The Old Gaol has been a private house, possibly a tavern, the Bishop’s Gaol, a store, a museum, a library, an office and a registry office before becoming a museum once more in 1997. Continually extended and modernised through its 700 year history, archaeological material found at the lowest floor level suggests that its origins are 12th or 13th century.
The earliest record of a building on this site is in a 1417 survey of Ely which records this as the tenement of Thomas Hakwrong.
The visible walls on the east and south sides of the museum were built in the eighteenth century, masking some of the original stonework which survives behind.
It is thought that the building was primarily a living space in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and may have been a tavern in the early seventeenth century.
In 1679 the building went from being a tenement occupied by John Austin and Will Kebble to becoming the a prison. In the Ely Porta Manorial Survey and Rental in 1679 the building is labelled as ‘Ely Barton’, synonymous with the Bishop’s Gaol.
In 1836 the Bishop’s Gaol at Ely was abolished, when an Act was passed which ended the secular jurisdiction of the bishop of Ely. From then on, prisoners were committed to the Cambridge County prison and the Old Gaol once more became a private house.
In 1842 the Ely Mechanic’s Institute was established and this building housed their meeting rooms and library. The Institute’s librarian, Marshall Fisher, lived in the building. Mr Fisher was an amateur scientist and enthusiastic collector and he curated a museum of his collections in the building until his death in 1899 at the age of 92.
Many diocesan records from the Bishop’s Palace were transferred to the Old Gaol in 1904 and a reading room and custodian’s accommodation were created. In 1962 these records were moved to the Cambridge University Library.
The administrative headquarters of East Cambridgeshire District Council was located in this building from October 1973 to March 1974. By July 1974 the City of Ely Council Camber and office was on the first floor and the ground floor was occupied by the offices of the Registrar for births, deaths and marriages. The building was vacated in 1995, before being adapted the relocation of Ely Museum in 1997.