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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds As we come into the 20th century, Lancaster Castle continues to be a site of imprisonment, trial, and punishment. But as we shall see, along with the continuities we come across some significant changes. The Castle’s association with the sovereign stretches across time, with the title Duke of Lancaster being held by the reigning sovereign since 1399. That means Lancaster has seen a series of royal visits, most recently by Queen Elizabeth II. But in 1931, the Duchy of Lancaster leased around half of Lancaster Castle to Lancashire County Council. The Courts of Assize were abolished in 1972. But the Castle is still used as a Crown Court.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds The 20th century saw the last execution at the Castle in 1910, when Thomas Rawcliffe was hanged for the murder of his wife. His execution was closed to the public. But justice at the Castle continued to attract public attention, for example, in the high profile Crown Court trial of the so-called Birmingham Six in 1975. The Castle’s history as a prison was interrupted in the 20th century. In March 1916, the mayor reported rumours of plans to close the prison. This decision came as a surprise, given the rise in the population in Lancaster and Morecambe working at the two munition factories which had opened during the First World War.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds Some of these workers were sentenced at tribunals held in the Castle after committing such dangerous offences as attempting to sneak matches and tobacco into the factory. When the National Filling Factory burnt down in 1917, townsfolk came up to Castle Hill to see the explosions. Nonetheless, by 1917, the only inmates at the Castle were German prisoners of war, sent to Lancaster from the POW camp at Leigh on work detail. The Lancaster Guardian reported on the arrival of 30 such prisoners in April 1917, describing them as causing a mild sensation, but no demonstration, despite some of the anti-German sentiment witnessed in the town previously during the war.

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 seconds When three of these prisoners died during the influenza epidemic in 1919, they were granted a burial with military honours in Lancaster cemetery. The hearses were accompanied from the Castle, not only by their comrades, but also townspeople showing sympathetic interest.

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 seconds The Castle wouldn’t revert to prison use until October 1954. It remained functional from ‘55 to 2011 when it closed as a prison, perhaps for the last time. It reverted to the Duchy in 2012. In the interim period, however, the facilities did not go unused. After the First World War it proved a challenge to rebuild the Lancashire police force. There was no shortage of potential recruits, but there was a lack of appropriate accommodation for housing and training the men. So from 1920, the former prison portion of the Castle was used by the Lancashire Constabulary as a police training depot. A Wing, the former male prison, was used as cubicles for police recruits.

Skip to 3 minutes and 44 seconds And the central corridor was repurposed as a dining hall. There was even a gymnasium. Physical fitness was seen as particularly important for men who might be required to restrain drunks or manage multi-lane traffic with arm signals for hours at a time. Jean Nicholson was the daughter of Frederick Hogg, who took over as a sergeant instructor of police cadets in the early 1920s. She lived on site. Jean loved her Castle home, because it was always full of activity, thanks to the cadets. But life there was not without challenges, as she informed a visiting inspector. “I was lined up, scrubbed up, and– well, five, six-year-old. This gentleman said, how do you like living in a Castle, or something to that effect.

Skip to 4 minutes and 34 seconds And I pulled myself up to my full height, scrubbed up, ribbon in my hair, and said, it’s very nice, but it’s bloody draughty. And I could still hear my mother’s voice say, Jean, go to your room.” Police training continued here until 1937, when brief thought was given to converting the Castle to a royal residence. The constabulary continued to use the laundry and gymnasium even after the move. The Second World War brought new occupants to the Castle, The Royal Observer Corps and the West Lancashire Territorial Association, for example. Possibly even Rudolf Hess. Precious items were stored in the Castle dungeons to keep them safe from air raids.

Skip to 5 minutes and 19 seconds The cannons that had graced the exterior of the Castle, however, were lost to the scrap metal drive.

Skip to 5 minutes and 27 seconds But in 1955, the prison reopened, sublet to the prison commissioners suffering a serious shortage of cellular accommodation. Until the end of the century, the Castle reverted to its familiar role as a place of trial and imprisonment, but with one additional dimension we haven’t discussed yet. Next, we shall be looking at Lancaster Castle as a tourist attraction and heritage site, an identity which was dependent on, but did not necessarily sit easily alongside, its other roles. [CHAINS RATTLING]

The castle in the 20th century

In this step we will consider the role of Lancaster Castle in more recent history.

Watch this short video about the Castle in the early part of the 20th century.

  • What were the main continuities in the history of the Castle in the twentieth century?
  • The main changes?

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This video is from the free online course:

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

Lancaster University