Lewes Naval Prison.

Plaque on the site of the Lewes Naval Prison
The old prison on North Street was opened in 1793, enlarged in 1817 and closed in 1853 It was then used to house prisoners of war from the Crimea, and latterly as a Royal Navy prison, before being demolished in 1960
leweshistory.org.uk. Taken 1960
The old prison on North Street
leweshistory.org.uk. Taken 1960
North Street. The shop on the far left survives, but the terrace beyond had to be demolished after the German bombing raid. The telephone exchange and the new police station now occupy the space. Beyond these houses is part of the 1793 prison, at this date taken over by the Royal Navy. The fire station can just be made out at the end of North Street.

Gaol and House of Correction.

Lewes naval Prison was built and finished in 1793. It was originally built as the town Gaol and House of Correction. The prison was eventually demolished and just the part of one of the walls can be seen now in Lancaster Street, Lewes, at one stage it housed about 100 Norwegian prisoners who had fought on the side of Russia during the Crimean War, and had been captured. After they had been released the officers wrote to the Senior Constable thanking him for the way they had been treated while in the prison. The prison was originally a ‘House of Correction.’

Lewes had no real connection with the Royal Navy and so it may seem rather strange that a Naval Prison was built within the town. Prior to the opening of the prison at Lewes and Bodmin, naval personnel were imprisoned in the civilian prisons at Maidstone, Winchester and Exeter over which the Navy had no control of their men. The Admiralty wanted their own prisons, therefore Lewes was built as it was roughly halfway between Chatham and Portsmouth as they were the two largest ports and had a huge number of navy personnel based there. Bodmin was built roughly for the same reason as that was conveniently in a position whereby it could cover the large ports of Portland, Davenport and Plymouth. That way all the major seaports were quite close to these seaports.

The Isle of Wight Observer newspaper dated Saturday 28th April 1855 had an article regarding one of the prisoners who had managed to escape from the Lewes naval prison.

It read, ‘Escape and capture of another Russian prisoner; – About 5 O’clock on Thursday afternoon, another of the prisoners confined in Lewes War Prison succeeded in effecting his escape, which he appears to have done in the same manner as the three whose escape and capture was reported in the Times of March 29th, namely by climbing to the roof of the Guardhouse, and thence to the wall, the top of which in that particular place is only about 10 or 12 feet from the ground. The guardhouse is situated at the upper end of the outer yard, and as the ground rises there is a flight of steps in the path leading to the back yard, close to the higher corner of the guardhouse, the roof of which is only a few feet from the ground above the steps, while from the other side of it the top of the outer wall, against which it abuts, is easily accessible.

The exact period at which the prisoner made his escape is not known, but as soon as he was missed warders and pensioners were turned out for the hunt, which was, however, of a short duration, for by some means some of the party obtained information that the fugitive was ensconced in the Kings Arms, a public house not far from the prison. On the pursuers’ arrival they discovered the runaway making comfortable over a half pint of rum, which he had ordered. He was immediately captured and marched back to the prison under heavy guard, where he will expiate his offence in solitary confinement and a low diet (bread and water). The whole of the prisoners are frequently taken out by Lt. Mann, R.N. who is the Governor, and small parties of non-commissioned officers are allowed to roam where they please, attended by only one warder as a guard.

The site of the old Naval Prison is now the car park situated in North Street. In it’s time the Naval Prison covered the whole site of the car park together with Springman house and the new Ambulance Station.

 Member of Parliament: –

According to Hansard, on the 20th December 1902 Mr. Claude Hay asked the Secretary to the Admiralty, in Parliament the following question; ‘Whether having regard to the fact that the prison now used as a naval prison at Lewes was condemned as unfit for a local or convict prison, he will state the grounds on upon which this prison is used for men in His Majesty’s Navy who have been sentenced for disciplinary offences.

The answer was given by Mr. Arnold-Forster, I am not aware of the circumstances to which the honourable member alludes in the first part of his question, but they must have occurred many years ago, as Lewes has been used as a naval Prison for 40 years. It was selected for the purpose after consultation with The Home Office, and, with the additions and alterations made from time to time within the accommodation, it has always been found suitable.

The reports of the visitors, and the results of the periodical inspections by the Commander in Chief, Portsmouth, and the Medical Director General of the Navy, are quite satisfactory, and the health of the prisoners has always been very good.

Researched and written by David Rowland.

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.

Comments about this page

  • The prisoners who had fought for Russia were not Norwegians but (Swedish-speaking) Finns – Finland was part of the Russian empire from 1809 to 1917.  There were not about 100 of them, but over 300.  There is a memorial in the churchyard of St John sub castro, about 100 yards from the site of the naval prison.

    By Richard Powell (27/09/2015)

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