Robert Evan Roberts, Governor of Bedford Gaol
by Bob Ricketts
Bedford County Gaol was built on Dovecote Close (between Tavistock Street & Dame Alice Street) owned by the Duke of Bedford, who sold it for 10/-. John Wing, a local builder and architect, drew up the plans. It was completed in 1801, with the first prisoners transferred into it on 18th June. Public hangings, which had previously been held at Gallows Corner, Bromham Road, were undertaken on a scaffold outside the prison.
Robert Evans Roberts
Born in Woolwich, Robert Evans Roberts was the Governor of Bedford Gaol from 1853 to 1885. Prior to his appointment to Bedford in 1853, aged 35, he was the jailer of the Westmoreland County Gaol at Appleby. He took over Bedford Gaol at a difficult time, following in rapid succession, the serious illness and death of John Tregenza in 1849 (who had governed the Gaol since 1834), James Banfield who only served from 1849 to 1850, leaving due to ill health, and his replacement Charles Foster, appointed in 1850 and who disappeared without trace in 1853 after the Gaol’s accounts were queried.
Roberts brought much-needed stability and leadership to the Gaol. He was an efficient and fair manager, well-regarded and respected by his staff. As a token of this, in 1865, for no particular reason, the male staff presented him with a silver inkstand inscribed, ‘As a token of esteem and gratitude for the past kindness to them’, whilst the female officers presented his wife with ‘a beautifully worked red antimacassar’.
He was a moderniser and innovator, improving the efficiency of the Gaol’s administration and the conditions of prisoners. For example, campaigning hard from 1852 to 1869 to increase the number of cells for women to reduce chronic over-crowding. He was ultimately successful when a second storey was added to the women’s wing in 1869.
His innovations and achievements included:
• Keeping impressive, detailed records and statistics;
• Introducing in 1859 the photographing of prisoners, creating and storing ‘mug shots’ to help identify habitual criminals, rather than relying on short written descriptions. The collection of his convict photographs is held by Bedfordshire Archives Service and examples can be viewed on their website. Roberts was ahead of his time – it wasn’t until 1870 that the Home Office recommended that justices fund photographic equipment nationwide.
• He lobbied to restrict imprisonment for debt;
• He expanded greatly the employment of prisoners, providing useful activity and generating significant income for the Gaol – generating a profit of over £18,000 in 1877/78. The Bedfordshire justices were pleased with his efforts, sending him to attend and address the International Penitentiary Congress in London in July 1872.
Whilst Governor, Roberts officiated at several executions at Bedford Gaol: Joseph Castle, hanged on 31st March 1860, for murdering his wife, Jane; William Worsley, hanged on 31st March 1868 for murdering William Bradbury; William Bull, hanged on 3rd April 1871 for murdering Sarah Marshall. William Worsley’s hanging was the last public execution at Bedford. The law was changed to require hangings to be carried out in prisons. Bull’s was the first ‘private’ hanging at Bedford.
Whilst Governor, he lived in the Governor’s House attached to the Gaol at 1 St. Loyes Street; his house still exists today. Like his predecessor Tregenza, Roberts lost members of his family to illness, possibly exacerbated by the defective state of his official residence. Although the Governor’s House had only been built in 1849, in 1857, Robert Couchman, the Bedford Surgeon, reported that the residence was ‘not healthy. It always seems to be damp, and there does not appear to be any proper ventilation. The governor has had much illness in his family since his residence at Bedford, and three of his children have died’. The County Surveyor recommended demolition and re-building, but it was merely altered using prison labour.
The prisons were nationalised in 1877. Roberts stayed on as Governor for seven years. In 1885, when he was 67, the Home Office requested him to take over the prison at York. Roberts refused and his long and creditable service was rewarded with being given three months’ notice of dismissal.
Grave Ref: H4.121
Source: Bedfordshire Archives Service
Further reading: E. Stockdale, A Study of Bedford Prison 1660-1877, Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, volume 56, 1977
May 21, 2021