A Prisoner’s Tale – William Ellithorne

A Prisoner’s Tale – William Ellithorne

by Jane Wareing


When I first joined the Castle Park Project group to write stories about the castle and its immediate area, I remembered that during research into my ancestry, I’d discovered I had a distant relative who was once a prisoner in the castle. I decided to find out more about his story.

On the 1881 census (recorded 3rd April 1881) amongst the prisoners residing in “Her Majesty’s Prison” Lancaster was William Ellithorne, aged 47, from Ulverston. Originally born in Caton he had made a life for himself until tragic events led to him being incarcerated in the Castle.

Previously, William was a general labourer living with his wife Margaret and their six children in Ulverston. However, his wife died at the young age of 40 on 15th November 1869. Unable to look after his children and work, his older children were sent to live with relatives and his younger ones were sent for adoption. Sadly due to the loss of his family William fell into a life of drunkenness, which eventually led to his imprisonment.

It was reported from the district sessions that: ‘William Ellithorne made his fifty-seventh appearance for drunkenness and was committed for 14 days.’ No doubt this wasn’t to be his final appearance before the courts.

Also residing in the Castle prison on the night of the census were the head warder William Repulse Shenton, his wife and three children as well as three other warders – strangely all women even though it was a mixed prison. There were 80 male and 17 female prisoners. Some of them were local to Lancaster but many came from far afield places such as Wales, Ireland and Scotland. William Wilson, a bricklayer’s labourer, was originally from Malta and William Higgins, a ship painter, was born in Philadelphia in the US. The occupations of the prisoners showed that they came from all walks of life including a seaman, labourers, a tailor, a blacksmith and a rector from Kent. There were also five privates from the 2nd battalion 4th King’s Own Regiment. Maybe they were in for riotous behaviour!

Thomas Goulding, a 22 year old mason’s labourer, and Banks Thompson, a 28 year old general labourer were both local boys:

Thomas Goulding and Banks Thompson, two young men living in Ann Street, Lancaster, were brought up in custody charged with stealing 9d. on the 14th inst. The property of John Holmes – prosecutor said he was a farm labourer employed at Beaumont Farm, and on Monday forenoon he saw the two prisoners going on the highway in the direction of Slyne. He was coming in the opposite direction. When he got to the men they told him they were on the road making for Ulverston, and then Thompson asked him if he would buy a belt, at the same time showing him one he had round his waist. Prosecutor replied that he would, and then Thompson asked him what he would give for it. Prosecutor replied 9d. out of his pocket. Thompson said give the money to Goulding, and he did so, and afterwards gave his belt to Thompson. Immediately he had done so, they both set off running, and without giving him the belt in exchange. He gave chase, but did not succeed in overtaking them, but on the way Thompson threw down his (prosecutor’s) belt. He had never seen the two men before. – Prisoners remanded until Saturday.

The Lancaster Gazette, March 19th 1881

William Slinger, a tailor living in Black Cat Yard, St Leonardgate, was charged with assaulting his wife on the 8th instant and had been in prison before for the same offence:

The complainant said: I am the wife of the defendant. On Wednesday morning I went to work at the mill at 6 o’clock, and my husband went a nearer way, and I saw him just as I went in at the gates. On returning to breakfast he called me foul names, and said, “Now say I didn’t see you with another man.” He kept on calling me for about 10 minutes, and I never spoke to him, and then he struck me two or three times with his double fist under the jaw bone. He said he was only doing it so that he could kill me, and would make me so that I was not fit to go to work again. He frequently uses threatening language towards me. When I ought to go to work he holds me till I am late, and then the overlookers find fault. Complainant detailed a number of petty annoyances to which her husband subjected her, and said he never worked, or contributed anything towards keeping the children and behaved worse to her when sober than when he was drunk. The life he led her was shameful and past bearing. He was of a very jealous turn, and she thought not right in the head. Defendant cross-examined his wife with a view to show that she was unfaithful, but this complainant denied.

Mr Bradshaw reprimanded defendant for his unmanly conduct, and having been previously bound over to keep the peace for a like offence, he was now sent to prison for 3 months with hard labour, and on its expiration ordered to find sureties – himself in £10 and two sureties in £5 and one in £10 – to keep the peace for a further period of three months or remain in prison for that time

The Lancaster Gazette, December 11th 1880

At the time of the census the prison was split into the Debtor’s Wing, Female Penitentiary and the Male Felons’ Prison where William would have been. Like him, many people were in there for offences related to drunkenness. A report by the Chaplain, presented at a Lancaster Quarter Sessions stated that “in the cases of 510 out of 577 men and boys under sentence in Lancaster Castle, either drink directly or drinking habits had led to the offences which brought several prisoners under my notice. Against the names of 294 out of 388 female prisoners I had to write in my Character Book the word ‘drink’.”

Many prisoners were also there for a short length of time like William. A report by the Governor several years later stated that 1286 out of 1560 convictions in 1898 were sentenced to 14 days or less. The majority of these were tramps who unused to physical work struggled with the hard labour.

This could include Shot Drill (continuously moving a 26lb weight cannon ball from one block to another) picking oakum (picking apart tarred rope commonly used in shipbuilding) and stranding rope. Prisoners could also be employed in chopping firewood and making coal sacks and mail bags. Female prisoners were employed in washing, cleaning and repairing prison clothes.

Any infringement of prison discipline was punished by three days solitary confinement in a dark cell with only bread and water. For any severe punishment, which would mean longer periods of solitary confinement and 24 lashes with the “cat”, the prisoner had to be taken before a magistrate.

Life in prison in the late Victorian times must have been very harsh, even more so for the prisoners awaiting execution. When the Assizes were held in Lancaster they were held for the whole county and Lancaster became known as the “Hanging Town”. Most prisoners were brought into the town through Scotforth where they would have had a panoramic view of the Castle and Priory but not a view they would have relished! The place at Scotforth where they got their first glimpse of the Castle became known locally as “Weeping Hill”.

Even William Wordsworth was so taken with this aspect of Lancaster that he wrote a sonnet on the subject:

Sonnet, suggested by the view of Lancaster Castle on the road from the South

This spot-at once unfolding sight so fair

Of sea and land, with yon grey towers that still

Rise up as if to lord it over air-

Might soothe in human breasts the sense of ill,

Or charm it out of memory; yea, might it fill

The heart with joy and gratitude to God

For all his bounties upon man bestowed:

Why bears it then the name of “Weeping Hill?”

Thousands, as towards yon old Lancastrian towers,

A prison’s crown, along this way they past

For lingering durance or quick death with shame,

From this bare eminence thereon have cast

Their first look-blinded as tears fell in showers

Shed on their chains: and hence that doleful name.


William Ellithorne survived this particular incarceration, but I would imagine that it wasn’t the last time he was sentenced for drunkenness. Sadly, the many times spent in prison and more particularly his heavy drinking led to his death at only the age of 53 in the early part of 1888.


I was inspired to research this piece because as a born and bred Lancastrian, I love Lancaster and have always been fascinated by its local history.

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