A list of important events concerning St Silas that was discovered during a survey of the church stated that, prior to 1860 the congregation met at the “debtors gaol on Thomas St”. Curious to discover more we discovered that there was indeed such a prison but initially it was on Tudor St. This created some confusion as there was no sign of such a street on Leather’s 1823 map, it was under construction in Taylor’s 1832 map as an extension of Tudor St, and being completed by 1859 as shown in Rapkin’s 1850 map. At some point prior to 1860, Tudor St was re-named Thomas St.
The earliest reference to the prison so far found was in a letter dated July 7th 1825 from Robert Peel, home secretary, to the ‘officiating minister’ in the area asking:
“whether (there) is any Prison at Ecclesall, and if so, what is the nature of it, and the number of Prisoners it is capable of containing.”
The officiating minister, the Rev Matthew Preston of Ecclesall Chapel, in his reply stated that the Ecclesall prison, was housed in the “chapelry” and described it thus:
“Dimensions of Ecclesall Court House, and Prison: One Court Room to hear and determine Causes Amounting to Five Pounds, seven yards by eight yards long. One Room to receive and pay money therein, four yards by four. Three Rooms underneath the Court house as prison for debtors capable of containing fourteen Prisoners, one of which is six yards by seven, the other two is three yards by seven. The yard for the Prisoners to walk is thirty five yards round. There is one Pump in the yd. which is oft dry in the summer season. The Gaoler house contains two low rooms and three chambers, the above is the Property of Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord of the Manor of Ecclesall in the County of York. A piece of land at back of the Prison twelve yards by twenty five yd long.”
The information above was provided by the bailiff, James Greenwood, and dated July 12th 1825. (Usherwood G. F. Ecclesall Debtor’s Gaol. Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society 5, p.131)
The Jail was built in 1771, having moved from Bishop St, in what was then called Jail Street later Tudor Street and then finally Thomas Street, off the Sheffield Moor. After 1854 the room over the engine house was used as a County Court until it was replaced by the one in Bank Street.
According to a sessional paper titled ‘Debtor’s Gaol For The Manor Of Ecclesall, Sheffield’ published by the House of Lords in 1843, the prison was regulated by commissioners under an Act of 1808 for the regulation of personal actions in the Courts Baron of Sheffield and Ecclesall. The commissioners consisted of: “the lords and the stewards of the two manors, the Yorkshire members of Parliament, the vicar of Sheffield and the minister of Ecclesall, the master cutler, the capital church burgess, the town collector or regent, the magistrates in and within fifteen miles of Sheffield and no less than 100 named persons.”
A person could be detained on the order of no less than three commissioners and on entry prisoners were expected to pay a ‘garnish’ of three shillings and six pence or “in default of payment shall deliver up his hat and coat to the garnish-master, who shall keep them seven days, and if not paid in this time, the property shall be sold.” (Rules of the prison recorded in 1843). This was for their upkeep whilst incarcerated, unless they were provided for by their friends and family, or unless they were destitute when 2/- per week was paid by the court.
In 1844 imprisonment for debt under £20 was abolished and on the 16th August that year 7 prisoners were released, which begs the question about what they were doing there in the first place as the limit had previously been set at £5! And then how many prisoners were left (21 inmates were recorded in a prison visit in 1843)? Presumably their debts were higher!
In 1869 imprisonment for debt was effectively abolished, except for those who had the money to pay but refused, who could be gaoled for up to six weeks.
After 1865 the prison was…
“used as a schoolroom for St. Silas Church. In 1865 the property was sold and occupied by Mr. Shearer, sheep shear manufacturer until at least 1890. From auctioneer’s sale notice: Freehold property in Tudor Street and Bishop Street. To be sold by auction by Mr. Geo. Eadon, at his auction rooms, Haymarket, on Tuesday the sixth day of June 1865. Consisting of a dwelling house with out offices and various buildings, formerly used as the Court House for the Manor of Ecclesall, and as prisons for deptors. Area of 951 superficial square yards. Act of 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt.”
The prison was demolished sometime in the 1940s or 1950s and is presumed now to be somewhere under Wickes DIY store.
Source: ‘Photographs Relating to Sheffield’, Vol. 1, page 38, by C.H. Lea.
Picture Sheffield has some interesting photographs relating to Ecclesall Debtors Prison and links to these are below: