ELHAS Meeting Report April 2009

In contrast to last month's meeting on world history, this month we reverted to local history. In fact very local with a talk by Malcolm Wright about the history of Armley Goal from 1844.

Malcolm is a former prison officer who was based at Armley for 30 years. He is now retired and likes to indulge his passions for local history and fishing. He has published two postcard books about old Hunslet and a booklet detailing all the executions which took place at Armley Goal.

He began his talk by describing how the goal, designed by Perkins and Backhouse, was opened in 1847, built on the highest point overlooking Leeds. Like most large building projects the final bill for the building was £3,000 over budget, a not inconsiderable amount in 1847, which did not amuse the Aldermen of Leeds. On 6th November 1847 the first inmates moved into the goal. A young man, 17 year old John Bryan, convicted of stealing £2..11s..6d sentenced to be transported for 15 years, and three women who were all sentenced to transportation for 10 years, again for stealing quite trifling amounts. The original prison had 300 cells and could house 330 inmates.

During his talk Malcolm explained how the term "screw" to describe a prison officer came about. Water for use in the prison was pumped to the top of the building by means of a treadmill powered manually by those prisoners subjected to hard labour. If a prison officer thought that the treading was not exacting enough he would tighten the screw on the machine to make it harder - hence the term. He also told us that 93 executions had taken place at Armley, several of which had been botched and described the scene when the only woman to be hanged there, convicted murderess Emily Swann, met her fate.

The audience were intrigued and surprised, not to say dismayed, when he related details of the only public execution there in 1848 when a crowd of up to 100,000 gathered to watch and something of a carnival atmosphere was generated with food and drink vendors doing a roaring trade.

Fascinated as we were to hear the past history of the goal, we were most amused and entertained when Malcolm told anecdotes of his own time there. And the tale which capped them all was the story of the prison cat 'Porridge'. Staff were accustomed to leave a parcel of food for the cat on the gatehouse windowsill. One day no one fed this to the poor cat and staff coming on a later shift thought it was a suspicious package. The bomb squad were called and blew up the cat's dinner and the long suffering cat went hungry!!

Mention of food obviously triggered a reaction in the audience and after enjoying a fascinating talk by Malcolm, they were delighted to retire to the back room for the annual pea and pie supper.

The next meeting on June 29th will be the General Meeting followed by an illustrated talk by Gary Hope "Photographing Natural Subjects".