God’s House Tower (GHT) has seen many eras of history come and go – a building that has witnessed social changes across 700-years. Its defensive tower was constructed to offer protection to both the Town and Nation. Later whilst serving as a Town Gaol, it imprisoned a range of prisoners, including petty offenders, felons and debtors within its impenetrable walls. Now, the aim is to add another chapter, revealing the layers of culturally rich social history and presenting these stories to the public in new and engaging ways.
To share God’s House Tower’s Town Gaol story with the public space intend to create an exhibition which displays paintings from Southampton’s Museum Collection including ‘The Old Jail’ by Thomas Gray Hart (1797 – 1881, The Old Town Jail, Southampton, 1832, oil on canvas) a picturesque and romantic interpretation of GHT as a medieval gothic monument, yet with the ominous barred windows of a time, it served at the Town Goal (1787 – 1855).
As part of this project proposal, a space will juxtapose these images with archival documents that show the reality of GHT in this period as a bridewell, felon and debtors prison. The documents numbering fifteen and dating from the 18th Century include a set of architects hand-drafted floor plans of the Town Gaol, dated 1787, a debtors’ petition complaining about their conditions in the prison, prisoner letters and the transportation order of prisoners bound for Australia.
A space plan to create digital facsimiles of the original prison plans, prisoner records, and other original material, including letters written by prisoners, that due to the fragile nature of the paper the public has rarely seen. The collection of digital facsimiles will be used in the following ways:
- to create an educational experience where we will digitally project the prison plan onto the floor of the first-floor gallery space so that visitors can have a physical experience of the gaol [the gallery floor is comparable to the original felons section of the gaol].
- to produce a full-colour book about the history of GHT featuring images of original archive material, which will enable a space to expand and develop the story shown in our static exhibitions.
- space’s seven resident contemporary artists with a socially engaged practise will create new works inspired by the documents, to further engage visitors with the building’s history and heritage, alongside outreach work with different communities in Southampton.
- digital facsimiles will also be linked to the text panels and displays, to provide additional interpretation.
- images will be used in trail leaflets and education material.
The site-specific exhibition will provide a historical reference point, and the documents will help draw together an exciting curatorial presentation that describes the role of GHT as a jail for the first time in Southampton; this important part of the GHT story is untold and therefore we are confident of a public appetite to better understand it. Digitising the jail plans and archives is key to presenting and interpreting this story to the public. The exhibition about the old town prison including the digitised archival works will be presented to the public for 12-months between August 2020 and August 2021.