Chester's Bridge of Sighs
Grim reminder of the infamous Northgate Gaol

PRIOR to the building in Chester of the present Northgate, in 1808, the site was occupied by the city's gaol. At this, the main entrance to Chester, stood the Norman dungeons and later Tudor buildings of the Northgate Gaol.

The Norman dungeons, hewn into the rock 30 feet below ground, included the infamous Chamber of Little Ease. This tiny cell was only four feet six inches high and two feet wide. Therefore, the unfortunate prisoner could not lie or sit, only crouch, hence the name. The tiny room was also ill-ventilated with a strong wooden door.

In addition, the Dead Man's dungeon, probably aptly named too, had no window, and access only by a trapdoor in the roof. It was always damp with the only ventilation being pipes that led to the surface. On one occasion it is reported this pipe was blocked up with rags, by a band of sheep rustlers,to prevent a captured member of the group betraying his fellows.

The records of the Qua Sessions show Cestrians committed to the Northgate Gaol for a variety of offences. Some of these being of a more trivial nature such as one Richard Geary Smith who was sentenced to one month's stay in the House of Correction on March 13, 1799, for being a 'Rogue and Vagabond'.

One January 19, of the same year, Samuel Starkie also received a month's sentence for deserting his wife and child, therefore, leaving them chargeable on the parish. Starkie also had to pay 2/6d to his wife or the parish before he could be discharged. An earlier crime of a more sinister nature was the sentencing of the unfortunate Elizabeth Powell who in 1679 was sentenced for the much more heinous offence of witchcraft.

The prison must have seen much human suffering during the years. The punishment for theft in the late 18th and early 19th century was often transportation to an alien land for both men and women. In 1801 Mary Jones received seven year's transportation for feloniously stealing 16 yards of white calico and other articles. The husband of Mary, one Joseph Jones was acquitted of stealing three yards of woollen cloth and we cannot help wondering if justice was done here.

Executions were oft carried out at the Northgate Gaol. It may seem extreme to us today, but on September 10 1802, Thomas Griffiths was sentenced to death for stealing 'One Gelding the property of Samuel Jackson'.

In addition, in 1786, James Buckley who was convicted of burglary received the same
harsh penalty. These sentences certainly appear unusually severe when compared with the six months, and fine of 6s 8d with a recognizance of £100 to keep the peace for three years imposed on John Davies on October 24, 1805. Mr Davies was found guilty of 'wilfully, maliciously and with malice of aforethought drowning John English in the waters of the Ellesmere Canal'. It would seem that property was of greater value than life.

The gaol, by 1801 was recognised as being inadequate for its purpose and calls were made for its replacement. It was described by the Mayor, Daniel Smith, the Recorder, Hugh Leycester and other worthies as "Insufficient, inconvenient and in want of repair.

The place whereon the present gaol is situate is improper and inconvenient, the gaol ought to be removed to another part of the city".

In 1807, this indeed happened when a new building which became the City Gaol was erected on a site near the walls, now occupied by Queens School.

The only reminder now of the old Northgate Gaol is Chester's 'Bridge of Sighs'. This bridge across the canal at the side of the Blue Coat Building appears to have no function. However, at the end of the 18th century when the canal was dug the direct access from the gaol to the Chapel of Little St John in the Blue Coat was no longer possible.

It was to this chapel that prisoners awaiting execution were led to make their peace with God.
To take the prisoners through the streets, invited escape attempts and possible public disorder. It was decided, therefore, to link the gaol and chapel by a small foot-bridge over the canal.

The cost of building it, was £22 and the bridge originally had iron railings to stop anyone jumping over the low parapet.