August 23, 2022

The National Justice Museum - Silver Knights and Corsets!

Jan Fotheringham
Project Manager
Youth Custody Service, HMPPS

One of the exciting opportunities during Insights22 was to visit the National Justice Museum to explore the extraordinary collection on show. In this guest blog Jan Fotheringham, a Project Manager in the Secure Schools Team within the Youth Custody Service informs of her interesting day there.

I have always been fascinated in how criminal justice has changed over the years, and so I was delighted to be able to visit the National Justice Museum as part of the Insights22 Festival.

The National Justice Museum is based in Nottingham’s former Shire Hall and County Gaol, a Grade II listed building featuring a Victorian criminal and civil courtroom and an Edwardian police station, and exhibitions explore the fascinating history of justice. It houses collections of over 40,000 objects that cover the history of the British Criminal Justice System. The museum opened in 1995 and welcomes 35,000 visitors annually.

The learning programmes offered by the museum are delivered in centres across England, in their historic courtrooms in Nottingham, the Royal Courts of Justice and the Rolls Building in London, and in active courts in the North West. Their ambition is to widen their learning offer to more UK locations. In 2018 the museum became an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) and in 2021 they won the ‘Museums Change Lives’ award for their innovative workshops in an envelope project.

On arrival, after a lovely welcome by Bev, the Senior Curator and Archivist, and Bex, the Collections Curator and introductions, we set off down to the museum’s store.


The first item shown was a prison Medical Officer’s Amputation Kit (undated) but similar to one in the Wellcome Collection, London, dating between 1866-1871- utterly horrifying to learn of Medical Officers tying veins and sawing off limbs in a Victorian prison setting!

After correctly guessing the second item was an electro compulsive therapy machine, Bex, the Collections Curator, brought out the ‘big guns': a blunderbuss used by the Civil Guard who presided over work parties along with prison staff, back in the 19th Century.  Bex said they were known as the silver knights rather than the Civil Guard… although we were all at a loss to know why – including Bex!

A large wooden case emblazoned with the word ‘spectacles’ landed on the viewing table, which we thought to be a big clue.  However, no spectacles were to be found within, but several objects which had been removed during operations, or ‘passed’ naturally by prisoners, including buttons, nails (removed from Prisoner 317 in August 1915), chess pieces and lots of cutlery… plus Foxy Fowler’s false teeth ‘passed’ by him in April 1961!

Touring through the collection, we came across part of the 500 strong police truncheon collection, a couple of man traps, lots of examples of prison staff uniform and meandered our way to the far end of the collection, to items made by prisoners (alas unclaimed).  Among the etched metal washing bowls and not-so-cuddly toys, there was a fragile stitched sampler, pinned to a large cushion and covered in tissue to preserve it.  Its beautiful, intricate work was met with praise and wonder, until we read the last stitched section - "Annie Parker, aged 33 years, done by her with her own hair 1880. Cast thy burden upon the Lord”. For some reason, this horrified me more than the amputation kit!

Finally, to the pink corset and non-prison issue shirt.  The pink corset, beautifully stitched and in perfect condition, has an uncertain past as it was part of the collection inherited from Newbold Revel.  To confuse matters, there is not much history available on prison industries, although another guest, Laura, was able to provide some contemporary insight.  The prison shirt belonged to Reggie Kray and, as the story goes, was a present from Buzz Aldrin.  As you can see, more Harrods issue than prison issue!

You can find our more about the National Justice Museum here - well worth a visit!

The museum | National Justice Museum

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