To celebrate becoming a director on the board of Starting Step I wanted to do, as such anyway, something a little different. I decided to do what I usually do and take a look back at one of the prisons with whom Starting Step will initially be working.
It is slightly different as, although reflections are the norm I’ve not written solely about the history of just one prison before.
HMP Perth has a history worthy of the attention of any prison researcher and it is, as the title hints, the history of Perth prison that I’ll be concentrating on initially in this blog but first a quick look at the people involved in its design and construction.
Robert Reid (1774 -1856) was an architect and surveyor to the King. Buried in Deans Cemetery in Edinburgh Robert Reid was responsible for a number of Scotland’s public buildings. One such notable construction was that of the Law Courts in Parliament Square, Edinburgh. Following the death of fellow architect, Kirkcaldy born Robert Adams (1728-1792), Reid was involved in the planning of Adams’ Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s new town where he also designed, what is now known as West Register House, St. George’s Church which was originally started by Adams. Reid built himself a house in Charlotte Square. The square was originally known as St. Georges Square, however, to save any confusion with the newly built Georges Square the name was changed and renamed Charlotte Square after the wife of King George III, Queen Charlotte and also his first born daughter Charlotte of Mecklenberg.
The land on which Perth prison was built was owned by the Moncrieff family before the land was purchased. Originally for use as a P.O.W camp.
“The Moncrieff family name was found in the USA, the UK, Canada, and Scotland between 1840 and 1920. The most Moncrieff families were found in Scotland in 1841 and Scotland in 1851 and Scotland in 1861 and Scotland in 1871 and Scotland in 1881 and Scotland in 1891 and Scotland in 1901. In 1891 there were 51 Moncrieff families living in London. This was about 19% of all the recorded Moncrieff’s in the UK. London had the highest population of Moncrieff families in 1891.”*
The Perth Depot as it was known was built under the direction of Robert Reid to hold French prisoners of war captured during the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815). During their time in Perth the French P.O.W’s would create dolls made from straw and carve pieces of animal bone into beautiful ornaments. No doubt, even without seeing them a few would have won a Koestler Award had the award existed back then. Instead, every Wednesday the Depot held a market where the public could purchase the wares made by the prisoners.
Rather than be put in the Depot with regular soldiers, captured French officers stayed with local families. The officer would have to sign an agreement promising not to try and escape. In a strange twist of events, those that did escape to France were sent back by the French to ensure that conditions for captured officers remained intact on either side of the English Channel. When the war was over in 1815 the Depot closed and all of the French prisoners were sent home, not only that, thousands of residents were present to wish them bon voyage.
Between the years 1815-1839 the buildings were used to store military equipment. In 1839, a decision was made to turn a part of the depot into a public prison. A year later, the first phase of The General Prison of Perth took in its first residents, making HMP Perth Scotland’s oldest prison.
The abolition of public executions in 1868 saw HMP Perth being used two-years later, in 1870, as the site of Britain’s first private execution when vagrant George Chalmers was hung behind its walls.
Another one of a number of interesting facts for which the prison is associated with is, in 1914 Perth prison became the only prison with the facilities to force feed hunger-striking suffragettes.
During 1922-1927 Perth stopped operating as a prison and became the reception for prisoners prior to being sent to Dundee prison. Dundee closed in 1927 and Perth would once again be used as a fully operational prison.
In another twist, during 1965 a shed purpose built for executions was finished. Known as the ‘Hanging Block’ it was never put into action as capital punishment was abolished as a new Murder Act was introduced that same year. Up until it was demolished in 2006, the former, unused hanging shed was used as a training facility and offices. Not 100% sure what I make of that information.
However, HMP Perth is about to see a host of firsts once again, but this time a little bit more of a spring will be added to the step of its residents because along with an ethos that states:
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
Starting Step believes in the benefits of collaboration.
To find like-minded people and to have the opportunity to work with them and benefit those in need is a real blessing. To that end, we are building relationships with those who want to make a difference. So….. we are thrilled to be working in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service, HMP Perth and HMP Castle Huntly to develop our first hospitality training venue. We intend to renovate a building that will become a beacon for those who have been involved with the criminal justice system or are at risk of offending. This will be our first café bistro and it will be called The Yew Tree in recognition of the direct link with the beautiful ancient yew within Castle Huntly.
To read more click on the following link – startingstep.co.uk
Join me next time as I take a look back at HMP Castle Huntly’s history.