Lewes Naval Prison.
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.