Jimmy Allens – in deep shit
This pub has got to have one of the strangest histories of any in Britain. Today it is a favourite venue for the young people of Durham looking for a good time. Two hundred years it was hell on earth.
It was a dungeon. Built in 1635, it was called the “Bridewell”, The “Lower Prison” or “The House of Correction”. People as young as 13 were held until their future was decided. It was not unusual for a man who owed money to have his wife and children imprisoned there in the most appalling conditions until he had repaid his debts, and he was even charged for their food and rent while they were in there.
A prison inspector called Neild described them as the worst cells in the country. They were infested with rats, bugs and insects. One person in four who was held in, them died of disease.
A visitor in 1774 reported “The debtors have two damp unhealthy rooms measuring 10 ft. square and no sewers. At more than one of my visits I learnt that the dirt and ashes had lain there many months. The felons are put at night into dungeons, one 7 ft. square for three prisoners. Another – the great hole – is 16ft by 12 ft. and has only a little window.”
“In this I saw six prisoners chained to the floor. In that situation they had been there many months and were very sick. Commonside debtors in the low jail whom I saw eating boiled bread and water told me that it was the only nourishment some had lived on for nearly twelve months. At several of my visits there were boys, 13 and 15 years of age, confined with the most profligate and abandoned.”
Jimmy Allen was a professional musician, a piper, of the highest quality. In his youth he played before kings and nobility but his high spirits caused him lots of trouble. At the age of 70 he was convicted of stealing a horse, a hanging offence, but his sentence was commuted to imprisonment. He wrote several letters to the king during his seven years in the dungeon asking for a pardon, and ironically it arrived a few days after his death. Traditionally it is said that his ghost still plays the pipes in the pub but the current staff have never heard it.
Behind the upstairs bar there is a door leading to a place that the staff call “The Chapel” which is a little misleading because it was a mortuary chapel (a place where dead bodies were stored) rather than a place where people went to worship. It seems that the whole building remained in use as a mortuary even after it ceased to be a prison in the 1830’s. In the second half of the 20th century the building was used by the council to store dust-carts and local children used to dare each other to go in there.
Originally there was a tunnel connecting the House of Correction to a condemned cell in the Town Hall. If you ask the Town Hall staff nicely they will even show the door of the cell to you. A brick wall was built to divide the condemned cell in two and an entrance made leading into the smaller of the two Indoor Marketplace entrances. This was used as a ladies toilet until the 1980’s (the gents was underneath the horse statue in the marketplace) when it was converted into a shop and is now used as a tattoo shop.
The tunnel was plastered out and used as a bomb shelter during the Second World War. In the mid 1970’s the tunnel collapsed in the middle and is now mostly blocked up but the ends are still accessible from both Jimmy Allens and the tattoo shop. Durham Paranormal Research Group did some ghost walks involving the tunnel around 2000, when somebody from the pub had put a human skeleton (once belonging to a medical student) and customers were dared to walk along the tunnel and touch it. Unfortunately by 2010 the skeleton had disappeared. It is still possible to look into the dungeons from the remnants of the tunnel. They appear to be used to store furniture.
According to a former gas meter reader who worked in Durham the tunnel branched off to the larger prison which was at the Saddler Street / Owengate junction, and that some of the old houses in that region still have small dungeons complete with iron rings in the wall to hold chains, but this is not yet confirmed.
Finally, a lot of us have happy memories of hiring a rowing boat and walking down the steps of Brown’s Boathouse to collect it. Next time you do please remember that prisoners from Jimmy Allens would have walked down those steps into boats that would have carried them away for transportation to the Colonies, a fate so uncertain that some prisoners opted to be hanged instead.