Banbridge Historical Society recently had an arresting experience when they went to Downpatrick Gaol, along with very welcome visitors.
They learnt, among other horrific facts, that in the past people could be hung for what we would consider comparatively minor offences.
Before the early nineteenth century hanging was a particularly nasty experience.
Downpatrick Gaol didn’t have a proper gallows so a makeshift one was built on the roadside at the entrance. It wasn’t high enough to do a good job. People hung from it died slowly from suffocation and that could take several days.
High gallows have a long drop so when the body falls it is killed instantly because the knot on the back of the rope breaks the neck.
Everybody decided if they had to be hung they’d choose a long rope and a high gallows with a big drop. That way you’d not provide less of an entertaining show for the audience. Hangings were very popular and attended by huge crowds.
Children were not treated more leniently than adults. Archilbald Miskimmom was 6 or 7 when he was comvicted of stealing anoyher child’s coat and sentenced to be transportated.
James Loughran, aged 14, was tried in August 1830 for vagrancy, that is living on the streets and begging. He came from Newry and was transported for 7 years. He arrived in Sydney in April 1831 on board the Waterloo.
The oldest person to be transported was 63 year old Andrew Richey. He had committed a ‘political crime’. Unfortunately he never reached Australia because he died on board ship.
There are six wells in Downpatrick Gaol. They were polluted so caused the inmates to suffer from cholera, typhus and other diseases. These fevers were mostly low-grade but sometimes raging epidemics occurred. There was a doctor on site but medical science was not as good as it is today.
Many of the inmates escaped using the gaols large sewers which led to the fields beyond and freedom. Corruption was rife as some of the gaolers could be bribed into helping prisoners escape.
The whole system of imprisonment was very different from today. Criminals housed in tiny overcrowded rooms, with no form of heating and no glass in the barred windows.
Banbridge Historical Society, and visitors, enjoyed their visit but were glad to escape to the Belmont Hotel where the Christmas outing ended with an excellent fork supper.