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The Nottingham street where ‘smelly prisoners’ were tossed into river

todayMarch 27, 2022 2

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A picturesque cliffside street in Nottingham, today lined with neat rows of council homes, was once the very place where prisoners were tossed from their cells into a river below. Cliff Road’s unsavoury history is widely known, having been home to some of the worst slum dwellings in Europe, and its historical intrigue doesn’t stop there. Civic society executive chairwoman, Hilary Silvester, reveals more about this fascinating period in our city’s history.

Cliff Road, which runs at the foot of a 70ft sandstone wall in the city centre, is an alluring little residential street. But this was not always the case.

Many may have read before about its dark past filled with tales of immense poverty and terrible crimes. It was, after all, the site of some of the most “terrible” slums in all of Europe.

Today, it is inhabited by a very welcoming and happy bunch of city dwellers who live in council homes built in the 1930s. Before this time, however, tall and slender tenement blocks were punctuated by sinister alleyways which were only to be patrolled by police officers in pairs.

Read more: Memories of long-lost pubs

And nestled atop the cliffside in High Pavement was the county gaol, the dark and dank prison cells within which are still accessible by visiting the National Justice Museum. Those with curious eyes may even spot the rusting bars of the cells from Cliff Road itself.

Because the River Leen was diverted as early as the eleventh century to run beneath Nottingham Castle, before again being sent along what is now Canal Street and Cliff Road, a portion of the waterway ran beneath these cells before it was finally culverted in 1863.

Correctional officers at the county gaol, therefore, made use of this feature according to Hilary Silvester, the executive chairwoman of the Nottingham Civic Society. “They would be put in the cell next door and there was a trap door to the side,” she said.

“The River Leen at this time was beneath there and they reckon they were thrown out into the river. They were not put on the boat, instead they were towed behind because they were so appallingly smelly.

“They were towed into Trent Lock to clean them off. They would have then been taken down to the Humber.”

After being cleaned off many prisoners, convicted of petty crimes, were transported to Australia or New Zealand. Petty crimes were punishable by transportation, typically to America in the 18th Century, before the Industrial Revolution led to growing wealth and poverty inequalities in Britain.

As a result, crime levels began to rise and, following the end of the War for Independence in America, many prisoners were subject to transportation to Australia as an alternative. Ms Silvester says the Shire Court, as the name would suggest, was at that time a county court.

This meant, bizarrely, the building in the city of Nottingham was actually “regarded as part of the county” despite its location. Many prisoners who were to stay in the cells beneath this building were convicts of very minor crimes, such as thievery, but the punishments were nonetheless quite evidently brutal.

To escape being thrown out of a cell and transported across the globe, one prisoner, Ms Silvester added, devised a plan that did indeed work. “Someone escaped by fashioning a bar of soap, and a tin of shoe polish, into a gun. They carved a gun out of the soap and darkened it with the shoe polish,” she added.

“And they escaped. After that they decided it was not all that secure.”

Written by: thehitnetwork

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