Heritage volunteer Daniel Shepherd is the co-founder of The Institutional History Society - a website that explores the lurid, scandalous, and often unfair lives, treatments and crimes of people from times gone by. This week, Daniel has shared more of this dark hidden part of Woking's history with us.

The Institutional History Society currently examines Woking's Male Invalid Convict Prison. Active between 1859-1889, the prison once housed the likes of Fenians, a Jack the Ripper suspect, and more.

Below the secondary schools and quaint suburban roads, behind the trees and new builds for Knaphill’s burgeoning commuters, there hides a secret. No plaque, no monument above ground, no recognition indeed beside the odd newspaper clipping some years ago or an obscure reference in forgotten, mouldering documents. Underneath these Surrey streets was one of Britain’s most famous prisons, more famous than even  Broadmoor in its day, which was, interestingly, built by the hands of Woking’s inmates and managed by its governor. It was a prison for the convicted disabled.

A map of Woking's Invalid Convict Male Prison

Built in 1859, Woking’s Invalid Convict Male Prison was the first of its kind: a permanent, purpose-built structure to house the disabled, diseased and infirm. Woking’s conception as a prison coincided with the refinement of English law and the governance of crime and prisoners. No longer were 220 crimes, varying from blackening one’s face when committing a crime to certain thefts, punishable by death, now the preference was for incarceration and rehabilitation. Woking took this a step further, by disavowing the segregation cells which damaged prisoner’s mental health and plagued other prisons, and instead instigated some communal cells where inmates could freely converse and live, albeit under surveillance, as social beings.

That is not to say that it was a cushy place to stay, with enforced labour for those who could work, 18-foot walls to keep inmates in and regular inspections by both prison wardens and medical orderlies, Woking, whilst part penal Hospital, was still every inch a prison. The first inmates, picked for their relatively good behaviour and labouring abilities, were drafted in to complete the building work alongside the paid builders. Once the prison was deemed complete and the inmate labourers released, the new inmates, formerly interred on hulks and at a temporary prison in Lewes, were transported en masse to the prison: a prison later known as “The Theives Palace”.

An illustration of the prison

In 1869 the site was expanded to include a women’s prison, with the first inmates arriving from Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight that same year. Such notorious notables who entered were the infamous Florence Maybrick, convicted for murdering her ailing husband with arsenic, the ‘Queen of Heeley’ Kate Dover, who poisoned her lover, and the object of Mr. Whicher’s suspicions, Constance Kent: the child killer.

The last major addition to the site occurred in 1875, when a state-of-the-art insane wing was built with the latest mod cons; raised internal railing so inmates could not jump to their deaths, corrugated iron roofing so they could not hang themselves, and brick flooring on the ground level so they could not burrow out. Whilst not considered a true criminal asylum, as per the Act of 1860, it nonetheless housed inmates who had become insane whilst serving sentences. Here they remained under the care of the medical officers until a few weeks before release, at which point they were transferred to Broadmoor for certification into a civil asylum or other forms of care.

By 1889 however, the criminal landscape was changing. Fewer and fewer disabled inmates were coming into the system, either due to improved healthcare or fewer crimes being committed, and the men’s Invalid Convict Prison was no longer deemed necessary. So too with the female prison, which followed suit closing in November 1895 and the remaining female inmates, transferred to a new facility in Aylesbury. The future for this building looked bleak.

It did, however, have a stay of execution and was used in later years by the army; first as a barracks then as a military hospital and finally, from 1947, as an RMP training depot, before being sold to Woking County Council in the 1970s. In 1973, all but the Officer’s quarters were torn down and the land turned into housing for the residents of Knaphill. All that remains of one of the UK’s most famous prisons are a few red brick houses.

The Officer's quarters - now houses for Knaphill residents

Throughout its thirty-year tenure, despite its now obscurity, it played host to several famous villains from the Victorian era. From Irish Nationalists to a fraudster who inspired ‘Little Dorritt’, murderers, pickpockets, thieves, and even a Jack the Ripper suspect: all were represented here. The onus of Woking was to challenge the ‘once size fits all system’ of yesteryears and to use the latest Victorian innovations, and beliefs, to improve the quality and quantity of life given to those who fell afoul of the law. Next time you take a wander through town, remember to look down and take a moment to imagine what secrets might be hidden just under your feet.

For more information on the history of Woking Invalid Convict Prison, head to Institutional History's website, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, or to listen one of their podcasts, available on Spotify.

For more fascinating blog posts on Woking’s history – or some fun ideas for staying creative at home, please visit our blog.