The decision of an outgoing council to commission a celebrated artist to create an £85,000 sculpture depicting the youngest female inmate incarcerated in a former prison has been questioned.

Members of North Yorkshire Council’s Richmond constituency committee will consider on April 13 whether to accept Hambleton District Council’s proposal for an eight-foot sculpture by Ray Lonsdale should become the centrepiece of the new square at the Treadmills development in Northallerton.

The district council had claimed the Ballad of Sophia artwork would be “the finishing touch” to its eight-year plan to redevelop the old prison site.

Northallerton Prison was home to tens of thousands of inmates over its 230-year history. As the first custom-built jail in England, it is significant in the history of penal reform – and is the likely reason Northallerton became a county town.

It was closed by the Ministry of Justice in 2013, paving the way of the 3.4-acre site in the centre of the town to be bought by the district council in the summer of 2015.

The district authority has underlined steel fabricator Mr Lonsdale had started work on the sculpture of ten-year-old Sophia Constable, of Whitby, who was sentenced to three weeks hard labour followed by four years in a reformatory for stealing a loaf of bread from a shop in the 1870s.

Costing £85,000 the statue is being funded by Hambleton District Council and Historic England’s Cultural programme as part of the Northallerton High Street Heritage Action Zone.

The Northern Echo: The statue of ten-year-old Sophia Constable, who was sentenced to three weeks hard labourThe statue of ten-year-old Sophia Constable, who was sentenced to three weeks hard labour (Image: THE NORTHERN ECHO)

Before the district council was abolished, its leader, Councillor Mark Robson, stated: “To have a piece of public art by such a celebrated artist as part of our Treadmills development will encourage visitors to our district and will be a fitting way to remember the former prison and all the people who worked and were incarcerated in the facility over the years.”

In a report to the planning committee submitted a day before the district council ceased to exist, Hambleton officers recommended the proposal be approved.

Planning officers wrote: “The proposed development will assist in the interpretation of the heritage assets and will provide a positive focal point for the development, helping to anchor the site when viewed from the Zetland Street approach, from the town centre.

“The development will have no harmful impact on heritage assets and sufficient space remains around the proposals in order to ensure good access for all.”

However, objecting to the plan, resident Ronald Pratt has questioned whether the statue is a good use of taxpayers money and why the council had “already made up your mind” before consulting residents or the plan being approved by elected members.

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Mr Pratt stated that the district council “appeared to be obsessed with all things penal incarceration”.

He questioned why the authority was seeking to celebrate Sophia Constable and her companion Fanny Goodchild as the police in Whitby were “familiar” with them.

Mr Pratt wrote: “Could this public money have been better spent on items that reflect the better nature of Northallerton from the past?”