Where Were Prisoners Locked Up Before Police Stations Existed?

Village Lockup
Wheatley, Oxfordshire

Listed: 1985
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the village lockup

A local justice system

Lockups like the one at Wheatley pictured above were used for incarcerating petty criminals for short periods. Drunks would often be locked inside until they sobered up. In fact, some lockups were actually attached to pubs, with the landlord having the key.

Lockups were part of a justice system that operated on a very local level. They were often an element of a complex that included stocks, pillory and village pound, the last having been in existence since the 1560s. Lockups belonged to the parish and were provided by the vestry or corporation of a town. They were not jails but places where someone who had not been brought to trial could be held securely.

Generally the lockup was used by the parish constable who had the (unpaid) job of keeping law and order in his own parish. He could also lock up more serious criminals before they were sent to a larger jail or before they had their case heard by a magistrate or judge.

Lockups generally went out of use in the mid-1800s, when a nation-wide organised police force developed and police stations with cells inside were built. 

Why did lockup designs vary?

Village lockups were often designed to fit in with local architectural styles and were usually built of local materials. They purposely had no light source and no heating, little ventilation and no form of sanitation. Some contained a bench or even an iron bedstead, but prisoners mainly slept on the straw-covered floor, while in some they were chained to a wall.

The lockup in Wheatley is, like other examples, very basic and uncomfortable. It has a heavy plank door with a stone lintel and, like many others, contains stocks.

Lockups in south-west England have a shared design that can be seen in different towns, but some places had larger lockups that could house more than one person. There were different names for them across England, such as 'cage', 'blind house', 'clink', 'round house' or 'bridewell'. To explore the various regional designs, try searching for 'lockup' or any of these alternative names on the National Heritage List for England.