Today’s #MuseumFromHome post is all about the building where you can find Ely Museum today, the old gaol!

Did you know that over 300 years ago the Bishop of Ely was responsible for law & order in Ely? It was the Bishop at the time, Bishop Peter Gunning who bought a house on the corner of what we now know as Lynn Road & Market Street in about 1679. With remodeling and extensions, including the addition of a walled exercise yard, this building became the Bishops Gaol.

Conditions in the gaol were not very nice at all – head over to our Facebook page to learn more about it, including the ways the prisoners were treated.

By 1836 the gaol was closed and prisoners moved on to Cambridge County Prison.

The now ‘Old Gaol’ then had many other uses including as a private home, a Mechanics Institute and the administrative headquarters of East Cambridgeshire District Council. Then in April 1997, Ely Museum opened in the gaol and welcomed thousands of visitors until we closed last September for our exciting redevelopment!

Ely Gaol Crafts

The Bishops Gaol in Ely had two types of prisoners, debtors and felons

Here, we are learning about just one of the prisoners who found themselves in Ely gaol. Read all about James Lines and the crime he committed.

The gaoler kept a ledger of the prisoners, which included a description of each of them. Read James’ description and see if you can draw him.

James was, like many of the prisoners, condemned to transportation to Australia as his punishment. It was a long, dangerous journey, and the conditions faced in Australia were very harsh too.

Imagine what life was like for James as he was transported – try writing a letter home to Ely after you arrived in this foreign land.

Did you know that the gaol in Ely is spelt this way because the letter J was introduced to the English language much later on? Before the letter J was used more widely, the just used the letter G in its place! In fact, the word ‘gaol’ was one of the last few words to update its spelling to ‘jail’. ‘Gaol’ and ‘jail’ are pronounced the same way!

A debtor at Ely Gaol was a person who owed money to someone and was unable to pay them back and was sent to gaol.

Unfortunately there was a catch – while the person was in the jail they were charged money for there time spent there. This meant there debt would increase meaning they had little chance to pay off their debt.

Learn more about the debts the prisoners had and see if you can help the gaoler answer the questions!

You can also learn more about the crimes committed by inmates of the gaol below, as well as the punishments they received. Sometimes the punishment doesn’t always match the severity of the crime!

Download the PDF document below and cut the page in half – see how many of the punishments you can match to the crime!