From Executions to Luxury Apartments: The Fascinating History of Shepton Mallet Prison

From Executions to Luxury Apartments: The Fascinating History of Shepton Mallet Prison

HM Prison Shepton Mallet, located in Somerset, England, is a prison with a long and fascinating history. The prison was established in the early 17th century and has seen many prisoners come and go over the years, including some notable figures. However, the prison’s most significant chapter came during World War II, when it was used as the U.S. military’s death row.

Shepton Mallet prison was originally built in 1610 as a house of correction, designed to hold those who were considered a public nuisance. Over time, the prison expanded, and by the early 19th century, it had become a gaol for debtors and petty criminals. The prison’s reputation was notorious, with many reports of poor conditions, mistreatment of prisoners, and a high mortality rate.

During the 20th century, HMP Shepton Mallet was used for a variety of purposes. During the First World War, the prison was used to house German prisoners of war, and during the Second World War, it was used as a store for historical documents, including the Domesday Book.

However, the prison’s most significant period came during World War II, when it was taken over by the United States military. The U.S. Army used the prison as a detention center for soldiers convicted of serious crimes, including murder and rape, and those who had been sentenced to death.

The U.S. military’s use of Shepton Mallet prison began in 1942 when it was decided that the U.S. Army needed its own execution facility in England. Previously, American soldiers who had been sentenced to death had been sent to British prisons for execution. However, this was deemed unacceptable, and Shepton Mallet prison was chosen as the site for a new execution facility.

The U.S. Army made significant changes to the prison to turn it into an execution facility. They added a new brick wall around the prison to make it more secure, and they built a new execution chamber inside the prison. The execution chamber was a small room with a trapdoor in the floor, and it was here that 18 American soldiers were executed during the war.

The U.S. Army’s use of HMP Shepton Mallet as a death row was controversial, with many people in the UK questioning the need for American soldiers to have their own execution facility. Some also criticized the conditions in the prison, which were reportedly harsh.

After the war, Shepton Mallet prison returned to its role as a civilian prison, and it remained in use until it was finally closed in 2013. Over its 400-year history, the prison saw many notable prisoners, including the infamous Kray twins in the 1950s.

There are several significant historical stories related to HM Prison Shepton Mallet. Here are some of them:

  1. Role in the Monmouth Rebellion: In 1685, Shepton Mallet prison was used to hold prisoners from the Monmouth Rebellion, a failed attempt to overthrow King James II. Over 500 rebels were held in the prison before being either executed or transported to the colonies.
  2. Famous Inmates: Shepton Mallet prison has also housed some famous inmates throughout its history, including William Hogarth, the famous painter and satirist, who was imprisoned for debt in 1732.
  3. Executions and Escape Attempts: Throughout its 400-year history, Shepton Mallet prison has seen numerous executions and escape attempts. One of the most notable executions was that of Joseph Merceron in 1837, a notorious East London gangster who was convicted of corruption and forgery. There were also several escape attempts, including the famous 1960 “Great Escape” when six prisoners managed to break out of the prison.
  4. Women’s Suffrage Movement: In 1917, during the women’s suffrage movement, a group of suffragettes were imprisoned in Shepton Mallet prison for their activism. The conditions of their imprisonment were harsh, and they were subjected to force-feeding when they went on hunger strike.
  5. Role as a Store for Historical Documents During Wartime: During World War I, Shepton Mallet prison was used to store historical documents and artifacts from the British Museum and the Public Record Office to protect them from the bombing in London. The documents were stored in specially built underground tunnels, which are still accessible today.
  6. Nazi Occupation: During World War II, Shepton Mallet prison was briefly occupied by the Nazis. The Germans used the prison as a holding center for British prisoners of war before transporting them to the continent.
  7. U.S. Military’s WWII Death Row: During World War II, Shepton Mallet prison became the U.S. military’s death row. The prison was chosen because it was considered to be one of the most secure prisons in Britain at the time. Between 1942 and 1945, 18 American soldiers were executed at the prison for crimes such as rape and murder.
  8. Renovation and Repurposing: In 2013, the prison was closed and put up for sale. It was eventually purchased by developers who renovated the prison and turned it into luxury apartments. Today, visitors can still see the original prison walls and some of the prison’s historical features, such as the execution room and the underground tunnels.

These stories highlight the rich and varied history of Shepton Mallet prison, from its use as a place of punishment to its role in protecting historical artifacts and its eventual transformation into luxury apartments.

Today, the prison is open to the public as a museum, allowing visitors to explore the prison’s fascinating history. The museum includes exhibits on the prison’s role in both World Wars, as well as its use as a civilian prison. Visitors can also see the prison’s execution chamber, which remains in almost the same condition as it was during the war.

Overall, Shepton Mallet prison is a fascinating historical site that provides a glimpse into the darker side of British history. From its early days as a house of correction to its use as a civilian prison and the U.S. military’s death row, the prison’s history is rich and complex. As a museum, it offers a unique opportunity to learn about the lives of those who were held within its walls and the history of the prison itself.

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