Jim Butler, Learning Manager, gives a behind-the-scenes account of the build up to the opening of the new York Castle Prison experience in July and tells of the sometimes gruesome and often heartbreaking secrets of the old prison.
It’s a strange fact that York Prison was always a tourist attraction, right from when it opened in 1705.Back then people would peer through the fence to glimpse the inmates and good money was paid for the thrill of meeting a notorious criminal in the flesh. The old gaol remained a place of real gruesomeness for two centuries, where many horrors were carried out.
However, that history was a somewhat obscured when the building was reopened as the Castle Museum in the 1930s. As home to a nationally-renowned and popular collection of artefacts and our famous, recreated Victorian Street, (which became a template for other popular museums around the world) it is easy to see why the Castle’s less wholesome history was glossed-over. To this day we find some visitors don’t release our museum was once the most important penitentiary in Yorkshire.
Yet the prison aspect of the museum has also been a source of fascination for many.
So much so it was no real surprise that the decision to invest £200,000 to create our York Castle Prison experience, due to open in July, has been greeted with such interest from both media and public. In fact interest has been so great I’ve been persuaded, to write six blogs detailing key aspects of what we’re trying to achieve with the project.
Naturally the fact that, in 1739, Richard (Dick) Turpin was imprisoned and spent the final days before his execution here has always been a draw.
Turpin will be one of eight prison characters featured in the York Castle Prison experience. Their sometimes grim, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes comic testimonies recreated and filmed for use as part of an interactive experience. Murder
However, visitors to the York Castle Prison can forget the Hollywood view of Turpin. As a respected museum with a strong culture of education it was an easy decision for us to concentrate on the truth of Turpin and dismiss the myths of Black Bess and dashing chases. We have discovered a lot of information on Turpin in contemporary accounts, including court reports, written with a cold accuracy, all long before the process of romanticising this nasty criminal began with Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Rookwood in 1834.
In fact Turpin, a butcher by trade who was useful to a gang of cattle and sheep rustlers, once beat and tortured an elderly man while a fellow gang member raped a servant girl upstairs. On another occasion he murdered a servant simply for recognising him.
He wasn’t even that bright or particularly handsome. Turpin, who had a badly pockmarked face, was caught when he needlessly shot a cockerel while undercover in Brough. He then sent a letter home and his former teacher recognised his handwriting. Hardly a master criminal. The script we have had written for his character really gives a flavour of the true man, possibly a first in literature.
Turpin is one of our more unsympathetic characters but some of our other prisoners had heartbreaking tales to tell. Watch this space for a sneak preview of their stories.
Another key feature of the York Castle Prison project will be to give the visitor a (small) sense of what life was like in a prison rife with diseases like typhus and smallpox and where many were malnourished and the turnkey – a prison warden – was all powerful. We will divide the area into two parts, one informative and reflective, where visitors can explore and understand the broad history of the buildings and the other, more raw and immersive, a place of ‘ghosts’, where people will come face-to-face with the prison’s former inhabitants.