The Marshmount Estate Trust Limited has undertaken to purchase the ruins of Chatterham Prison in Lincolnshire from Mr Anthony Rampole, grandson of Thaddeus (Tad or Ted) Rampole and Dorothy Starberth, who featured in the mystery story. This decayed structure is better known as Hag's Nook, from the old gallows, and was the setting of John Dickson Carr's first Dr Gideon Fell mystery novel (Hag's Nook, Harper © 1933 John Dickson Carr). Our intention is to restore the building, at least partially and to prevent its total decay, as a museum of Regency-period prison methodology. The famous pool, or well, under the gallows was long ago filled in as a health hazard, but the copings remain. The interior furnishings, worn as they are, survive, and there was an attempt to consolidate the structure, remove the ivy, etc. shortly after the publication of the book. Dr Fell's old cottage still remains within a few hundred yards of the prison, although it has not belonged to that family for many years. (We would like to purchase that too, and create a John Dickson Carr museum, but it is currently not on the market.) The site is within ten miles of the ancient city of Lincoln, which is also famous for its gallows on the castle walls. It will make a fine addition to the Marshmount Estates, and we fully intend to make it a prime tourist attraction.
Chatterham Prison was built in 1797, on the spur of a ridge of the Lincolnshire chalk downs (wolds) overlooking drained fenland, at the time of John Howard's reforms of the prison system. It was actually a very large and important prison in its age, although generally ignored by the scholars of penal history. Before then, there was hardly any detention ("Penitentiary") policy -- debtors' prisons (though why did society ever think jailing debtors would pay off the debts?), Bridewell for prostitutes, Tower of London for political prisoners, Bedlam for lunatics, Newgate for major felons, decommissioned ship hulks on the Thames for minor criminals awaiting transportation to the colonies, but nothing like our modern correctional facilities (what a waffling term!). Otherwise, people were either hanged after a brief time, or branded, pilloried, exiled, whipped, or fined, and the local lock-ups tended to be old medieval town gates or castle wards. Unlike Dartmoor, Pentonville and other like places that were built by the government over the next generations, this remained a 'private' gaol and stayed the personal property of the Starberths. Chatterham was in no way, however, comparable to the contemporary Lincoln Castle Gaol. As Carr describes Chatterham, referring to an old journal, it was a rat-infested, plague-ridden, place run by a sadistic miser: a "parade of horror, cruelty, high-sounding preachments, and miserly chucklings over twopence saved..." The gallows overlooked a 50-foot drop into a railed pond, and bodies were just cut down to fall into it to save the cost of burial. There is talk in the book about an Iron Maiden torture instrument, but no sign of that has been found, so this was presumably an embellishment of Carr's for melodramatic atmosphere. The general description of the prison is impressively spooky, and its modern appearance bears that out.
Restoration Plans: First of all the exising masonry will be repaired and consolidated, especially the outer walls. Gatehouse, Misdemeanor Cells, Governer's Quarters, and Condemned Cells will be fully restored; we even hope to refill the pool (although not to its original depth) and re-erect the gallows. The Warders' Quarters will be replaced by a new brick structure for the staff along the original foundations. Likewise the Refectory Wing will contain a brand-new structure for the use of visitors (rest rooms, cafe, auditorium for shows and special exhibits). The main cell blocks and exercise yards will be cleared of vegetation and rubble, although we are not sure yet to what extent the prisoners' cells will be restored -- some of them, at least. The Governor's Room will be made to resemble the original, as far as possible, in its state as described in Carr's novel. The large room next to it, which was an office/courtroom originally, with its fine views over the fen country, is to be dedicated as a John Dickson Carr museum. There will also be waxwork figures in various places; we will be enlisting the help of the staff of the Byfurk Gate Wax Museum in Fenton.
Disclaimer: Chatterham Prison does not exist, nor does the Marshmount Estate Trust or any of its buildings. This web site is an imaginative project only, and coincidences to real places and people, although based on historical parallels, are unintentional in any defamatory or exploitive sense. Apologies, also, to the Carr Estate if they perceive any copyright infringements. If anybody objects please contact the website owner. This web page was created July 2001 by Grobius Shortling.