THE imposing prison on the edge of Northallerton town centre may appear a grim old place, with a touch of Dickens, but it disguises a long and colourful history.

A House of Correction, for both male and female prisoners, was built on the site of a swamp and the town’s rubbish dump in 1783, initially featuring just 12 cells each measuring four square yards, with the main punishments being solitary confinement and whipping with a cat o’ nine tails.

By 1818, social changes led to the building of a women’s jail on the site’s east side and in 1821 the world’s then largest treadmill, for prisoners to grind corn, was installed. As it was feared the resulting produce could harm the local economy, it was thrown away.

Many of the prisoners, who included Chartists and a woman from Crakehall, near Bedale, who’d been convicted of milking a neighbour’s cow, were given training in a trade before being transported to penal colonies, including Tasmania.

After rising concerns over malnutrition in the jail, a vicar who was among the visiting justices, narrowly avoided censure for having fed meals from the prison to his dogs for ten years.

During the 19th Century, a chapel and cookhouse were added and after repeated outbreaks of dysentery it emerged in 1848 that the 298 prisoners were sharing 68 cells and using corridors and the chapel as dormitories.

A three-storey prison with 40 cells on each floor, modelled on Pentonville jail, in London, was built, giving the jail, following others extensions, 173 cells for men and 60 for women, and later its 23ft boundary wall, which has since been rebuilt.

When the jail’s west wing was needed for more prisoners in 1879, the chief constable and his officers were forced to relocate.

Due to a decline in crime the prison closed in 1922, but the buildings remained intact and were taken over by the Army in 1939 as a storage depot, before being used as a military police training centre and later a military prison.

The prison was the scene of two mass escapes in early 1946, and a month later a unit which had mutinied in Italy burnt down a section of the jail in the Glass House Riot, which saw prisoners hurling tiles at crowds of Northallerton residents from the roof, triggering an MI5 investigation.

In 1964, the jail was converted into a young offenders’ institute, in which discipline and treatment was more relaxed, before becoming a remand centre taking prisoners from across Yorkshire and the North East and in 2001, transformed back into a centre for up to 254 young convicts.

By 2004 the prison was again struggling with overcrowding, but by 2011 prison inspectors described it as "an impressively safe and respectful establishment, with plenty of activity and a sound focus on resettlement."