The prison was opened before 1625 but was already in poor repair by the end of the First English Civil War in 1646. It was expanded in 1790 but conditions were again criticised in a report of 1822 and further building work was undertaken in the 1820s and 1830s. This included the installation of a treadwheel for those sentenced to hard labour. In 1843 the number of cells was increased by adding a second storey to each wing. The prison was damaged during a fire in 1904. In 1930 the number of inmates had fallen and the prison was closed.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the prison was reopened as a military prison. It was initially used by the British Army and later by American forces who constructed a new execution block to hang condemned prisoners. It was also used for the storage of important historical documents from the Public Record Office in London, including Domesday Book. Following the war the prison continued as a military "glasshouse" until it was returned to civilian use in 1966.
The prison's closure was announced in January 2013 and completed in March 2013. The building was sold in December 2014 to City and Country for redevelopment, which is planned to include assisted living units alongside retail and social amenity areas. As of 2018 it is open as a visitor attraction and event venue, and tours are available.
The prison was established as a house of correction in 1625 to comply with the 1610 Bridewell Act of King James I requiring that every county have such a house. The building and surrounding land of 1 acre (0.40 ha) was bought from the Reverend Edward Barnard for £160. In the 17th century Shepton Mallet was not the only place of imprisonment in Somerset: the County Gaol was in Ilchester; there was another house of correction at Ilchester; and one at Taunton.
In 1773, a commissioner appointed by Parliament to inspect prisons around the country reported that sanitation at Shepton Mallet House of Correction was extremely poor. He said:
Many who went in healthy are in a few months changed to emaciated, dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent smallpox. Victims, I will not say to cruelty, but I must say to the inattention of the Sheriffs, and Gentlemen in the commission of peace. The cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.
In 1790 additional land was purchased to extend the prison, and around this time men and women began to be held in separate areas. Further extensions were carried out from 1817 to 1822, with the prison holding about 200 prisoners.
The treadwheel was in the ground floor of this building.
A report into the state of prisons in Somerset by Sir John Hippisley of Ston Easton Park in 1822 criticised the conditions in which prisoners were held. He proposed a five-year plan to expand the prison as a cost of £5,000.
In 1823, a large treadwheel, designed by William Cubitt and built by Stothert & Pitt was installed within the prison. The building for the treadwheel and other new buildings were designed by George Allen Underwood. Men who had been sentenced to hard labour would serve their punishment on this. 40 men would tread the wheel for many hours at a time, a punishment which was recorded as causing hernias in some convicts. The wheel was used to power a grain mill situated outside the prison wall. The wheel remained in use until 1890. Other prisoners were engaged in breaking stones which were used for roadbuilding, oakum picking (unpicking old ropes) and other tasks.
Further building work to designs by Richard Carver, the county surveyor, was undertaken in the 1830s and 1840s. This included the rebuilding of the front range and the addition of the gatehouse. The chapel was built in 1840. The wings were adapted and a second storey added to each one. Additional building work completed the enclosure of the quadrangle or exercise yard.
In 1842 inspectors appointed by the government reported that Shepton Mallet prison was:
in greatest want of new cells for the purpose of dividing the prisoners from each other ... In number 11 of Ward 8, no less than eight men have slept in the same room in company from January to September, 1841, although in this very room there are only six bedsteads. Boards are brought in and placed on the floor when the bedsteads are not sufficiently numerous.
— Report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, 1842
Ilchester Gaol closed in 1843, with the inmates being transferred to Shepton Mallet and Taunton. In 1845 the prison was recorded as holding 270 prisoners. By 1897 the population was only 61, overseen by a governor, three warders, six assistant warders and a night watchman. Other staff included a chaplain and assistant chaplain, a surgeon, a matron and a school master. In 1884 it was designated as the county gaol for Somerset under the Prison Act 1877.
C wing, 2018
At 10:15pm on Saturday 2 July 1904 a fire, believed to have been started by a prisoner about half an hour earlier, was discovered in C block. The alarm was raised by the ringing of the prison bell and the prisoners were evacuated to the prison chapel. Within ten minutes the town fire brigade, which was provided by the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery, was in attendance. They were joined at about midnight by the Wells brigade and at about 3:00am by the Frome and Glastonbury brigades. The fire had spread quickly within C block and was fought by prisoners, warders and firemen working together; prisoners helped to man the hoses and worked the fire engine pumps in shifts.
Despite the opportunity offered by the disruption, no prisoner attempted to escape. There were no fatalities as a result of the fire, and no major injuries. Whilst contemporary photographs show that the roof of C block was substantially destroyed, the building itself, being constructed of stone and concrete, remained nearly intact. Consequently it was not necessary to transfer any prisoners to other jails.
Closure in 1930
In 1930 the Prisoner Commissioners recommended to the Government that Shepton Mallet Prison should be closed because it was under-used, having an average population in previous years of only 51 inmates. The prison closed in September of that year, with the prisoners and some of the staff transferring to other jails in neighbouring counties. The prison itself remained empty except for a caretaker until the outbreak of the Second World War.
The execution room, 2018
The total number of executions at Shepton Mallet in its early years is unknown. Seven judicial executions took place within the prison walls between 1889 and 1926:
Samuel Ryland (or Reylands), aged 23, was hanged on 13 March 1889. He was convicted at the Assize Courts in Taunton, Somerset on 20February 1889 for battering to death 10-year-old Emma Jane Davies at Yeabridge, Somerset on 2January 1889.
Charles Squires, aged 28, was hanged on 10August 1893 by James Billington. He was convicted at the Assize Courts in Wells, Somerset for smothering to death his wife's two-year-old illegitimate son.
Henry Quarterly (or Quartly), aged 55, was hanged on 10November 1914 by hangmen Thomas Pierrepoint and George Brown. He was convicted at the Assize Courts in Taunton, Somerset on 20October 1914 for fatally shooting 59-year-old Henry Pugsley at Parson Street, Porlock, Somerset on 3June 1914.
Verney Asser, a 30-year-old Australian soldier of the 2nd Training Battalion, was hanged on 5March 1918 by John Ellis and William Willis. He was convicted at the Assize Courts in Devizes, Wiltshire on 16January 1918 for fatally shooting his roommate 24-year-old Corporal Joseph Harold Durkin at Sutton Veny Camp on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire on 27November 1917.
William Grover Bignell, aged 32, was hanged on 24 February 1925 by Thomas Pierrepoint and Robert Baxter. He was convicted at the Assize Courts in Devizes, Wiltshire on 20 January 1925 for fatally cutting the throat of his 37-year-old girlfriend Margaret Legg in a field near Tetbury, Gloucestershire on 25 October 1924.
John Lincoln (a.k.a. Ignatius Emanuel Napthali Trebich Lincoln), aged 23, was hanged on 2March 1926 by Thomas Pierrepoint and Lionel Mann. He was convicted at the Assize Courts in Devizes, Wiltshire on 21January 1926 for fatally shooting 25-year-old Edward Richards at Victoria Avenue, Trowbridge, Wiltshire on 24December 1925.
Their remains were buried in unmarked graves within the walls of the prison, as was customary following British executions.