Given my dislike of City of Caves, you might be worried that my negative attitude extended to their sister site, the National Justice Museum. But fear not, I went in free of such restraints (ha) and ready to explore this former gaol. (I also love the traditional spelling of gaol so much more than jail, so I will be using it throughout.) As I mentioned in the City of Caves post, I had to pre-book our tickets for a timed slot, which cost £10.95 or £5.48 with National Art Pass. Unlike City of Caves, we were immediately greeted when we walked in the door, so we were already off to a better start.
Even with the delay in entering City of Caves, we had rushed through the tour so quickly that we still ended up being a bit early, so we were asked to wait in the lobby for the other people in our time slot to show up, which was fine with me, as I needed a wee anyway after that long drive, and City of Caves doesn’t have toilets. Much relieved, I rejoined Marcus just in time for our tour to start. Well, I say tour, but it was really a mix of guided and self-guided. We were first led into the old courtroom and seated within our bubbles on the benches, spaced at least the regulation two metres apart, in order to watch a short presentation on the history of the courtroom. A couple of us were then chosen to act as a defendant and witness, and even though I’m probably more the criminal type, I was chosen to be the witness, so I got to stand in the witness box and point a finger (literally) at the accused, which was pretty fun.
We were then assigned a number and told to keep an eye out for it in the museum, and then let loose to explore the punishment galleries on our own. We found our numbers next to the various punishment devices that were the fate of the person whose identity we’d assumed. I merely got an hour in the stocks (well, “merely” assuming I wasn’t brained with any heavy objects, as people often were), but Marcus was executed and put in the gibbet. We then headed down some stairs to the laundry of the former prison (which was actually used as such when the building served as the Shire Hall gaol (from 1449 until 1878, when it was shut down on account of the dreadful conditions)), where we were intercepted by another member of staff posing as a prisoner working in the laundry.
The idea was that we were meant to stay with the other people who had booked into our time slot (whilst maintaining social distancing, of course), but two of them had somehow wandered off (perhaps they had found somewhere more appropriate to eat their lunch, which they were consuming noisily in the courtroom whilst wearing masks, which was an interesting sight. It was a full on baguette sandwich and crisps lunch, so this would have almost been impressive if not so annoying and rude) so it ended up just being us and a family of four (who had teenage children, so were fortunately completely appropriately behaved, unlike the children at the American Museum). After being told about the laundry, we were allowed to look at the women’s “exercise yard” (a small patch of concrete) where they were allowed to take brief breaks from working in the laundry, breaks only having been introduced after too many women had fainted from the hard labour; and the women’s cell, which would normally hold ten women and was also pretty small for that many people.
The final “guided” portion was also the best. We went down yet more stairs into the gaol proper, and were immediately screamed at by the gaoler, who made us wait in a small room next to the “pit” before leading us outside and making us all stand against the wall right by the gallows whilst yelling at us to shut up. He told us about his job and life at the gaol under the horrible separate system whilst intimidatingly whacking a cat o’ nine tails against his palm, and insulted everyone’s mask except mine, which he called a “classic, quite attractive mask” (it had Victorian keys on it, which is probably why he liked it!), which I found hilarious. He then got out of character and told us about some of the features of the yard we were standing in, including a wall where prisoners had carved their names and a series of grave markers for prisoners who had died there. He was actually a lovely man, and definitely my favourite part of the experience, as he was quite scary when in character! He then “freed” us to explore the rest of the museum on our own, including the courtyard we were standing in, though when the group after us caught up with us and he got back into character, we hightailed it out of there pretty quickly in case he started on us again. (Some people from the other group tried to sneak by him and he caught them and made them stand by the wall, which was really funny when it wasn’t happening to us!)
We were allowed to enter some of the old cells, which were truly appalling. I sat in the dark cell, which doesn’t look that bad with the flash, but I genuinely couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face when I was sitting in there, and there was an even worse “hole” which we glimpsed through the bars from the floor above. The exercise yard was also grim – it was meant to serve up to 400 men, but was tiny. Apparently they would just grab hold of a rope whilst wearing a mask that covered their entire face, so they couldn’t see or communicate with anyone else, and walk round in circles for an hour. No wonder so many people went mad under the separate system!
There were some galleries on transportation, which, as we had seen when we went to Australia, was often actually a better option than being imprisoned in Britain, even though it was technically the harsher punishment (and often used in lieu of execution when the notorious Bloody Codes were revised). Sure, you would never see your family and friends again, but once your term was over, you had an opportunity to build a new life there, assuming you survived the journey over. In fact, one of the carvings on the wall outside was from a young prisoner who was transported to Australia and didn’t have the money to return after his sentence finished, so he married and had a family there, and sent a poem home to a British paper about his life, which was in the museum along with a photograph of him as an older man.
There was also a gallery on execution, which was a little creepy, considering people were actually executed at the gaol (on the steps originally, and then moved inside the gaol when public executions were banned, in the spot where you can see Marcus standing. Just thought I’d clarify in case you thought those were my hairy legs!). This contained things like the travelling execution kits from Wandworth Prison and a variety of unpleasant restraints and nooses.
Just when I thought we were done, we came upon what was actually quite a large and detailed gallery more generally on crime and punishment (much of the rest of it had been about the gaol specifically, which was also interesting!), with a special gallery devoted to Bernard Spilsbury, the famous early 20th century pathologist who served as an expert witness in so many famous cases, including Dr. Crippen, the “Brides in the Bath” murders (which I have a book about), and many more, although he unfortunately let his gut lead him more than the science sometimes, and likely condemned a number of innocent people. I couldn’t resist using the interactive screen about the forensics of murder cases, though I did thoroughly sanitise before and after with the convenient dispensers located throughout the museum near any possible touch points.
There was also a small exhibition of modern art at the end called Constraint Restraint, but we’d already spent quite a long time there and had another museum to visit that day, so we did rush through it a bit. Overall, I was really impressed with the National Justice Museum, and liked how they’d managed to safely keep some interactive elements without turning the whole experience into a guided tour (we didn’t encounter anyone outside of our time slot group apart from briefly in the courtyard after we finished with the gaoler, so the system does seem to work, and the other people in our time slot were conscientious and kept their distance, though I would imagine that’s not always the case). This was also creepier than the caves, just because people did genuinely die here, and were treated in all kinds of horrible ways (if the Victorians thought the prison conditions were horrifying, you know they must have been bad!). 3.5/5, downgraded a bit just because in a “National” Justice Museum, I would have liked the museum to have been a bit more comprehensive, but I definitely still enjoyed the experience!