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The oldest prison in England is now open for visitors to spend the night. Source: alswart / Adobe Stock

Brave Enough To Spend A Night in England’s Most Haunted Prison?


The UK’s oldest prison is offering ghostly experiences to supernatural enthusiasts.

A 2015 poll revealed that 45% of Americans either believe in ghosts or that under certain conditions the human spirit can return to this world after death, and according to Ghosts & Gravestones website many folk “have witnessed mysterious, eerie sights, sounds, and sensations that could only be a paranormal encounter”.

Whether you believe in the paranormal or not, so-called paranormal encounters tend to focus on historic buildings and there is possibly no better example that at Shepton Mallet Prison located near Bristol in Somerset, England, which according to their website is “Britain’s most haunted prison ”. This early 17th century prison building is now open for the public to spend the night in one of its historic cells which a Bristol Live report says were once inhabited by “some truly hardened criminals including child killers, rapists, and notorious gangs - including the Kray Twins”.

Shepton Mallet Prison. (Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Shepton Mallet Prison. ( Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Shepton Mallet Prison is “Britain’s most haunted prison”. (Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Shepton Mallet Prison is “Britain’s most haunted prison”. (Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Doomsday At The Haunted Prison

Sometimes called Cornhill, this former prison in Shepton Mallet was first opened sometime before 1625 AD and it was Britain’s oldest operating prison until it closed in 2013 . According to an article on this 400 year old correctional facility was originally built to comply with the 1610 AD ‘Bridewell Act’, which legislated that every county in England had such a prison house.

At the time it was recorded that men, women, and children were all incarcerated together, in reportedly “dreadful conditions” in which the jailers profited by selling booze to the prisoners. Expansion works in the early 19th century included the installation of a treadwheel for inmates sentenced to hard labor and according to writer Francis Disney in the 1992 book Shepton Mallet Prison (2 nd Edition) “40 men would tread the wheel for many hours at a time, a punishment which was recorded as causing hernias in some convicts”.

British prison treadwheel. (Opencooper / Public Domain)

British prison treadwheel. (Opencooper / Public Domain )

By 1930 the number of inmates had fallen and the prison was closed, but it was reopened in 1939 during the  Second World War and was used as a military prison and for the storage of important historical documents from the Public Record Office in London. One book kept at the prison was the legendary  Domesday Book , or ‘Great Survey’ of England and Wales, completed in 1086 AD for King William the Conqueror.

Sleeping At The Old Prison

Now, six years after the prison officially closed, its damp cells are being offered to those people who investigate ghosts and the paranormal and according to the prison’s website overnight tours and sleepovers let, “like-minded thrill seekers” explore the old penitentiary with ghost hunting equipment.

Tours and sleep overs are now offered at Shepton Mallet Prison. (Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tours and sleep overs are now offered at Shepton Mallet Prison. (Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

While there exists not a shred of tangible, verifiable, or measurable evidence to suggest the phenomena exists, notwithstanding the ghost hunter’s own imagination projected outwards, many folk find it really good fun being terrified out of their wits in old buildings. The prison organizers claim, “The ghosts that are said to reside in the formidable building are vast and varied” and further provoking the ghost hunting community they say, “cell doors slam shut for no reason” and that “ghostly figures" move around the prison at night.

Stay at Shepton Mallet Prison to see how the prisoners lived. Source: Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0

Stay at Shepton Mallet Prison to see how the prisoners lived. Source: Rodw / CC BY-SA 4.0

History Hunters to Explore the Prison Too, Hopefully!

While UK ghost hunters will no doubt be asking each other if they are brave enough to spend a night locked up in the old prison figuring out how people suffered and died, one can only hope that history lovers are also planning to experience how they used to ‘live’.

I’d love to lie in one of those beds to gain a gritty full sensory experience of the environment, to further remind me of just how good we all have it in today’s society. Woman, men, and children were all once squashed into these cells, sharing diseases and all sorts of social horrors while many of today’s inmates are provided with play stations, televisions, plants, and books.

Being there for a night would surely convince you that compared to 17 th century prisoners, today’s imprisoned in the UK are locked up in five-star holiday camps. But I suppose this is all quite easy to say from the outside.

The prison has several upcoming tour dates on which you can stay in the prison until 2am, or until 6.30am if you sleep over and decide to hunt for ‘ghostly figures’. But for those more historically minded you can also explore the prison by day and you need only visit  Shepton Mallet Prison's website  to arrange a tour.

Top image: The oldest prison in England is now open for visitors to spend the night. Source: alswart / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



T1bbst3r's picture

Known as shit and smell it by non locals as the road into Shepton mallet from wells stinks from the cider factory.
I seem to remember being told that at one point lifers and drink drivers shared the same wing until it became just a lifer prison around 2000. There was a housing estate built for the guards of which some of the redundant ones will still live no doubt. I have been outside the gaol, it has a road going between its 2 buildings with a 2nd story walkway above where prisoners would be allowed from the wing to go for education amongst other things .....

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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