Two New Windows for the Bristol New Gaol Gate

Design and realisation of two galvanised steel structures glazed with high-reflection glass based on original 1816 designs for the Bristol New Gaol and installed within the restored Gaol Gate.


Project Category: Long-Term

This pair of mirrored interventions relate the historic and contemporary approaches to surveillance within the site. The Gaol Gate Walk connects the formal, social and observational aspects of the original Bristol New Gaol plan with parallel elements of the contemporary housing scheme. 

The 1816 designs for the Bristol New Gaol formalised structures of power by facilitating centralised surveillance and control over every aspect of the prisoners’ lives. The building’s extraordinarily well-preserved drawings are in the collection of the Bristol Records Office, and they formed the basis of my research and designs. 

The prison design set up a polarised relationship between observer and observed. There are interesting comparisons to be made between its formalised strategy of surveillance-as-correction, and our tacit contemporary assumption that antisocial behaviour can be curbed by the mere presence of a witness. The Bristol New Gaol designs from 1816 and our contemporary Secure By Design guidelines share a common faith in the importance of the unseen onlooker, that is to say, in ‘passive surveillance’. 

My proposal began by re-opening window apertures within the historic Gaol Gate. I then introduced glazed steel-frame structures based on the gaol’s original designs of the cell walls and windows. The cell’s opaque elevation is thereby translated into a transparent and mirrored surface, which reflects the new public realm while simultaneously allowing views into the newly-conserved ruin.

My project therefore resurrects lost aspects of the site’s historic buildings, and aims to invite consideration of the role and act of viewing within public space.

Project Credits

Client: Umberslade and Muse

Art Consultant: Ginkgo Projects

Metalwork Fabricator: Newton Forge

Architect: Alec French Architects

Enabling Works: Churngold

Project Manager: Gardiner & Theobald

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Research & Development

The Gaol Gate prior to development of the adjacent site, summer 2014

In autumn 2014 I was commissioned to produce a site-specific work within Phase 2 of the Wapping Wharf development, focused on the conserved ruin of the Bristol New Gaol gate. Alec French Architects, who designed the scheme, envisioned “a picturesque relationship between new and old buildings”. The artist’s brief required my proposal to “help articulate the new access routes and views through the site.” Planning permission for the scheme was granted in December 2014, Detailed Concept Designs were completed 2016, and my designs were installed in December 2022 after the completion of Phase 2 construction.

The north elevation of the gaol gate, showing one of the two bricked-up arched window apertures which were reopened for my commission. Summer 2014

Bristol New Gaol: Site History

By the late 18th century, Bristol’s Newgate prison in the centre of the city was notorious due to its terrible conditions. Bristol Corporation eventually agreed to pay for a new gaol, designed in 1816 by H.H. Sewart, an architect who had trained under Sir John Soane in London. Construction by Bristol building firm Jones and Wilcox was completed in 1820. In 1831 the gaol was sacked during the notorious Bristol Riots, during which its contents were looted and most of its buildings destroyed by fire. The gaol was rebuilt during the 1830s to designs revised  by W S Pope. The roof of the gate was the site of numerous executions, including of those sentenced for their part in the Bristol Riots. The New Gaol was in use until 1883 at which time it was replaced by Horfield Prison. The site was bought by the Great Western Rail Company in 1895 and by 1905, most of the gaol buildings, excluding sections of the perimeter wall and the gate house, had been demolished. During the early 20th century these were replaced by warehouses. The gaol gate remained an inaccessible ruin for a century. As part of Phase 2 of the Wapping Wharf redevelopment, this ruin was conserved and the entrance reopened to become part of a new pedestrian route.

Late 18th-early 19th Century Prison Reform

By the end of 18th century, England’s gaols were overcrowded, and gaol conditions varied widely from region to region. Sentences were for punishment, and punishment was primarily corporal- the body suffered during specific events, and during incarcerated time. This suffering was often within shared communal spaces, overseen in public. 

Punishments were conceived as events and/or periods of incarceration. As ‘events’, lesser sentences might involve public humiliation while shacked within stocks; more serious offences might incur sentences including lashings, the ducking stool, branding with hot irons; or physical amputations of hands or nose. Capital offences resulted in torturous executions by disembowelling, burning and hanging.

During incarceration, the body suffered from the terrible conditions within the prison; violence from gaolers and other prisoners; starvation; and disease. A contemporaneous report describes conditions at Newgate Prison in Bristol, where criminals mixed freely with debtors, and men mixed with women. Debtor’s families often stayed in the gaol, and could come and go. Prisoners often had to pay for their own food and lodging, so begged through a grille in the wall from the people going in and out of the city gate. The place was filthy, and disease was rife. The more notorious fellons were detained in the ‘pit’ or ‘dungeon’, which was 12ft below ground and poorly lit. Up to seventeen prisoners slept in this space which was only 14ft square, and which contained no bedding. With no ventilation or sanitation, conditions were appalling. 

Prison reformers argued for a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, with sentences and gaol conditions accountable at the level of national (rather than regional) government. The Howard Report of 1774 was the catalyst for change. He argued for a prison regime which was tough but within an environment which was healthy, believing that the object of imprisonment was as much for reform as for punishment. This period therefore marked the shift away from sentences as punishment via physical bodily pain, and towards psychological discipline and rehabilitation. It also insisted that prisoners were segregated- both from each other, and from their communities outside the gaol. 

“In the secular world, havens of solitude were first created for kings, dukes and princes. In the 18th Century the privilege of being alone still belonged to the upper strata of society, but nevertheless was beginning to alter, decisively, the shape of landscapes and buildings. The English garden with its bowers, ruins, hidden grottoes and contrived views to distant scenery, where ‘all alone, and complements apart, I ask these sober questions of my heart’, and the English country house with its separate apartments, libraries, studies and closets, were devoting more and more space to seclusion. Although there was a great difference between the elective, occasioned solitude sought by men of culture, which in any case was easily modified into the scenery of intimate friendship, and the unremitting cellular isolation that was to be imposed on prisoners, the two conditions derived from the same idea that any form of society was suspect both morally and aesthetically.” 

Robin Evans, ‘The Fabrication of Virtue: Prison Architecture 1750-1850″

Photograph: Bristol Archives: JQS/DP/1816b/roll 5

Bird’s eye view of Bristol New Gaol, 1816

Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and late 18th-early 19th century prison design

“The building circular- A cage, glazed- a glass lantern about the size of Ranelagh- The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference- the officers in the centre. By Blinds and other contrivances, the inspectors concealed.. from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence- the whole circuit reviewable with little, or if necessary without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.”

Bentham, ‘Proposal for a new and less expensive mode of employing and reforming convicts’ printed 1798.

This text is taken from Bentham’s best known work, in which he describes a panopticon prison founded on the premise of unseen, centralised surveillance. Bentham additionally applied the logic of the panopticon’s centralised observation within houses of industry, poorhouses, lazarettos, magdalene Houses, madhouses and nurseries. His panoptic principle is reversible: he also conceived of schools and government along similar lines, in which the unseen central eye is exchanged for a watchful public looking in on the centre of power. For Bentham, society should be moderated and protected by vigilant observation, with the observer and the observed structured as polar opposites, and their positions stretched to the extreme.

Photograph: Courtesy of ©Bristol Libraries

Old Gaol Bristol by B. Gardiner, March 1913. Courtesy of ©Bristol Libraries

In Bentham’s prison panopticon, the governor lives at its centre in a ‘kiosk’, with the surrounding cells each containing an individual prisoner. All light enters through the cells’ windows, which at night are illuminated by external lanterns. The prisoners are brightly lit at all times, meaning that while the governor, his family and friends can see into the cells, blinds, curtains and specially-designed doors prevent the prisoners from seeing them.

“A very material point is, that room be allotted to the Lodge, sufficient to adapt it to the purposes of a compleat and constant habitation for the principall Inspector, or Head-Keeper, and his family. The more numerous the family the better; since by this means there will be in fact as many Inspectors as the family consists of persons, though only one be paid for it. Neither the orders of the Inspector himself, nor any interest which they may feel, or not feel, in the regular performance of his duty, would be necessary to find them motives adequate to the purpose. Secluded often times by their situation from every other object, they will naturally and in a manner unavoidably, give their eyes a direction comformable to that purpose in every momentary intervall of their ordinary occupations. It will supply in their instance the place of that great and constant fund of entertainment to the sedentary vacant in towns, the looking out of the window. The scene, though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore perhaps not altogether an unamusing one.”

Bentham, letter JB/550/212/001.

This chillingly upbeat description evokes a sort of punitive and involuntary shadow-theatre, with the incarcerated people effectively performing their sentences as entertainment for their gaoler. Continuous visibility is framed as a necessary requirement of a system which intended reform through eliminating the possibility of bad behaviour going unnoticed, but the complete removal of privacy would have been a significant punishment and humiliation in its own right. The 24/7 illumination into each cell would have been a sleep-depriving torture for prisoners, and the voyeuristic spectacle with which the gaoler and his family were provided would surely not have ultimately compensated for the darkness in which they were expected to live. 

Although prisoners would have gone through the formal process of the judicial system, it’s remarkable that Bentham takes the attitude of the-more-eyes-the-better when it comes to the principal Inspector and his family, as if no specific attributes are required to qualify him and his family for their legal duties. Bentham implies that inevitable curiosity will ‘give their eyes a direction’, and that this curiosity will be rewarded by the entertainment of watching the painful incarceration of others. Could oversight by anyone really be considered sufficient to bring about reform? If “the only aim of surveillance was for the people monitored to internalise surveillance so that surveillance would in the end be unnecessary,”* It’s also worth reflecting on what the act of surveilling and the continuous entitlement to that power would have had on those in the centre of the gaol as well as those forced to live within its illuminated cells.

*p40-41, Beyond Foucault: New Perspectives on Bentham’s Panopticon, ed. Anne Brunon-Ernst, Farnham 2012

Photograph: Bristol Archives: JQS/DP/1816b/roll 5

Elevation of wing for female criminals or debtors and male debtors (right) and elevation of entrance front of Keeper’s house (left), 1816. Credit: Bristol Archives: JQS/DP/1816b/roll 5

Designs for the Bristol New Gaol

Although no true panopticon prisons were built in England to Bentham’s concept designs, many- including the Bristol New Gaol- were influenced by his ideas. The Bristol Records Office holds eight rolls of original 19th century drawings relating to Bristol New Gaol, and these give a comprehensive visual description of the building’s layout and construction details. The perimeter is walled, with a gate house or ‘Turn key’s Lodge’ securing the entrance. This is on the same axis as the ‘Keeper’s Lodge’, from which the cell blocks and exercise yards radiate. The Keeper’s lodge provided a centralised location for the surveillance of the shared spaces of the exercise yards and cell corridors, and so allowed for the rigorous control of the spaces between each prisoner throughout each day.

Photograph: Bristol Archives: JQS/DP/1816b/roll 3

Bristol New Gaol cell window detail from Seward’s original 1816 designs.

Although these designs do not suggest the kind of shadow-theatre suggested by Bentham, there is evidence of items suggestive for managing privacy of the governor’s home, and perhaps for the gaoler’s use in monitoring behaviour within the prison. This evidence comes from the £1300 claim that the governor of the jail, William Humphreys, applied for from the city of Bristol as compensation for his losses during the Bristol Riots in 1831. Amongst a surprisingly large amount of goods in his possession, he lists 

“10 pier glasses, 10 mirrors, 10 chimney glasses, 30 looking glasses,… 20 window curtains, 50 bed curtains, 50 other curtains, 50 window blinds, 50 sun blinds, 50 Venetian blinds… Five telescopes, 10 lamps,… 10 lanterns…” (South of the Avon (Buch) Page 130)

It’s not possible to know how these items were used in practice, but inspectors reported that the operation of the prison- ie a combination of the building’s design and its human management- did manage its aim of maintaining separation between prisoners:

“.. the governor has been surprisingly successful in preventing any communication among the prisoners, and then preventing each from knowing what occurs to others. As a remarkable example of this, I may mention that on a late occasion of the execution of a murderess, none of the prisoners were aware of the execution until some days afterwards. And it is also stated that no prisoner in the jail, except those who are committed after the woman in question, were aware that such a prisoner was in confinement.”

p158, Fifteenth report of the inspectors appointed under the provisions of the act 5&6 Will. IV c38, To visit the prisons of Great Britain. III- southern and western district. London, 1850.

Photograph: Copyright Reece Winstone Archive

Demolishing the Gaol, Cumberland Road, 1898.

The physical and organisational structure of the gaol ensured that incarceration was strictly and painfully solitary. Reformers intended prisoners’ bodies to be kept warm, clean and well-fed, but for sounds and sights to be completely extinguished- silence was maintained; windows were placed high up so prisoners could see nothing but the sky from their cells; the prison chapel was divided with louvred screens so each prisoner could only see the chaplain and not each other; prisoners even wore hoods during exercise. The intention was for social context- the assumed source of criminal activity- to be erased, in order to make space for prisoners to reflect, commune with God, and to repent in strict isolation. However, the sentence of death was executed in public so the city could see justice being done. Large crowds gathered along the New Cut to watch the hangings which took place on the roof of the Gaol Gate throughout the 19th century. The gruesome spectacle of the execution was horribly popular. 

Within the 19th century’s revised criminal justice system, control was conceived and enacted in terms of visibility. Metaphors of visibility- ‘transparency’ and ‘oversight’- applied to its organisation and legal framework. The prison became a stage on which capital punishment was performed for the public; the buildings’ structures facilitated internal visual oversight, while withholding visual experience from prisoners, and between prisoners and the outside world. 

Interior of the Gaol Gate, showing one of the bricked-up windows after the building was cleared of rubble. September 2016.

Initial model of the wall and window design translated into a glazed wireframe. October 2016.

Neighbourhood Watch & Secure By Design

After the Second World War, there was huge optimism in the improvements possible within mass housing in England and much of Europe that had been destroyed during the conflict. Modernist architects proposed high-rise buildings, surrounded by swathes of green space, which would replace the cramped, dark, damp conditions of inner-city tenement buildings. By creating “streets, in the sky“, pedestrians would be separated from the danger and exhaust fumes of traffic-congested streets. Residents would enjoy bright, well-ventilated and well-heated homes. However, there were unintended consequences to these ambitious housing schemes. 

Stretched local authority budgets meant that maintenance was often minimal; and the quality of construction lower than anticipated. Organisational problems arose. Covered walkways, enclosed staircases and lifts required more cleaning than they received, and obscured sight-lines within these routes provided places for anti-social behaviour. Residents found they were isolated by long walk-ways and numerous flights of stairs, and felt vulnerable while walking through surrounding green areas to reach shops and local services, particularly in the dark. These issues contributed to the perceived failure of many of these postwar housing developments, and since the late 70s has led to many of them being entirely demolished. 

During this period, lessons have been learned and best practice has been revised to include guidelines that help to ensure a sense of safety for everyone making use of the public spaces within a development. Secured By Design is a set of national guidelines that aims to ensure that the consideration of a sense of security is designed into the fabric of new buildings and the public spaces that they share. Any planning application above a certain size (such as Wapping Wharf) is automatically referred to the police for their comment in relation to these guidelines. Many of these focus on the requirement for passive surveillance. 

“1.6 Crime and anti-social behaviour are more likely to occur if the following seven attributes of sustainable communities are not incorporated:
1.6.1 Access and movement: places with well-defined and well used routes with spaces and entrances that provide for convenient movement without compromising security
1.6.2 Structure: places that are structured so that different uses do not cause conflict
1.6.3 Surveillance: places where all publicly accessible spaces are overlooked
1.6.4 Ownership: places that promote a sense of ownership, respect, territorial responsibility and community”

Secured By Design: New Homes 2014

The emphasis on surveillance shares ideas with Bentham’s panopticon, in that the guidelines assume that crime is discouraged by the fact that the architecture allows for the possibility of unseen observation at all times, either directly by residents or remotely by caretakers/police officers via CCTV. This sense of security gained by passive surveillance is balanced by privacy again gained by Benthamian devices such as blinds and curtains. The reason passive surveillance is understood to work is because it is assumed that antisocial or criminal activity will be prevented if those individuals who might be inclined to behave badly could be seen doing so, and therefore caught and punished. This assumes that criminal activity is facilitated by not being seen and prevented by being seen. These examples demonstrate an assumption that just to be able to see something is to be able to exert power. This is an interesting thought, and it clearly deserves a great deal of scrutiny. For a start, what kinds of bad behaviour can be seen which cannot? Is the behaviour of others enough to make a shared space feel safe.? And – to what extent can the spaces we design really improve our behaviour, our relationship with others, and our quality of life?

“The old stereotype of the Neighbourhood Watch ‘curtain twitcher’ is wrong for a very simple reason: it implies fear. Neighbourhood Watch is about the opposite: making sure that no one has to feel afraid, vulnerable or isolated in the place where they live. It’s about people looking out for each other, crossing barriers of age, gender, race and class to create real communities that benefit everyone …. To explode another myth, Neighbourhood Watch groups are owned and run by the people of their communities, not the police. So the approach you take is entirely up to you. The most impressive Neighbourhood Watch achievements result from members looking closely at the needs of their communities and meeting them with innovative and creative thinking.”

Bristol Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network

Although the physical spaces might be quite different, the basic premise of passive surveillance shares much with Bentham’s ideas about oversight. We use the word ‘oversight’ to refer to organisational accountability, and within our democratic system’s requirement for transparent checks and balances. Curiously, it can also refer to the opposite- to something that has been missed out or neglected. “overlooking” can have similarly contradictory meanings, referring to either a lack or a surfeit of visual scrutiny. Isolation- not being able to be seen- can alternately offer a welcome retreat and generate feelings of loneliness and vulnerability.

Comparing samples of ordinary clear glass with the highly reflective clear glass I chose to use. Autumn 2016

Sample panel produced by Newton Forge, including the highly reflective glass. Summer 2021

We can build passive surveillance into a place, but it requires a social contract to work- for people to give others the courtesy of ‘civil inattention’ as they go about their day but then switch to close attention should they need assistance. As individuals and as society, we continue to strike a balance between too much and not enough looking within the spaces we share.

The completed development, showing the west elevation of the gaol gate and its remaining bricked-up window apertures facing the residents’ gardens. April 2021