PRIOR to the building of the Old Gaol, more formally known as the County House of Correction, in the early 19th century, Abingdon had two gaols: one in the Abbey Gateway and the other, known as the Bridewell, in Thames Street.

The borough gaol in the Abbey Gateway was on two floors with debtors on one floor and felons on a second floor.

The Bridewell, originally the abbey bakehouse, had been one of many properties owned by the heiress Mary Blacknall before her marriage to Ralph Verney.

It was bought by the corporation in 1637 for use as a Bridewell or House of Correction and was quite distinct from the borough gaol, admitting prisoners sentenced by both the town and county magistrates.

Prisoners from both gaols were transferred to the new County House of Correction, known today as the Old Gaol, when it opened in 1811.

The Old Bridewell in Thames Street was made over to the county magistrates who sold in the following year.

When the sale was advertised in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, the Bridewell was still in the occupation of Mrs Prince, who in 1785 had advertised her 39-year-old husband John Prince, the Bridewell keeper, as missing - he was later found drowned.

By the 20th century the Bridewell and adjoining building, now converted into small cottages, were condemned as unfit for habitation and threatened with demolition.

They were bought by the Friends of Abingdon whose present office and custodian’s house are converted from part of the ‘old Bridewell’.

In the 19th century the town also had two police forces. The Abingdon Borough Police, formed in 1836, initially occupied the Abbey Gateway. At that time the force comprised an inspector receiving a weekly pay of £1 and two day and five night constables receiving 13 shillings per week.

After an inspection which condemned the premises, plans were approved in 1865 for a new building to accommodate the senior sergeant-at-mace and the Inspector of Police, plus offices and cells, on a site now occupied by the Abbey Hall.

The police station in Bridge Street was built in 1856 for the newly-created Berkshire Constabulary with which the borough force later merged.

Joseph Brabner was appointed to the borough force in 1876 after serving with the police in London.

He is reported to have found Abingdon too quiet as it was five weeks after his appointment before he had a case.

He was at one point faced with the embarrassing possibility of having to arrest his predecessor, Superintendent George Barrett, on the charge of stealing a gold ring worth four guineas, but the charge was dropped.

Brabner may have found crime in Abingdon rather uneventful but his successor in 1881, Superintendent Oliver Robotham, had an altogether different experience.

In February 1889, a month after arrangements were made with the Chief Constable of Berkshire to take over the borough force, Robotham was sent to bring to justice a man by the name of Edwards who had defrauded local businessmen of goods to the value of £600 and fled to Tasmania.

Robotham was successful in apprehending him and managed to detain him until they reached Rio de Janeiro where Edwards escaped again.

No blame was attached to Robotham by the borough watch committee and he later became Deputy Chief Constable of the new Berkshire Constabulary.

In addition to a prison sentence any criminal caught could find himself enduring the public humiliation of time spent in the stocks, the pillory or even the cage and whipping post, most of which were to be found on Abingdon Market Place from the 17th century to the 19th century, though their precise location is not known.

It was the duty of the Grand Jury of the Court Leet to ensure that the stocks, whipping post, pillory and cage were 'substantial and in good repair'.

There was also a ducking stool which was repaired by John Clarke in 1676 at a cost of 15 shillings.

In the early 18th century the cage was pulled down and rebuilt next to the pillory close to the County Hall.

In addition to a custodial sentence it was commonplace for the judges at the Assizes to include a spell in one of these punishments.

On display in Abingdon County Hall Museum is a double pillory – did having a fellow-sufferer make the public humiliation more bearable? Also on display are Victorian truncheons and manacles used in the Old Gaol.