The Great Escape tour
It had been a good few years since my last visit to the City’s premier heritage visitor attraction, Galleries of Justice, so it was pleasant to return and experience the brand new actor led tour, The Great Escape. The tour group I was a part of consisted of about eight children and their parents, who had clearly decided to come along to make the most of the summer holidays.
My journey started in the main reception room when a mysterious character, who was dressed in periodic costume, began rummaging around the gift shop and trying to take a peak in my handbag. This was in fact a former prisoner of Newgate Prison in London, Jack Shepherd (not of Coronation Street fame), who became a bit of a celebrity in Nottingham as he apparently escaped from the prison four times. As he went on to tell the tale of his murky past, the eight children in the group were excited to hear just how sinister 18th and 19th century punishment was.
As we moved onto the courtroom that was rebuilt in 1876, the children were more than enthusiastic about participating in an imaginary courtroom scene. With pre-written scripts, it was a great chance to get fully involved and become the judge, the defence and the prosecution and interesting to discover where the jury, barristers and poor people would be situated in the room. The animation on the children’s faces and professionalism from the actors really brought the scenario to life.
Soon after my group had humorously declared Jack Shepherd to be guilty as charged for his thieving habits, the Turn Key, also known as the Chief Gaoler, made an appearance to take Jack Shepherd away to Nottingham County Gaol. Coincidently, at the beginning of the tour everyone was given a convict number, so it was a fact that we were all criminals too so had to follow the two characters down underground into the prison cells!
As we continued our journey into prison, it was here we discovered the crime we’d committed, from our convict number, and what our punishment was to be. It really opened the eyes of the youngsters as they read that you would be sentenced to be hung for just pick pocketing! The Chief Gaoler continued the story by informing us with some truly fascinating facts about life in gaol and what they would do to prevent escapees. We even got the chance to experience what one of the ‘nice cells’ was like, which incidentally wasn’t at all pleasant as it was small, dark and grotty!
As we made our way to the next chronological step of the tour, and avoided banging my head on the really low cave ceilings, we were soon introduced to the gaol’s most famous escapee who made her exit from the laundry room. We were shown the tragic dark and damp dungeons, which is where the poor prisoners would be thrown if they didn’t have any money to pay for a ‘nice’ cell. It was such an eye opener discovering how inhumanly these prisoners were treated. You can be taught it in a history lesson or read about it in books, but reality doesn’t quite hit you until you witness it yourself. As I wandered around the exercise yard, it was fascinating to see carvings in the walls; original graffiti from 18th and 19th century prisoners.
I entered the convict ship, which was taking prisoners to Australia and challenged my own knowledge by taking part in the many ‘hands on’ quizzes situated throughout the ship. For the history enthusiasts out there; did you know that between 1787 and 1868, 162,000 convicts travelled over to Australia?
As I approached the end of the tour, which lasted approximately one hour and a half, it felt like going through a time-warp. Eye capturing displays of warden clothing from Her Majesty’s prison over a period of time, comparisons of prison cells from today and 200 years ago and I even got to see a classic blue Police Box – unfortunately I didn’t get to meet Doctor Who!
Do you need a way to keep the kids entertained this summer? I definitely recommend The Great Escape tour at Galleries of Justice; for hands on experience of Nottingham’s punishment history. Take a step back in time.