Culture24 behind bars at the York Castle Museum Prison experience

By Emily Mears Published: 11 February 2010

A close-up photo of two people inside a darkened prison cell

Culture24 writer Emily Mears goes behind bars at the York Castle Museum Prison to experience the suffering of inmates through the ages...

The laughter of schoolchildren dressed in bright red jumpers in the Museum entrance ends. The guide arrives and they are led away. They have reached York Castle Prison.

The Prison, which opened in 1705, has been carefully brought back to life following a £200,000 refurbishment . Positioned underneath York Castle Museum, it is a gloomy place with shafts of daylight slipping through the bars, casting shadows on the old stone floor. Hinges creak and a rusty key turns in a large oak door.

Dr Katherine Prior, the researcher for this permanent exhibition, has plotted the rise and demise of some of the Prison's most notorious keepers and criminals. It is these characters who greet you during a walk within the prison walls.

a photograph of two children playing in a dark corridor

State of the art technology brings history to life inside the prison

A muffled cough and a painful yell are heard in a nearby cell. Upon entering, a man in rags seems to appear from the darkness. He shakes his fist, points his finger and unveils a nasty wound. "See this, this beating," he shouts. "This was done by the gaoler."

The Museum is using the latest audio-visual technology to project actors recounting the terrible tales of long-lost men and women onto the cell walls. They appear like haunting hallucinations.

Peer through a different doorway and a gentleman wearing a white wig and spectacles opens a scroll with a whimsical wave and begins to read out the prisoner's petitions.

His arrogant dismissal of the desperate need for food and his adamant refusal to help a young family left behind exposes the injustice of the legal system.

As you leave the cell and head back to the corridor you see a young boy and girl playing. Clapping their hands to a ghostly tune, their sweet voices float away. Born behind bar, they are used to the darkness and the damp, tiny cells.

a photograph of a man in a darkened prison cell

The prison opened in 1705

In one particularly cramped cell somebody has scrawled, in what looks like pink paint, a date. ""On this day", it is written beneath, "nine people suffocated to death in a cell of this size". As you turn to leave the lights go off and the room is filled with gentle gasps and cries.

By spending hours immersed in dusty regional records, Prior has recreated a truly terrible prison experience. "You pick up on one small detail," she explains, "and watch as it develops into an incredibly rich story."

Wishing to depict a range of views, Prior has looked at the prison from every angle. The gruesome goings on and the dark deeds of both gaolers and prisoners really do give you a glimpse into an awful underground world.

Not all the cells, however, are inhabited by ghosts. Some offer up a more educational experience. In one, the words of James Montgomery, a poet imprisoned in the castle, rebound around the walls.

In another, a database detailing the names of 5,000 convicted criminals lets you discover the murky history of your own family - are you related to any rogues? Do you bare any resemblance to the dashing Dick Turpin?

Those brave enough to go down into the depths should definitely be prepared to get a little scared.

Explore inside the prison on the York Castle Prison website.

All pictures courtesy York Castle Museum

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