in the treadmill. Several prisoners had made a mockery of the labour, knocking each other off the wheel, throwing water over men to make them get down, hanging from the treadmill rails and being rude to the monitors. When told he would be reported for refusing to take his turn on the wheel, George Greenwood had replied, “Report away.” Order was restored, but only after James Druce had been reported to the magistrates for “saucy” behaviour, which was to have serious consequences for him. The governor reflected bitterly that the poorly trained, paid monitors that had been foisted on him by the recent Goal Act were at the root of the problem.

“When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions,” he mused, never one to let an opportunity for a line from the bard slip past him. If it wasn’t debtors it was Chartists. A number of political prisoners were imprisoned in the castle and two of them had recently caused him a good deal of trouble by refusing to work at cotton-picking. On the whole he found Chartists to be intelligent and decent men, if misguided and prone to rather fluid religious convictions. William Vickers Jackson and William Butterworth, who had been transferred to Lancaster from the Northallerton House of Correction, had refused to work on the grounds that they had been imprisoned and not sentenced to labour. He had sorted the affair out quite quickly, pointing out to them that the sessions had directed that all prisoners should work and they had accepted this, complaining only that they did not like being forced into the company of “misdemeanants”. Mr Hansbrow had sympathised with this point of view although he was unable to do anything about it. However, he was still undecided about whether the case of William Thompson was going to cause trouble for him with the inspectors.

The problem with William Thompson had begun with a letter from Mr Richardson at the Kirkdale House of Correction. The letter had seemed supportive enough, enclosing a cutting from the Northern Star which detailed serious ill-treatment of a Chartist prisoner (William Thompson) in Lancaster Castle. The complainant stated that he had been kept for five months in a cell running with water, been forced to sleep in a damp bed and had been rendered so ill that he fell down stairs and had to be removed to the Infirmary. There, he claimed, he was deprived of food and water for nine days. William Thompson put all his ill-usage down to the fact that he was a Chartist and stated vehemently that he had received the “blessing” and “tender mercies of Whiggery”. The accompanying letter explained that the writer hated humbug and attempts to “excite sympathy in the public mind” but asked James Hansbrow several pointed questions about William Thompson’s treatment and the facilities at Lancaster Castle.

James Hansbrow had been concerned by the letter and its implications and resolved to write a resounding reply. Turning once again to Shakespeare for inspiration he had declared the allegations “a lie, a lie – upon my soul a lie” and stated that he gave his correspondent full credit for “feeling as any Englishman naturally would” about the case. He explained that he was unaware that William Thompson had been sentenced for political offences, that he had been housed in “our best and warmest tower” and that he displayed a good appetite. He went further, saying that “had he applied for nutriment beyond the excellent goal allowance (which he did not) it would have undoubtedly been granted to him”. He concluded by saying that he thought William Thompson might have written the complaint because he was short of money, in which case “may God forgive him, as I freely do”. On reflection he had been extremely pleased with this reply and resolved to include the full correspondence in his report to the inspectors.

Cheered by this decision, James Hansbrow decided to tackle the case of James Druce head on. Sorting out the reports of the turnkeys and his son Arthur from the pile on his desk he quickly put together a case against the man which demonstrated the trouble he had caused and the events leading up to his eventual flogging.

James Druce was a felon who first came to James Hansbrow’s notice in December 1839 when he was removed from his ward because the turnkeys knew him to be a trouble maker. His ward mates had demanded his restoration but the governor had refused, acting on the information of James Carter, who stated that James Druce intended violence towards the Irish prisoners in the ward. In February 1840, he was reported to the magistrates for “irregular conduct” on the treadmill and the rudeness referred to earlier. In March, he was caught receiving goods dropped down to him from the room above and a search of his cell revealed contraband brought in to him by the labourer who had been dismissed. When his cell was searched James Druce had threatened William Moore, the turnkey, with violence when he was released, and attempted to burn an incriminating letter from Manchester that he had received, addressed to him at the Boot and Shoe, Market Street.

In August, James Druce led a protest claiming that his scouse had tainted meat and no onions in it. This was resolved but Druce was isolated and, on August 17, James Hansbrow reported him to the magistrates who sentenced him to be flogged. Unfortunately for the governor, the punishment had become a farce with the attendant prisoners hooting and jeering the turnkeys Thomas Pennington and Thomas Bard, who administered the flogging properly, and cheering John Pilling and Richard Watkinson who “made mere mockery” of the flogging.

James Hansbrow paused as he wrote this; it was not exactly what he wanted the inspectors to read but he felt that he had provided enough evidence of his efforts to impose discipline of the jail. He was running out of time. However, he had done all he could that night, so, leaving the problems of guards who exploited the expenses paid by parishes for the transportation of debtors to Lancaster and the inconsistencies he knew existed between the monies paid to him by the merchants who bought prison servicers and labour and the way that money was spent, he decided to leave the rest of the report for another day and retired to his bed.


I wanted to take part in The Castle Park Stories project because I have lived in Lancaster on and off since 1986 and, although interested in its history, realised that my knowledge was generalised and vague. The project seemed to be an ideal way of deepening that knowledge combined with the chance to participate in a creative project with like-minded people. I was inspired to research James Hansbrow because my attention was caught by a plaque in the Priory Church which seemed to hint at the existence of story much more exciting and exotic than the bare facts inscribed on the wall.

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