Beside the Black Gate of Newcastle’s Castle is the site of a particularly nasty ruin with a chequered history. Today we’re looking at the Heron Pit – one of the first prisons in Newcastle.
Newcastle’s first prison In stark contrast to modern-day prisons, the Heron Pit didn’t have any doors. It would originally have had a wooden roof with a trap door in the middle, which formed the floor of the building above. If you were arrested by the Sheriff of Northumberland back in the day, you’d have been dropped into the prison and left there until your friends and family could raise enough money to get you out or you were taken to court
It’s estimated that up to 40 people could have been held captive in the pit at any one time, so it would have been really cramped down there! Food and water would be lowered down sporadically but prisoners have to compete for that sustenance with the other prisoners as well as putting up with the cold and dark conditions of the pit – a really horrendous place to be kept. Above the pit there would have been a guard room which had a kitchen. Prisoners would have heard guards talking and walking above their heads and smelling the food being cooked in the kitchen, none of which was destined for them.
How the Heron Pit got its name
One particularly nasty character from the history of the castle is William Heron. He was the Sheriff of Northumberland and would falsely accuse people of crimes then imprison them in the Heron Pit, which took his name – mainly because he imprisoned so many people in the pit! Heron would throw prisoner after prisoner in the pit as a way of raising money for their release. He was so hated by the people of Northumberland that Medieval chroniclers once wrote that his soul was dragged to hell by demons – one of the worst things you could possibly write about someone in the Middle Ages. I love showing the Heron Pit to my tour attendees to show the stark difference between the way prisoners were treated in the Middle Ages compared to now.