The display includes a discussion on the treatment experienced by people living with mental illnesses and disabilities in Victorian prisons. Some viewers may find the language offensive and caution is advised when reading. Original titles of places have been used for historical accuracy.

Woking Invalid Convict prison for men opened in 1859. This prison catered to an ever-increasing demand for a place to house disabled convicts and those considered too weak or experiencing mental illnesses to follow the expected standard service in a general prison. The first inmates were able-bodied men, chosen to help build the walls and the foundations of the prison, but by April 1860 the first inmates had arrived. Woking officially opened its doors in April 1875, replacing Brookwood Asylum (later Brookwood Hospital) as the prison for those who experienced mental illness during a sentence.

Treatment included galvanism (the use of electricity to ‘jolt’ the patient), bleeding (to remove ‘noxious humours’), mustard plasters (to soothe mania), hydrotherapy (ice baths), mesmerism (an early form of hypnosis), and a multitude of drugs such as Bromide, Chloroform and Tincture of Cannabis. In addition, solitary confinement and straitjackets were used and as a last resort, inmates were sent to specialist mental institutions. Despite not having the ‘asylum indulgences’, as one Medical Officer wrote, such as beer and tobacco, inmates were able to paint, take out books from the library, make their own musical instruments, and do ‘light work’ such as picking apart old rope, knitting, cleaning, and gardening. From 1882, inmates could even earn reductions on their sentence and privileges for good behaviour.

In 1886, work began expanding Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for the housing of Woking’s inmates who were transferred from 1888 to 1889. The prison’s closure happened for a variety of reasons. New laws (namely the 1884 Criminal Lunatics Act) encouraged medical examination and subsequent placement at Broadmoor or an ‘ordinary’ mental hospital. The 1886 Idiots Act permitted the detention of ‘impaired’ people in voluntary training organisations, rather than prisons as was formerly the case. Also, the War Department had a pressing need for a base locally and had bought land around Frimley, Bisley and Chobham. They became the eventual owners of the prison, turning it into Inkerman Barracks, then a hospital, and finally a training camp for the Royal Military Police. The site was then sold, mostly demolished, and turned into a housing estate in The 1970s.

To find out more about Woking and other prisons, head to

Learn more in this free heritage display outside Woking's Story, our local history museum.