What happens when you take one of the oldest prisons in the UK, turn it into a living museum, throw in some tours from ex prison guards and let tourists see what life in prison was actually like amongst the ghosts and memories of those who once dwelled there? You get an epic UK day out in the form of the awesome Shrewsbury Prison in Shropshire!
This is a paid article written in partnership with Shrewsbury Prison, with products or services supplied by them. Full editorial integrity is maintained at all times. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.
Normally most people would be fighting tooth and nail to escape their life behind bars, but Shrewsbury Prison has visitors queuing up to get in and do their time for the chance of an epic day out! I spent the day here as part of a UK staycation in Shropshire, and my day out at this former jail will stick with me for a long time, and for more reasons than I imagined.
Shrewsbury’s historic Grade II listed prison – often referred to as the Dana after the site of a nearby medieval gaol – was already one of the most iconic buildings in the city and had held a dominant position over the landscape since 1868 where it served as one of her Majesty’s prisons. But having being closed down in 2013 by the Ministry of Justice and threatened with the looming menace of being turned into homes, offices and even student accomodation, that long history and proud heritage was almost lost forever. This historic building was almost turned into nothing more than a facade for overpriced apartments and the impact that the building had on Shrewsbury’s history and culture was almost thrown away just so some corporate lawyers could stick a few desks and a conference room in there. That was however before it gained a last minute reprieve from the Gallows of urban development by those who saw its potential in the tourism industry and who wanted to keep that heritage alive. Shrewsbury Prison has now been rescued and given a new lease of life as a truly epic tourist attraction and a well deserved highlight on any list of top UK days out, saving not just the building itself but the heritage and history that went along with. This is exactly why I have always said tourism can have such a positive impact beyond providing the economy with a revenue stream and is exactly why I love attractions like this.
Shrewsbury Prison was built in 1793 to replace the county gaol by the famous civil engineer Thomas Telford. After the famous prison reformer John Howard visited Telford and requested some design changes, Shrewsbury Prison became one of the first prisons in the UK to be built to the new, more sanitary and relatively humane conditions that came out of the 1774 Gaol act. This reformer had such an impact in the area the street the prison now sits on is named after him. The current building was a later addition that was constructed in 1877, not long after the train station which it now sits alongside, and it was listed as a Grade II protected building by Historic England in 1969, largely due to its remaining architectural quality and level of intact survival, despite many later additions and alterations.
Without the tourism industry this history and heritage would have been lost forever and it makes me happy knowing that the new custodians of the historic building can use the money from tourism to keep it alive. This is the exact type of impact the tourism industry can and should be having, and by supporting it, your tourism money can go so much further than just giving you a great day out. This is exactly why I recommend that everyone visiting Shrewsbury should spend at least a day here!
There are various ways in which you can enjoy your day at the prison. You can choose to book a guided tour, or you can choose to explore the prison at your leisure on a self guided tour, and honestly I wholeheartedly recommend both for slightly different reasons. I definitely recommend spending at least a little time wandering around on your own and just soaking it all in. The prison is well signposted and along with the tour map it is easy to find your way around. Even if you do take a guided tour, you should definitely arrive early or hang back afterwards and spend the full day here to give yourself some extra time to explore. Being alone with your thoughts while contemplating your surroundings in this historic prison is a unique and humbling experience, especially knowing that it was still a working prison up until very recently.
It is the guided tours however that really give a deeper understanding to your visit. Normally in my experience guided tours are hit and miss, dependent almost entirely on the person giving the tour and very often worth skipping, but not here. This is one time where I – an avowed and unashamed independent traveller – absolutely endorse and urge everyone to take one of the tours when they visit. The tours are led by ex prison officers who not only have a deep knowledge of the facts and history of the prison but also have a vast wealth of personal experience here and they all provide a context that you simply can’t get when wondering around alone.
The Guided Tour.
We started off the tour exactly where the prisoners would have as they were brought into the prison and processed, and our guide, Officer Wilkinson, explained the often difficult procedures of assessing all of their health and social needs along with a healthy dose of anecdotal stories, and as an ex nurse myself I can certainly appreciate the dark humour of tales of finding things shoved up orrifices that they have no business being in! But I loved the fact that there was no sugarcoating or romantacisation of the process at all. These were real people and real lives we were talking about and although there was a lot of humourous and educational aspects to the tour it was nice to see that it was also done in an extremely respectful way.
Leading us through to A Wing, our guide kept us constantly entertained with stories of his own time there as well as explaining what the day to day life was like for the guards as well as the prisoners, and it was shocking to hear just how outnumbered they were on any given shift. Stepping inside one of the cells is a genuinely sobering experience too, as I have to admit I have been guilty in the past of thinking that prisoners in the UK have it easy in glorified country clubs, sitting in nice little rooms with a flatscreen TV and an Xbox having an easy life of it.
Trust me if you have ever had similar thoughts, after having that cell door slammed behind you and seeing just how claustrophobically small those cells are, especially with overcrowding, you won’t think like that anymore.
This really is a fascinating glimpse into a part of society that most people never see, often never even want to see and quite often barely understand. It is a bit of a sobering journey that may make you question your own long held beliefs and paradigms, especially when hearing the opinions on crime and punishment from an ex officer with time served.
It isn’t all doom and gloom and serious introspection though, while you are on the tour ask exactly why they had the heavy perspex door installed in front of the strip cell where the most violent prisoners were held to calm them down! You’ll either be disgusted by the answer or get a good hearty laugh out of it depending on your sense of humour!
The guided tour led us up through the numerous floors of A wing, including a section which held the gaming tables where inmates would spend their free time outside of their cells. And in an interesting little turn some of these cells had also been used as film and TV sets, including for the King and I, various soaps and dramas and of course the obligatory Most Haunted series. Plenty of room for a work experience boy to throw a plastic mug off camera so everyone can scream on cue!
The tour itself, partly due to the content and partly due to the skill of our guide, never felt like an actual tour. It felt more like an interesting conversation with someone who really knew his profession well and loved talking about it and honestly, the time flew! The stories of modern prison life didn’t just entertain us, they make us think, and that is the mark of a truly great tour.
But eventually, after a few more tales of infamous prisoners and anecdotes about a particularly well known Liverpudlian (which I don’t think was aimed at me) the tour moved further back in time to look at prison life during the Victorian era and we were led to C Wing.
C wing was initially used for female prisoners to keep them seperate from the men. This was for me one of the parts of the tour that actually hit pretty hard. A lot harder than I thought it would have done. There was only room for 43 prisoners here compared to the much larger population of men in A wing, and the wing is single sided so that prisoners couldn’t converse with anyone on the other side of the cell. At first the women here seemed to have things a little bit better than the men did, with a few extra inches of space per cell, prime real estate in a cramped prison, until of course we were told the reason why this was and was shown the educational display in one of the cells.
Women weren’t just given a bit of extra space for their extra bottles of shampoo (as our guide joked, I don’t want any hate comments), they were often imprisoned here alongside their babies and children, and the extra room was for the cots. I don’t know why but that knowledge just hit me a little harder than anything else I had seen or heard so far.
The next stop though was one of the most fascinating and morbid parts of the tour altogether as we walked up the metal stairway that led us out of C Wing and into the executioners room.
Executions have been held at the prison since 1795 when John Smith was first sentenced to death by hanging for having it away with a bunch of cotton handkerchiefs! Not the best reason to lose your life over is it? I mean if you were going to get your neck stretched for something it may as well be for something a lot better than a few hankies! But since then dozens of prisoners have met the same fate at the end of a rope, watched by huge crowds drawn by the macabre show. When public executions grew to be regarded as distastful – not to mention impractical once the crowds started getting too big – the executions moved inside the prison walls and between 1902 and 1961, a total of 7 people were executed by hanging in the room we were shown into.
Now the United Kingdom has not had capital punishment in my lifetime, and that fact alone makes it very easy to forget sometimes that hanging wasn’t just something that was done back in the days of medieval knights and castles, this was very recent history, within a century, and there are people still alive today who remember this as a form of punishment.
The tour group I was with did have a family with children on it too, and Officer Wilkinson very subtly – and kindly – gauged if everyone was okay with actually going inside the room. Obviously some people would naturally find it a little upsetting, and the offer was made to stay in the adjacent room instead if anyone chose to do so. That level of care and appreciation, not to mention self awareness, toward visitors was nice to see and although no one took him up on the offer it was easy to see that it was still very much appreciated. Although I think there may have been a little dig at ghost hunters there as he joked that any strange vibrations are just from the adjacent train station so not to worry!
It was also nice to see that like the rest of the prison, great care had been taken to balance the tourism aspect with as much respect as possible, and a wooden frame had been built around the area where the actual hangings once took place with a diorama inside. This gave a much more significant museum quality and educational emphasis to the display in an effort to allow people to see and learn about what took place there without the temptation of putting a picture of themselves in a hangmans noose up on Instagram!
Now I get it, a prison tour may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The topics of hanging, capital punishment or even prison incarceration itself are often not easy or pleasant. I can understand that. Former prisons, especially ones that have been open up until relatively recently, may not be your first choice when it comes to things to do on your travels or where you may choose to spend a day out, and many people do worry about visiting sites associated with death or suffering, otherwise known as dark tourism. Some may be sensitive to the subject matter, others may think it is exploitative or unethical but whatever your reason let me put your mind at ease and tell you exactly why these concerns are unfounded at Shrewsbury Prison and why it should be on the top of your list for a day out.
Dark tourism is usually defined as visiting a site that is associated with death and suffering, and has an erroneous connotation with being a little ghoulish, but it really is not that simple. The reasons people want to visit sites like former prisons can be as varied as the individuals themselves and aren’t always macabre. In fact the reasons people often want to visit places like former prisons are quite often closely intertwined with education, heritage or history tourism as the sites asscociated with the darker events themselves have significant historical or cultural interest. Auschwitz and Alcatraz are two famous examples of this, and this is exactly where Shrewsbury Prison comes in.
Now I am the first to admit there are absolutely bad examples of dark tourism out there, or more accurately and more often than not tourists behaving badly at dark tourism sites, and there is certainly an innappropriate element of dark tourisms more annoying sibling disaster tourism, where tourists arrive almost immediately after a disaster out of a ghoulish and morbid curiosity, but that does not mean all dark tourism is automatically bad, quite the opposite in fact.
Shrewsbury Prison was reopened as a tourist attraction to try and keep the history and heritage of the site alive. The prison, for good and bad, has had a profound impact on the history of Shrewsbury since it was built and for that to be lost forever would absolutely be a crime. Tourism gives people a chance to learn about that history, to educate themselves about the prisons past and it’s impact on Shrewsbury both historically and culturally. It makes people think, gives them a glimpse into a side of society that is often – some would say too often – hidden away. That focus on education and respect for that individual site based on its own unique history and considerations is absolutely paramount at Shrewsbury Prison.
For many travellers and tourists dark tourism like this also gives them the opportunity to have an emotional connection to a place and time, to reflect on and gain an understanding of a period of history or even try to understand some of the horrors of the past. This is certainly true in attractions and sites such as Auschwitiz or WWII battle sites. Shrewsbury Prison is no different in this regard, and it does not take this responsibility lightly.
Given its past, and given its focus now on the educational and heritage aspects of tourism, whilst Shrewsbury Prison may fall under the dark tourism banner it is not fair to simply dismiss it under negative aspects of that. Shrewsbury Prison has made such a point of being an educational, ethical, responsible and heritage focused attraction it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that it was awarded a place in the top 10 Dark Tourism sites in the UK according to the BBC.
But the tourism aspect isn’t just about heritage and education, visitors and families also come here to have fun, to enjoy themselves, and there is nothing wrong with that either.
Prison Breaks, Axes and Ghosts, Oh My.
I had an amazing day out at Shrewsbury Prison, but I was genuinely enjoying myself so much that time just went way too fast and this is why one day just isn’t enough to see and do everything here. I do want to come back and do a historical tour of the Georgian tunnels underneath the Victorian era prison, but I really want to come back and do one of the overnight ghost tours! Given the prisons history it has been a regular haunt (sorry) of the popular TV series Most Haunted, and the tour gives you the option to recreate your own paranormal investigation and the chance to spot your very own spirit! No prizes are given for digging out your 1987 proton pack and slapping a Venkman sticker on an old boiler suit, but you definitely get extra cool points!
What I really want to do though is the Prison Break! A two and a half hour escape game where you can actually attempt to break out of a real prison! With real cells, real officers trying to hinder you and a real race in time to solve the puzzles and break out, who can resist that? This is possibly one of the most genious escape room attractions I have ever seen! I can’t wait to go back and see if they can handle a scouser giving it a go!
You see what I mean about a day not being enough?
Along with axe throwing, which I am a dab hand at if I do say so myself, and not to mention various individual escape rooms, there are a lot of activities here to make it a fun day, or night, out for anyone, and none of them feel like they are stepping on the toes of the serious educational and heritage focused work the prison is doing. In fact they feel like they supplement that work extremely well and it is important to remember that this side of the tourism industry is often what pays for the upkeep of that heritage. This is the positive impact tourism can have.
A Balancing Act.
Now there is valid criticism to say that no attraction associated with dark tourism should have any fun aspects at all, and in some circumstances and for some attractions that would be entirely appropriate, but not here. The dark tourism spectrum runs on a sliding scale of a focus on heritage and education where it is needed and fun, touristy aspects where it is not, and the rights and wrongs of visiting places associated with suffering or death can often depend on where on the dark tourism spectrum the attraction lies.
Shrewsbury Prison navigates that spectrum extremely well and balances the educational and informative side of tourism with the lighter, more fun and commercial aspects. Where respect is needed, where real lives and cases or sensitive issues are being talked about on the tours, that consideration and respect is given in spades, but where it is just a case of tourists lobbing an axe at a target or solving a few puzzles in specifically designated areas, tourists are allowed to have fun. And as I said it is those commercial aspects which allow the heritage and the education to survive, it is the tourism money the more fun aspects of the visit brings in that allows this former prison to remain as an open, living museum for future generations to enjoy.
Spend just a few minutes talking to the staff here, especially the former officers, and you will see this is not just a job to them, this is a true passion. Shrewsbury Prison is a place that means a lot to them in many different ways and preserving its heritage for them as individuals, for the local community and for prosperity is the driving force behind what they are doing. That is exactly why tourism here is so important, and why everyone taing a staycation in Shropshire or visiting the UK from further afield should make a point of visiting Shrewsbury Prison.
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