Inside story of Glasgow's prisons

THE main prison in Glasgow from the 1620s onwards was the combined tolbooth, courthouse and jail at the corner of High Street and Trongate.

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Although most of the building was demolished in 1921, the tall steeple remains. Severed heads were, once upon a time, fixed to its spikes.

Prisons were often places where the rich and powerful could keep inconvenient people out of the way, with-out going to the trouble of pesky things like trials.

In 1666, one William Drew petitioned to be set free from the Tolbooth, on the grounds that he had been incarcerated without trial for five years by the Laird of Keir.

A year later, one of Glasgow's frequent fires threatened the Tolbooth.

The magistrates refused to evacuate those inside, so the townspeople assembled ladders and freed the prisoners.

By the time of the early 19th Century, there were no fewer than eight prisons operating across the city, but most of them had closed by 1840.

Only two remained: the Bridewell (or Bridgewall), at Duke Street – sometimes known as the 'North' Prison – and the Burgh Jail, or the 'South' Prison, at Glasgow Green, which closed in 1862.

The latter 'House of Correction' first opened for business in 1798 and, following major developments, became Glasgow's main prison for more than a century.

Under the direction of William Brebner (1783-1845), Duke Street was regarded as a model prison, providing work and healthy living for the inmates.

In 1847, however, no less a figure than Charles Dickens visited Duke Street. His verdict? It was, he said, 'a truly damnable jail'.

The 'north' prison at Duke Street lasted until 1955 – by which time, of course, Barlinnie Prison had itself been open for more than 70 years.

More on prisons next week.

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