Your first stop for Buckingham Town information

Old Gaol

The Old Gaol todaySat in the middle of the Market Square, visitors cannot fail to miss the Old Gaol building. Currently used as a museum and tourist information shop, what was its original purpose and why does it look like a castle?

The original prison was built in 1748, like a square shaped castle. Why was it built? Buckingham was the original county town. It first had a gaol in the castle and then, when that fell down, in a building near the market-place. But Buckingham is a long way from the south of the county and Aylesbury slowly took its place as a centre of administration. The Summer Assizes, the law courts, were moved there in 1707 and this took much trade away from the town. A second blow for Buckingham was the terrible fire of 1725, which made more than 500 people homeless.

The Member of Parliament for Buckingham 1705-8 was Browne Willis, a local landowner, and historian. He wrote the first history of the town and supported it all his life. He and Lord Cobham of Stowe got the Assizes returned in 1747 and organised the building of the Gaol, to make sure that criminals destined for trial did not escape.

So the centre of 18th century Buckingham looked like this:

Bickham - View of Buckingham from Page Hill, 1780

On the left is the old Church of St Peter and St Paul, which fell down in 1776. In front of it is the bare summit of Castle Hill where the Parish Church stands today. In the centre is the Town Hall, where the Assizes were held and on the right the new Gaol, facing North-east and the road leading to Stony Stratford. It held the Exercise Yard, still there today, and 4 rooms for prisoners.

The Market Square, Lipscombe 1840

The rounded front was added in 1839, to provide a home for the first Chief Constable of Buckingham Borough Police Force, William Giles, and his wife who acted as Matron. Mr Giles was paid 15 shillings a week. The front was planned by a young local architect, George Gilbert Scott, who later designed the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station in London. The 4 rooms were replaced by two rows of cells, which are still there today.

The Gaol's most famous prisoner was William "Coiner" Varney, who was held in a cell awaiting his trial for making false money in February 1884. By using tools he had found, he managed to force open the door to his cell. He then climbed onto the roof up a ladder that had been used when whitewashing the walls, and finally let himself down into the dark street. He was found 2 weeks later working in Rugby and brought back to Buckingham on March 15th. By now he was a local hero. The Bench committed him for trial and, on the same afternoon, held securely by 3 "stalwart members of the Bucks Constabulary", he was sent to Aylesbury. Crowds cheered him as he was taken in a "fly" along Chandos Road and put on the 5 o'clock train.

For 60 years the Old Gaol acted as Buckingham's police station, but when the force was integrated with the County Police in 1892, the new station on Moreton Road took over. The Old Gaol stood empty.

For a while it was the Fire Station and stored the Fire Engine. You could pull a cord attached to a bell on one of the towers to call the Brigade. From 1892 until 1926 the Royal Bucks Hussars stored ammunition in one of the cells. From 1907 public toilets were installed there.

The first proposal to make it into a museum came in 1935 from Councillor Marriott. Nothing happened as the Council decided there was not sufficient space..

During the Second World War, some of the cells were used as air raid shelters, but the Ministry of Food would not allow the Gaol to be used as a "British Restaurant". However, the toilets remained very popular. The accounts for 1952-3 show that over 100 people a day used them.

The post-war times brought new uses. In the 1950s it became an antiques shop and cafe under several tenants. You can see the ANTIQUES sign above the door on the post-card on the left. In 1964 the East Midlands Electricity Board took over the toilets as an electricity sub-station, which is still there today.

The Town Council spent many hours discussing its future and the dangerous traffic problem it presented. Several times they considered pulling it down.

In 1974 the Gaol became the responsibility of the Aylesbury Vale District Council. For a while it continued to be let as an antique shop, as many people still remember.

In 1984 the Council finally decided to sell it. The town protested. The next year a group of Buckingham people, led by Clive Birch a local businessman and supported by the Mayor, set up the Heritage Trust, a registered charity and company limited by guarantee. With loans and gifts the Trust refurbished the decaying building and in 1993 opened it as a Museum, with a Tourist Information Centre. This is in the Gaoler's lodgings at the front of the building and is supported by Aylesbury Vale District Council. It is a busy office with leaflets and local books for sale and booking facilities for transport and entertainment.

The Old Gaol Museum continues to develop. With the help of a National Lottery Grant, the glass roof over the prisoners' exercise yard was added in the year 2000. This created a terrace which is now used as an education centre, a place for school visits, and the yard provides space for temporary exhibitions, meetings, craft fairs and other displays.

Today the Gaol is run by the Trustees of the Heritage Trust with the help of volunteers from the Friends of the Old Gaol who staff the shop and the museum rooms.

This is the centre of Buckingham today. On the left the parish church of St Peter and St Paul stands on Castle Hill. On the right the Old Gaol looks down the Market Place.

Source: Milton Keynes Heritage Group