One of the best things about visiting Inveraray Jail is the chance to meet the prisoners and talk to them about life in jail. You can ask them what they were convicted of, how long their sentence is, where they come from, how old they are and how life’s treating them behind bars. Of course these inmates are actors, but their portrayals are based on real people who were locked up here during the 19th century. We know so much about them because we’re lucky enough to have records holding details of over 4,000 prisoners who served sentences at Inveraray Jail between 1820 and 1890.
Notes about each prisoner were meticulously recorded in the Prison Records by the Warder. These include everything from age, sex, weight, height, occupation, religion and place of birth through to the offence committed and the sentence given. There’s a column headed ‘Marks’ asking that ‘Any peculiarity to hair, complexion or eyes be particular noted.’ Entries range from ‘pock filled’ to ‘fair muddy brown’. The records also track prisoners’ progress, with column headings such as ‘Whether improved in education on confinement’, ‘Conduct in prison’ and ‘Whether improved in knowledge of a trade during confinement’. This emphasis on reform gives us an insight into prison life during the Victorian times.
Before they get to work our actors scan the Prison Records to decide which prisoner they want to play. Sam, for example, was instantly drawn to Elizabeth Henderson from Dunoon who was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for stealing silver. She”s played her ever since. She used all the information in Elizabeth’s prison record – and a little bit of creative license – to develop a very convincing and historically accurately character.
You can look through the records too. The original Prison Records are held for safe-keeping at the National Archives of Scotland, but there’s a replica of the record book from 1850 to 1865 in the New Prison. Gavin Dick, Prison Governor, reckons it’s well worth taking the time to have a read. ‘It’s a huge book – each page is about 500cm wide – and it’s full of fascinating information and really brings the prison’s history to life. Scroll down the columns, read about the prisoners and imagine what life was like for them.
If you like your information digital, you can access the records using our interactive touchscreen. Use the search fields entitled ‘Strange cases’, ‘Young prisoners’, ‘Transported to Australia’ and ‘Your own name’ to dig a little deeper. It’s been really popular with visitors to the jail; 81,833 searches were made last year. You can even access the records from afar on our website by using the online Prison Records search. We’ve had people from as far away as Australia searching to see if their relatives were former inmates. Why not take a look and see if your ancestors spent time behind bars?
The prison records have proved an important resource for teaching youngsters too. Back in 2010, Ictopus, a web-based service for primary education, prepared a new teaching resource which uses the jail’s records to educate pupils on the social history of the Victorian period. We had digitised most of the records. Ictopus spent around six weeks re-working the database to make it more child-friendly. This included censoring some of the original terms used and devising a glossary for children to interpret the 19th-century legal terminology.
So next time you visit Inveraray Jail, make sure you check out the Prison Records. Take a journey back in time and meet the real people who did time in the cells.