Strangeways…The inside story

JUST outside Manchester city centre, not far from the hustle and bustle of shoppers and office workers, there is a landmark that is known by many, recognized by others and and feared by some.

Strangeways  via Shutterstock


Today, Her Majesty’s Prison Manchester, previously known as Strangeways, is an intimidating, somewhat overbearing construction overlooking the busy trading area of Cheetham Hill Road where warehouses can be found down every side street.

As a category A prison, HMP Manchester houses more than 1,000 of the country’s most dangerous and depraved individuals, some of whom are guilty of murder, rape and supply of Class A drugs.

Opened in 1868, at a cost of £170,000, Strangeways was originally designed in an overtly

Alfred Waterhouse via Wiki commons

Alfred Waterhouse 

gothic way, as chosen by the winner of a competition at the time for the best design – a man called Alfred Waterhouse.

Manchester had been named as an assize town since 1864, meaning that the city could try serious cases and had the right to execute anyone convicted of murder.

These, public executions, were held outside the walls of New Bailey Gaol, but, having been built in the eighteenth century, it had fallen into disrepair and needed rebuilding.

In 1863, five years before public executions were abolished, a group of Lancashire magistracy met in the Mayor’s parlour at Manchester Town Hall and called for a new county gaol, where executions would be held in private. They proposed that hangings should take place within the walls of the gaol, and that the only witnesses should be the High Sheriff, the governor, a special jury and representatives from the press.

These suggestions met with government approval and bear many similarities to the procedures that were eventually adopted, once private executions were introduced, and permission was given for the new gaol to be built. Some of the original stones from New Bailey were used in the construction of the new one too.

Strangeways, built on Southall Street, was effectively two gaols in one, holding 800 men and the same number of women, with steps in place to ensure that they never came into contact with each other. Notably this included a screen that was pulled across splitting the chapel in half so that even during prayer there would be no opportunity to meet with the opposite sex.

Panoptic design of Manchester Prison via Wiki Commons

Panoptic design of Manchester Prison

Built using the Panoptic principle, Strangeways can be best seen from above where the breathtaking view of all six wings radiating like spokes on a bicycle from the all-seeing central viewpoint can be found.

This was in the days before the all-seeing eye we know as CCTV came into being, the prison officers of old relied heavily on the circular design, patrolling the central area regularly in a bid to deter escapees.

Each wing has four floors split into blocks, with over thirty cells on each, as well as a shower block, recreation area and laundry room for the inmates to use. The cells were originally made for single prisoners but, in more recent years, they have been adapted to house two inmates, often causing overcrowding and other related problems.

Each cell measures just 13-foot in length, 7-foot wide and 9-foot high – when the prison was first opened they were equipped with a simple wooden bed that could be used as a table during the day. These days while the size hasn’t changed the bed has, to be replaced with a metal bunk bed and a separate table and chair, although it is somewhat cramped, especially for two grown men.

Originally some of the cells were fitted out as workshops, so inmates could fill their time weaving matting and making shoes. There was also a treadmill that could be used by eighty men at one time, this was for prisoners sentenced to hard labour; it pumped all of the water used within the gaol from a deep well.

The tall, minaret-like shaft within Strangeways is a prominent feature of the Manchester skyline and

Strangeways Tower via Wiki Commons

Strangeways Tower

originally it operated as both a smoke stack and a ventilation shaft. It hasn’t been in use for years but is still a major feature of the prison nonetheless.

The basement was reserved for the ‘refractory cells’; it was to these that the governor sent prisoners who would not work or who broke prison rules. It was also where the condemned cell was located.

Formed by two ordinary cells being opened up into one large cell, in the basement of B wing, the condemned cell is still there today – although the original use has long since been abandoned.

There were two metal doors, one leading to a long corridor, the other to the visiting area. It was there that family and friends met with the condemned prisoner, although they were allowed no physical contact and were separated by thick iron bars.

To reach their place of execution, the condemned prisoner was led out of the door and across the corridor, before passing through double doors, which opened into the execution shed.

Noose via Shutterstock

The shed was 15 feet square and housed the scaffolding, which was folded away until needed. A pair of doors were opened that in turn opened up the structure, which was then ready for immediate use.

No doubt it was of little comfort to the person about to be hanged that this contraption meant the expense and inconvenience of having to erect a scaffold outside of the gaol each time there was an execution were avoided.

The first person to be hanged at Strangeways was a 19-year-old man called Michael Johnson, who, after stabbing a man in the leg during a pub brawl was condemned to death in 1869 while the last and one hundredth to meet their end on its gallows was a woman, Gwynne Owen Evans, in 1964.

Hanging shed via Wiki Commons

Hanging shed 


Strangeways has witnessed many changes since this time, not least the outlawing of executions, however, one of the biggest structural changes took place after the riot of 1990.

Labeled the worst prison riot this country has witnessed, severe damage

Fire damage in B Wing via Wiki Commons

Fire damage in B Wing 

was caused to the building during a twenty-five day period that saw prisoners climb onto the rooftop and set fire to their cells in a protest against conditions within the jail.

Many of the inmates began to feel as if their rights were being ignored. Some were confined to their cell for up to 22 hours a day, with only limited time given for exercise and bathing.

On the roof during the riot via Wiki Commons

On the roof during the riot 



There were a series of small protests before the riot, which began when, during a sermon at the prison chapel, over 300 inmates rebelled against the guards with the conflict quickly spreading through the prison.


When it was brought to an end, and the last of the prisoners had surrendered, extensive renovations were necessary before it could re-open. When it did accept new inmates, the government gave it the new official title of HM Prison Manchester.

In abandoning the old name, it was hoped that the prison’s image would be improved. To many Mancunians however, it will always be known as Strangeways, or ‘The ‘Ways’, as *Jimmy puts it.

Spending eight weeks in the prison earlier this year, while on remand for shoplifting, *Jimmy explains how little has really changed for prisoners on the inside, despite the external makeover.

He arrived at Strangeways after his appearance in court and was placed on the induction wing before being designated a cell on G Wing.

“The walls closed in around me. I couldn’t breathe. Sitting in the corner    of the bland yet sour-smelling box that was my new home I felt physically  sick.”

He goes on to describe the feeling of isolation as he spent time in his cell, what he calls ‘the box’.

"The cell was like a box"

“The cell was like a box”

“The first thing to hit you as you enter the ‘Ways is the stench. The rancid mixture of sweat and damp clothes, despair and sadness. Emotions have a smell of their own too; you just don’t notice it on the outside.

Next is the noise. Not usual, everyday sounds – these are sinister and get louder at night; the screws walking on the landing, keys jangling from their waists, the sound of metal slamming shut and the creak of a lock being opened. These are the noises that make Stangeways, the ones I still hear at night, even though I’m in my own bed far away.”

Although the condemned cell of old is no longer used, the basement is – as a segregation unit for prisoners who refuse to follow the rules. Jimmy spent a week here after getting into a fight with a fellow inmate. The walk from his cell down to the unit is one he will never forget, and one that he says brought him close to those that had been before him:

“I knew we were headed down to the segregation cells when the screws came to get me but I really wasn’t prepared for what it is really like down there.

“As we walked down the stairs I could feel the air get colder, that’s when it hit me we were actually underground. The feeling of isolation was crushing, it felt like with every step I was becoming more invisible, what if they forgot about me and just left me here – who would care, who would look for me?

"it was cold and hkjhk" image via shutter stock

“What if they forgot about me?” 

“The cells down there are freezing, and quiet. The only discernable noise I heard was the occasional sound of a radio somewhere close by. Not clear enough to make out a tune, just enough to make me feel that there was other humans out there, that I hadn’t been left to rot underground after all.”



He describes his time in the segregation unit as the lowest in his life, where the feeling of being invisible and disposable was never far away, he said:

“I think it is because you are underground, and the fact that people have been there before you but never left. The gallows and hanging tackle may be long gone but we know it was there and what happened – loads of poor blokes went down those same stairs as me but, instead of coming out the other side, they were killed, in a shed like one you would keep cows in. That is the real crime in my eyes, the stuff that isn’t talked about anymore.”

“For me the problem with Strangeways is, and always has been, the mentality of the people running in, the one’s in charge. Until that changes, and until they see prisoners as people, not cattle, they are never far away from another situation like the one in the nineties’. Doesn’t matter how nice they make the outside look when the inside is rotten to the very core, kind of like trying to polish a turd if you ask me.”

While the name may be up for debate, one thing that is certain in regards to HMP Manchester, or Strangeways, is that it will continue to be one of Manchester’s most infamous landmarks for many years to come. Whether it is a much needed necessity or an outdated and inhumane relic of the past is a matter of opinion.

Here is a Youtube video called The Photograph which depicts some of the scenes during the riot and the reasons behind it…


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