Old Elvet Gaol

Old Elvet Gaol (Jimmy Allen's)

About The Elvet Gaol

Today, thousands of people walk across the Elvet bridge in Durham to get into the city centre via its cobbled streets. But in actual fact, they are all walking on something very dark and historic.

At one time in the bridge’s history,  there were buildings on this bridge, and even an old chapel.

In 1635, the old Elvet Gaol opened inside the one of the arches and foundations of the bridge. It consisted of small cell spaces where prisoners would be held. The cells were about two meters in length, and up to three inmates could share each one, sleeping on nothing but hay.

There was very little ventilation in this gaol, and the only toilets were a bucket in each cell. It is little wonder then that many diseases spread throughout the inmates, and it was infested with rats and insects. It is said that 1/4 inmates that died here, died of a disease.

Elvet gaol was unique in the sense that the cells were all part of a tunnel, that stretched under the streets of Durham to a courthouse located where the town hall now stands. Whilst the tunnel has been sealed off, it does still exist.

This was unique because it meant prisoners could be taken from their cells and walked to the courthouse without the need of taking them above ground where they could potentially escape. Once a sentence was passed down (usually during the quarterly assizes), prisoners would then be taken back along the tunnel to the gaol, where they could either be freed (if found not guilty), or locked up again to finish their sentence or for execution. Some were also borded onto boats and shipped off to colonies around the world, such as Australia.

Naturally, some of the worst criminals in the area were kept here, and naturally some horrific stories.

Mary Nicholson was kept in this gaol after she was found guilty of murdering members of her own family by adding poison to her baking. She was taken from the gaol to the gallows and hanged…but the gallows were not setup correctly and they broke under the weight of her body. Her half concious body was taken down, and she was forced to sit around and watch while the gallows were repaired for her to be hanged again. This process lasted a full hour.

But the gaol’s most infamous prisoner was Jimmy Allen, the man that the bar now occupying the site is named after. A celebrity figure in his day, he was known as a piper, playing the northumbrian bagpipes formembers of the royals, but was also involved in petty crime.

in 1803, Allen was stole a horse and ended up going on the run, but was later captured in Jedburgh, where he was sent to Durham, where he was sentenced to death. That sentence was later changed to a life inprisonment, whih was to be carried out here, in the Elvet Gaol. Jimmy was known to play his bagpipes during the day here to pass the time.

He ended up serving seven of those years in this gaol, before a royal pardon was sent, which would make him a free man, however, when the letter arrived at the gaol, it was too late, a Jimmy had died three days before.

And it is Jimmy’s ghost that is said to haunt the gaol and now modern bar that is here. Sories of bagpipe music coming from the empty cells has been reported for years.

A new gaol was built nearby in 1810 which offered better living conditions, and where executions could be carried out within. The old Elvert gaol would later be used as storage for police carts before being totally abandoned. Today, part of the gaol is now a bar, called Jimmy Allen’s.

Staff have been reporting paranormal activity since it reopened. Glasses have been known to smash, footsteps and voices heard, despite being empty at the time, and pipe music has been reported from the cells.

Whilst some of these may be legends and stories past down, it was still a venue that I needed to investigate…and it didn’t disappoint!

Visit Jimmy Allen’s

Address: 19, 21 Elvet Bridge, Durham DH1 3AA

The bar is modern inside, but you can still see some of the old features and stonework of the original gaol. If you ask nicely, you may be shown the old tunnel where some of the cells can still be seen.

At the back of the upper floors, you will be able to see the old morgue where dead prisoner’s bodies were kept. Today, it is a storage cupboard.