Step inside the 'haunted' British military ‘glasshouse’ prison that was feared by British Armed Forces and where some prisoners faced execution.
Firing Squads And Executions
Firing squads once executed military prisoners who were lined up against a 75-foot stone wall at Shepton Mallet prison, a jail with a chilling history and which had its own execution block and a hanging drop chamber to carry out the death sentence.
Prisoners once faced hanging, and later firing squads, at the site nestled away in the centre of the small Somerset village.
Shepton Mallet prison, which was otherwise known as Cornhill, was established as a House of Correction in 1625 but has been both a civilian prison and a military ‘glasshouse’ during its long history as the oldest prison in the UK.
It earned itself a fearsome reputation among members of the British Armed Forces over the years.
Visitors can now take a tour of the prison and learn about its gruesome past - with many stories of ghostly hauntings in the prison's wings included.
Shepton Mallet Prison History
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 the years dating back to 1889 but the prison later became a military prison and incarcerated convicted members of the British Armed Forces.
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.
This is where prisoners were taken to be shot after they were handed a death sentence for a variety of crimes that included rape and murder.
The Kray Twins
Records and cuttings from newspapers reveal a catalogue of notorious criminals, including murderers and rapists, who were imprisoned or put to death at the prison up to the Victorian era.
However, among the more infamous names incarcerated at Shepton Mallet are the notorious gangster twins, Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
The twins spent a brief sentence inside the prison in the 1950s after going absent without leave from National Service and were sent down for assaulting a police officer.
This is years before their rise to notoriety as East End gangsters before the pair were eventually convicted for the murders of criminal rivals in the 1960s.
At one time, more than 300 British military prisoners would be kept under lock and key at Shepton Mallet.
During the 1940s, the site was taken over by the US military under the command of American forces.
American military personnel staffed the prison during this time, much of that time under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James P. Smith of the 707th Military Police Battalion.
During the Second World War, 18 military executions were carried out at Shepton Mallet.
Why Is A Military Prison Called A Glasshouse?
The term Glasshouse became military slang for all Armed Forces prisons after originally referring to the military prison at Aldershot, that had a glazed glass roof – hence a ‘glass house’.
Britain’s first military prisons were established in 1844 but Aldershot later became an infamous jail among personnel, and so the name Glasshouse was soon adopted as a slang reference to all military jails.
Aldershot prison opened in 1870 and was in operation until it was burned down during prison riots in 1946, before finally being demolished in 1958.
Shepton Mallet Ghosts
The prison has a long and dark history of death sentences carried out in its grounds.
Prisoners have been hanged, drawn and quartered, or just hanged, and shot by firing squad at the prison over its 400-year history.
Before the prison was closed, it was a Category C prison for ‘lifers’ and housed some of the most hardened and dangerous criminals in the country.
There are numerous reports from staff and visitors to Shepton Mallet of spooky experiences.
Much of this may be simply down to the building’s eerie historic atmosphere, which echoes with every footstep and sound.
From encounters with the supposed ghost of Private Lee Davis – a former inmate who was executed by hanging for rape and murder – to people simply experiencing strange feelings as they wander the now largely empty corridors of the jail’s wings.
Many people have reported feeling ‘negative energy’ in the prison’s B Wing but the jail’s former chapel, later converted into a gym, and the prison’s C Wing all have their own eerie atmospheres.
Perhaps the most notable and regular suspected visitor from the spirit world is known as ‘The White Lady' – believed by staff to be the ghost of a woman executed during the 17th century after she had been wrongly convicted of murdering her fiancé.
But with many hundreds of unnamed executed former inmates lying in the grounds of the prison, there could be any number of possible ghosts milling about the site, if one believes in this manifestation of the afterlife.
Hanged, Drawn And Quartered
Some notably gruesome moments during the prison’s years include the execution of 12 Shepton men who were hanged, drawn and quartered following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1642 to 1685 for sympathising with the rebels.
Records show that the men’s bowels were removed and burned before their heads were cut off and placed on spikes around the nearby town.
Firing Squad Noise Complaints
At one stage of the prison’s history, locals living near the jail are reported to have complained about the firing squads. Not over any moral issue – but, over the noise.
To appease the complaints, prison staff are said to have come up with a strategy to mask the noise of the gunfire.
Executions by firing squad would be carried out at exactly the stroke of eight o’clock in the morning – so that the noise of the guns would be drowned out by the church clock.
Executioners And The Gallows
Executioners are said to have stayed the night at the prison before the morning of an execution.
Prisoners would have sat in a chair facing away from a door that was hidden behind a large bookcase.
Then, the bookcase would be moved just before eight o’clock and the prisoner would then be led by two guards before the death sentence was then carried out.
The last death sentence carried out at Shepton Mallet was carried out during the prison’s time in military use in 1945.
However, authorities removed the prison’s gallows in 1967, a year after the prison was returned to civilian use in 1966.
Methods Of Hanging
Tour guide Charlie Lawson told BFBS that on the night of a tour, visitors might feel different reactions in different places in the jail, such as the execution room where people were hanged.
Charlie, speaking of the layout of the execution room, or hanging room, said there had been a beam across the top of the chamber and there would have been three ropes attached – one which would have had the noose, and two that would have had a hand-hold in the rope for the guards.
“Two officers would have been stood either side to make sure the prisoner didn’t collapse under his own knees buckling.”
He said a blue circle marked on a trap door was a traditional method of hanging at the time, and the prisoner would stand at that point in the circle before the trap door opened.
“Underneath is the drop room which is a long drop. Basically, the trap doors would open, and the body would go straight the way through.”
He said there were two different ways of hanging with a noose at different times in history.
“Like you will see in movies, initially all the nooses were placed at the back of the neck which ended up suffocating and strangling the person being hanged.
“Whereas in more recent years, by putting the knot at the side of the neck, it would twist the neck and break it, so that you’d end up separating your vertebrae which would give you instant death.”
When Did Shepton Mallet Prison Close?
Shepton Mallet prison closed in 2013, along with six other jails, under a cost-saving drive announced by the then justice secretary Chris Grayling.
A Royal Naval Lynx helicopter from RNAS Yeovilton carried out a fly past to mark the closure in a ceremony attended by officers, staff and local dignitaries, plus a parade by staff accompanied by the RNAS Yeovilton Volunteer Band.
BFBS will be streaming a live broadcast from Shepton Mallet prison for Halloween – October 31, 2019.
Check in to forces.net from 8pm or follow the BFBS Radio Facebook page as we take a tour of the prison, live, and explore some of the ghostly encounters inside the prison’s wings and cells.
We will be joined by our host, Shepton Mallet guide Charlie, who is no stranger to paranormal activities around the prison.
The night begins with a tour of the most haunted parts before some other spooky happenings begin.