November 2015: Architect's prison designs

PRONI’s latest Document of the Month is a set of rare, original plans of Crumlin Road Gaol by celebrated architect Sir Charles Lanyon.

PRONI’s Brett Irwin, who chose the documents, said:

“These plans detail the construction of one of Belfast’s most significant and historical buildings. The prison was the first in Ireland to be designed using the radial cellular system, like that at Pentonville Prison in London. That reason alone makes these plans unique. Add to this the fact that the designs are by the celebrated architect Sir Charles Lanyon and you really have something special.”

 Picture of Crumlin Road Gaol plans designed by architect Sir Charles Lanyon, in Belfast, Northern Ireland The plans are part of a larger collection of records about the Antrim Crown and Peace Archive which are held in the Public Record Office NI. These records contain descriptions of criminal and civil offences and the work of the Grand Jury. The earliest criminal records in the collection date back to 1822.

Sir Charles Lanyon designed the Crumlin Road Gaol between 1846 and 1850. He is strongly associated with Belfast as he designed landmark buildings such as Queen’s University, Sinclair Seaman’s Presbyterian Church and the Customs House.

Throughout his career he designed more than 50 churches. His palm house in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast, built in two phases between 1840 and 1852, is notable as one of the earliest examples of curvilinear iron and glass structures.

Brett added:

“Lanyon is known for his landmark grand designs which reflect Belfast’s industrial past. A prison is a departure from this; it is an unusual brief and shows a different side to his architectural talents. The building is designed to contain prisoners rather than inspire students or welcome visitors. That’s what makes it so interesting.

Pentonville Prison was seen as the blueprint for prison design and many similar structures were built in the Victorian era. At the time, Crumlin Road Gaol was a state-of-the-art building. The wings were designed around a central point, where the chief warden could observe the officers walking up and down watching the inmates. For the prisoners themselves, isolation and observation were the overriding factors of life in the gaol.”

Picture of Crumlin Road Gaol plans by celebrated architect Sir Charles Lanyon. The Crumlin Road Gaol closed as a working prison in 1996 and is now a popular conference and events venue. PRONI also holds prison registers from the 1870's and files about prison administration.

  • Check out the prison plans on PRONI’s Flickr site
  • The original plans can be viewed by ordering them in PRONI’s search room using the reference numbers ANT/4/11/19-30

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