NORTHALLERTON Prison was a big part of life for anyone growing up in and around the town, whether they realised it or not.

From those who remember the sight of military prisoners on the roof throwing tiles onto the street below during the Glasshouse Riots of 1946, to those who based creative writing projects on it while at school, to those who visited as college students to speak to young offenders, the imposing building just off the town centre was hard to ignore.

The town was shocked in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced the prison was to close, and staff, very much part of the local community, staged protests about the decision.

Four years on, the site is now owned by Hambleton District Council, which has signed a deal with Hull-based Wykeland Group to redevelop the 3.4 acres of land.

All but five listed buildings – the governor’s house, administration block, entrance building, old female wing and segregation / healthcare unit – have been demolished.

York Archaeological Trust staff spent a month excavating parts of the site, looking for evidence of early life at the prison and the council twice opened it up to the public to show off their findings.

The sessions were hugely popular – about 700 people attended the first one – with residents, former staff and even ex-inmates keen to come back and have a look.

“There are lots and lots of stories out there,” says Aly Thompson from the council. “We knew it would be busy. After the first day people were saying that they were going to come back and have another look.

“We had people queueing to come in. People remember it [the prison], and they haven’t been inside before, so they want to have a look. There is a real fascination there.”

On the site of the old kitchens, the base of the large, Victorian chimney was unearthed. Visitors to the open day were talked through the early foundations which were discovered – two to three feet deep, they made Shawshank Redemption-style escapes impossible.

The part of the site which provoked the most interest among visitors was where the infamous treadmill once stood. Now its foundations are a fairly innocuous arrangement of bricks, but just under 200 years ago, the area would have been the scene of serious toil.

Treadmills – a large wheel with steps seven inches apart – were introduced to prisons in 1818.

Prisoners walked on these steps for up to ten hours a day – ten minutes on, five minutes off.

At Northallerton, the first treadmill was introduced in 1821 and by 1837 there were five. At one time, it was reputed that Northallerton had the largest treadmill in the world.

They were used as punishment but also had a more practical purpose. Male prisoners at Northallerton ground grain from local farmers, while the women pumped water from the well.

Most of the items of ‘treasure’ found during the excavation was unearthed in the treadmill area, including a padlock and set of manacles.

Overall, very few removable items were unearthed. No wooden remains of the treadmill exist – every bit of useable wood is thought to have been taken away and put to use in other parts of Northallerton.

Aly says: “There hasn’t been a lot of stuff found. It was a prison, so anything that could have been made into a weapon was removed.”

Were any bones found?

“We thought we might find bones, but there was never any evidence that there would be,” she says.

Another area excavated was a block which housed a hospital, baths and stores. A burning spot thought to have been used to heat water for use by the doctor was discovered.

The site of a wall belonging to the original quadrangle prison, which opened in 1788 was also unearthed, the earliest element of the site.

Archaeologists dated it by the changing size of bricks – because of the brick taxes of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, bricks became progressively larger in a bid to minimise the rates paid.

What was the old female wing of the prison overlooks this part of the site, and visitors to the open days were able to look around the cells.

These were not heated, and during the prison’s early days, the barred windows were open to the elements.

Downpipes to provide drainage (and therefore toilets) were only fitted to the cells in 1993. Prisoners ‘slopped out’ until then.

One of the archaeology team adds: “Early prisoners faced being on the treadmill all day, and then spending all night shivering in an unheated cell. It was a harsh place to live.”

Prisoners worked as weavers and match makers, and as well as being engaged on the treadmill, they could also be occupied with the crank – turning a handle attached to a drum, often in a cell.

Thousands of turns a day were done and they were counted before privileges were granted – 2,000 would give breakfast, 3,000 supper or dinner.

The warders could tighten the crank making it harder to turn – hence the phrase ‘screws’. Northallerton had a crank until 1904, and was possibly one of the last prisons in the country to use one.

What now for the site?

As revealed in the Darlington & Stockton Times last week, the future plans include shops, workspace, apartments, restaurants, a cinema and a quadrangle for public events – all subject to planning permission and discussions with potential operators.

Work is expected to begin next year in two or three phases, with a planning application and public consultation expected in the near future.

*Next week: Daring escapes and public anger – how scores of determined prisoners made their bids for freedom in the 1960s and 70s.