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The Police and Prison Museum is one of three related museums located in the centre of Ripon, North Yorkshire (the other two being the Workhouse Museum and Courthouse Museum.) We purchased a family annual ticket for £19 which allows us unlimited visits over a 12 month period to any of these three museums.
Located in a building that was once part of the ironically-named Liberty Prison, built in 1816, this museum offers a glimpse of what life was like for prisoners in the 19th century. After the prison closed in 1878, the building became home to Ripon Police station, and it sheds light on the history of policing from Anglo Saxon times to the present day.
The sight of a replica police box in the courtyard as you enter the museum immediately caught my daughters’ attention. Being ‘Dr Who’ fans, they were disappointed that they couldn’t actually step inside the Tardis, but it certainly makes an eye-catching feature at the entrance to the museum. At the museum you can find out more about the importance of the police box in the days before mobile phones and 2-way radios.
For my part, I was much more interested in the section of the museum dealing with the prison than the police. Although it is enlightening to learn about the different people who have been responsible for maintaining law and order from the 14th to the 19th century, such as the Shire Reeve (a royal official responsible for keeping the King’s Peace in the shires), the watchman and the parish constable, I confess to losing interest when faced with so many displays of helmets, uniforms and badges of rank. I can appreciate that this would be fascinating to anyone who has worked for the police or whose relatives have, but I soon began to tire of peering into display cases. My daughters, however, did appreciate the chance to dress up in a uniform and wield a truncheon.
Things became much more atmospheric as we climbed the stairs and looked into a cold, cheerless, Victorian prison cell. If being locked up wasn’t grim enough, the inmates were required to perform a range of futile, boring and arduous tasks. Shot drill (carrying a pile of heavy cannon balls back and forth across the prison yard) was one such pointless task and to get an idea what this was like, visitors to the museum are invited to lift a weight smaller than the one that would have been lifted by the prisoners. All I can say is that I would not have made it very far across the prison yard! You can also try turning the handle of the crank, and spare a thought for the prisoners who had to do that 10,000 times a day.
In one of the cells visitors are encouraged to go inside, close the heavy door behind them and gain a sense of what it must have been like to have been locked up in there with nothing to do but stare at the walls. It was not very pleasant, but if I had to choose I think I would rather have been locked up in there than be a prisoner on a hulk, a floating prison, awaiting transportation to the colonies. The museum provides a lot of information about transportation and some of the rather petty crimes that could lead to a convict being shipped to Australia.
Some of the exhibits are not for those of a squeamish disposition. You will find a large selection of manacles, thumb screws, leg irons and truncheons on display. (In the yard outside there is also a pillory and a whipping post.) Perhaps the exhibit that made me shudder the most was the birching rod and birching stool, a chilling reminder of how we used to chastise young offenders. I was shocked to see that this medieval-style punishment was still being carried out in England up to 1948 and on the Isle of Man until the 1960s.
A gallery of criminal records and mug shots reveal a wide range of offences and offenders over the years and a variety of punishments. As someone who works in the legal profession, I couldn’t help but notice how innocent some of the crimes seemed compared to those I see in the courts these days. You could be sent to the colonies for stealing a hat, which seems a far cry from the drug-fuelled, violent crime that blights modern society. There is also a detailed exhibit which explores the role of fingerprint detection and analysis in forensic investigation.
I would recommend this museum to anyone with an interest in social history. At £4.50 for an adult ticket and £2.50 for children aged 6-15, it is reasonably priced, informative and, like all museums that use costumed mannequins in their displays, it has a ‘creepy’ quality that makes you wonder if the building could be haunted. For younger visitors, quiz sheets are available to keep them amused and to turn the experience into a kind of information treasure hunt. There is plenty to learn here.