Firing squads executed military prisoners lined up against a 75-foot stone wall at a jail in Shepton Mallet with a chilling history – it had an execution block to carry out the death sentence.
Prisoners either faced hanging, and later firing squads, at a site nestled away in the centre of a small Somerset village that during the Second World War became a place feared by members of the British armed forces but which has other notorious memories, like once incarcerating the infamous London gangsters, the Kray twins.
The harrowing history of HMP Shepton Mallet – known in the tradition of military prisons as the Glasshouse – is an unnerving story of executions.
Civilian prisoners faced the gallows over time dating back to 1889 but the prison later became known for military executions, most notably during the 1940s when the site was taken over under the command of American forces.
At one time, more than 300 British military prisoners would be kept under lock and key at Shepton Mallet but its dark history also tells of its time under American stewardship, when a new part of the prison was built, devoted to carrying out the death sentence.
In a series on Forces Radio BFBS, presenter Richard Hutchinson goes inside the prison to explore what is known as the ‘condemned man’s cell’ and through the doors of the detention blocks that take visitors into the execution room.
Richard met Joel Campbell, the owner of Jailhouse Tours, who now takes visiting members of the public in what is now a heritage-led tourist attraction.
Joel tells Richard, in a five-part series on BFBS Totally Connected, all about the background of executions at the jail and some of the eerie history around the condemned man’s cell in an account that is enough to make one’s hair stand on end.
Joel said: “On the morning of an execution, the executioner would have stayed the night in the prison so that he would already be prepared, and up everything would have been set."
Joel added: “Then at eight o’clock there would be a big book case, so that the prisoner would not have known there was a door behind.
“He would have been sat in a chair facing away from the door, two officers to escort him, and then just before the stroke of eight, this door would have opened, the bookcase would have moved and the condemned man would have been stood up and he would have been walked through – he would have gone through this exact same door, and this exact same doorway, and he’d come into this very room, and he’d come here ready for the execution.”
Shepton Mallet prison, sometimes known as Cornhill and which was established as a House of Correction in 1625, was used by American forces during the war.
Joel said: “The British took over originally in 1939, and they were here for a couple of years and in ’42, the Americans took over the prison, but the block we are stood in at the moment, which is a red-brick building, two-storey red-brick building – this was built by the Americans when they first came here, to do exactly what it does which was to do the military executions.”
The building after the Second World War had a very different purpose when it became a civilian prison again.
Joel, describing the cell that housed death row prisoners, said: “This was converted, it was painted … there was lino put down, there was a carpet, there was a sink … and this was used as an office.”
The unenlightened could be forgiven for not knowing the more chilling side of the building’s history as it now looks like an ordinary office room.
Joel said: “For years and years, though, obviously people who worked here knew what its history was, but if you were not told, you would not have known, it just felt like an extension of part of the prison, slightly newer building to it … and it would have been offices.”
A four to five-foot thick, 75-foot high wall – topped by razor wire – surrounds an area of prison grounds around a small courtyard, and forms the exterior wall of A-wing.
Joel explained that this was one of the reasons why the cells are only one side, adding: “Obviously you don’t want a Shawshank Redemption moment happening, and prisoners disappearing through,” as he referred to the 1994 Hollywood prison drama movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.
Another high wall in the prison grounds, said Joel, was “where the firing squads used to be.”
He said: “The Americans would have done firing squads here. This is the wall they used to use – there are still bullet holes that you can see in this wall, ricochet points.”
He added: “Interestingly enough, they stopped doing the firing squad – they used to have problems because of the stones and the thickness, the bullets used to bounce back on occasions, so they had to be careful there.”
He also told how the locals living near the prison complained about the firing squads. Not over any moral issue – but, he said “about the noise, believe it or not.”
To appease the complaints, Joel said prison staff came up with a strategy to mask the noise of the gunfire.
He said: “They used to do it, again, at the stroke of eight o’clock in the morning - and the noise would be drowned out by the church clock.”
Joel explained that he had recently met someone who worked at the prison during the time of the more recent executions and firing squads.
He said that a man had visited the prison, explaining how he had worked at the prison in the 1950s, adding: “He was a member of the military, when it was a military prison.
“He was fascinating, he had some great stories,” adding: “He told us some great stories over the couple of hours that he was here.
“He was able to give some accuracy over some of the stuff that happened with the American military and the British military.”
Richard has been touring the wings and corridors of HMP Shepton Mallet with Joel, including some of the grimmest areas of the complex.