HM Prison Portland

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HMP Portland
HM Prison Portland in 2010.jpg
Location The Grove, Portland, Dorset
Security class Young Offenders Institution
Population 483 (as of January 2010)
Opened 1848
Managed by HM Prison Services
Governor James Lucas
Website Portland at

HM Prison Portland is a male Adult/Young Offenders Institution, located in the village of The Grove on the Isle of Portland, in Dorset, England. Portland YOI prison is operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service. The prison was originally opened in 1848 as an adult convict establishment, before becoming a Borstal in 1921, and a YOI in 1988. In 2011 the prison's became an Adult/Young Offenders establishment.


Temporary prison 1848-69[edit]

The original Portland Prison opened in 1848 and held convict adults. With the government green-lighting the construction of the breakwaters of Portland Harbour and various defences, namely the Verne Citadel, two of the biggest government projects at the time, it was realised that more labour would be needed to work on them. In January 1847 the government made the announcement that Portland would be the host of a prison establishment. Although the standard penal transportation would continue, Portland convicts were to be rewarded for good behaviour, either as a sentence reduction, or a conditional discharge upon deportation. After choosing the sites for the prison (East Cliff), and the citadel (Verne Hill), the government purchased the land from the Crown Estate, which was met with outcry from local civilians.[1] The construction of the temporary prison commenced by November 1847, as well as barracks to house the guards. By June of the following year the initial 350 cells had been completed.[2] The construction of the prison led to the discover of ancient relics such as stone circles of a Druids' Temple. However restrictions meant the discoveries were not studied, but destroyed.[3] Following the completion of the prison cells, construction commenced on a gasworks, water reservoir and blacksmith shop, amongst other buildings in relation to serving and operating the prison. The prison's builder was Peter Thompson of Limehouse.[4] The man placed in command of the prison and convict operations was Colonel Joshua Jebb, a Surveyor of Prisons, who would visit Portland on occasion to monitor the progress with the First Lord of the Admiralty.[5]

The first convicts, totaling 64, arrived aboard the HM Steamer Driver on 24 November 1848.[6] Transported on foot over Verne Hill to the prison, the convicts were escorted by Weymouth police, and a detachment of the 23rd Fusiliers. An additional arrival of 120 convicts soon followed, however a third group of convicts arrived during a vicious storm which led to HMS Driver landing them at Chesil Cove.[2] The main operation for the convicts was to provide stone for the government works. As such various quarries were opened up within the Grove area, and these became known as the Admiralty Quarries. As a result of this many lime kilns would be built to produce quicklime through the calcination of limestone. They would be built and once operated by convicts from the prison. One remaining example in the area today is Grove Lime Kiln. One of the convict's first undertakings was the construction of Grove Road, which gave the prison a road link to Easton village. By 1851, 825 convicts in total were working in the quarries, some of which were also working on the breakwater itself.[7]

From the moment of the prison's inception, the convicts became a tourist attraction.[8] The events surrounding the prison's inception had gained widespread interest, and as such tourists began visiting Portland to see the prison and the convicts at work.[7] The newly established Grove Road dwellings overlooked part of the quarries, and so these homeowners soon opened cafes on the top floors of their houses.[9] At the same time many popular postcards were created featuring the convicts.[10]

The convicts were housed in four large timber halls, which held approximately 700 cells each, and these would be separated by iron partitions. Simple furnishing consisted of basics such as a hammock, stool and table.[11] Each convict was required to provide 10 hours of labour each day, and combined with the harsh conditions in the prison, fatalities began to rise. These conditions led to common attempts at escape, though few were a success. A high stone wall surrounded the prison, and the warders and guards were well-armed. In the event of mutiny a line of communication was established from the Grove to the Weymouth barracks. One notable escape occurred in January 1850 when two convicts crawled through a drain leading down to the coastline of East Weares. In May 1851, seven convicts were severely punished for planning an escape. In June 1854, a convict escaped by disguising himself as a painter, however his identity was revealed when he arrived at Ferry Bridge, and could not pay the bridge toll. A permanent guard was kept in an armed sentry at this location.[7]

Only half a decade into the prison's creation and it was becoming dangerously overcrowded. In 1854 there were 1,812 convicts, of which only 47 had been granted 'tickets of leave'. By 1862 the prison had become home to political prisoners too, and this included a number of high-profile Irish Republican convicts. This led to major security problems, with only 200 warders employed. In 1855, 80 convicts were transported on the ship William Hammond to Western Australia. Such events were not uncommon, as thousands of convicts would be bought to the island, to be eventually exchanged or deported. The Folly Pier Waterworks was built in 1855 by John Coode for the government near Folly Pier to supply the prison with water. It was closed due to an outbreak of typhoid which killed several prisoners who drank the water, and the ruins of the reservoir tanks were later to be used as swimming pools for Borstal Boys during the late 1920s and 1930s. The ruins still exist to date.[12] Around 1866, the prison began blacking out its eastern lights, as these lights had been causing navigational confusion to passing vessels.[13]

Permanent establishment 1868-1921[edit]

In 1868 the government announced that the punishment of transportation was to be terminated, and with this locals on the island began living in hope that the temporary prison would soon close. However the following year saw the announcement that the Portland prison was to become a permanent feature. A strong petition failed to alter the decision, and the prison was re-built in stone.[14]

The extreme conditions of the prison led to outbreaks of violence. In 1863 Warder Evans became the first within the establishment to be murdered on duty. In 1869, a similar incident led to the hanging of a convict at Dorchester gaol. However convicts would also fall victim to violence themselves, as fatalities increased through the severe punishments handed out to them. A number of convicts would die from flogging. Although the public generally remained oblivious of the prison conditions, cries could often be heard outside the walls whenever flogging occurred. The punishments inflicted at Portland greatly exceeded those at any other prison, both in number and severity, and was twice as many as Dartmoor. As the press would report any fatalities to the public, any prisoner close to death would be given desperate means to keep then alive. By 1875, the rising number of deaths, on average one a week, had sparked public alarm, and the inhuman treatment that was alleged would be raised in Parliament at least three times between over the next fifteen years.[15]

St. Peter's Church, found just outside of the prison, was built in 1870-72 by convicts for use of the prison until it was made redundant in 1973. It remains a Grade II* Listed building.[16][17] During 1902, King Edward VII made an unexpected visit to see the prison, as well as Whitehead's Torpedo Factory at Wyke Regis. He ordered a treat for the convicts; "half a pound of roly poly and two ounces of golden syrup". With the outbreak of World War I, many convicts were sent to other jails, and in replacement military offenders, conscientious objectors and Irish political prisoners were bought in.[18]

One famous inmate from the prison was John Babbacombe Lee, a murderer from Devon, who cheated death three times in a defective hangman's noose. He spent more than 20 years in Portland Prison, before finally being released in 1907. Tour guides at Portland would point him out to tourists, although in reality as all convicts looked alike from the distance, it did not matter who they pointed at.[19]

Borstal Establishment 1921-88[edit]

In 1921 the government announced that the Portland convict establishment was to be converted into a Borstal. This followed Borstals at Rochester in 1902, and Feltham in 1911, with Portland receiving the troublesome cases from these establishments.[20] With the adult convicts transported to other prisons, the prison saw a major redevelopment inside, some of which was carried out by the borstal lads themselves under skilled instructors. Cells were demolished and in their place dining rooms, recreation rooms and studies were built. The military style uniforms were cast out, and warders were replaced by schoolmasterly officers in civilian dress. Between 300 and 400 lads would spend from two to three years training under housemasters, instructors and officers specially picked, not only for their ability, but with the view to their influence upon the character of the lads.[21]

The normal routine at the Borstal was an early morning P.T., followed by eight houses work in the shops, or the farm, or at various Institutional jobs. School, gym classes, or recreation, continued during the evening until 9pm, when the day ended. The institution was divided into houses and each house into groups. As such, competition between the houses and the groups gradually developed a team spirit and eliminated selfishness. The new arrivals of the Borstal were dressed in brown, and after eight to ten months of good conduct a lad was able to win the right to wear blue clothing and receive additional privileges. The strict discipline of the first months would then be relaxed a little, as a "blue" was expected to be trustworthy, and this trust was seldom betrayed. Many of the lads had already been to Home Office approved schools, and during the late 1950s, statistics revealed that between 50-60% of Borstal lads became good citizens.[22]

Soon after the Borstal became operational, the local civilians of the island realised that the youths were more of a threat than adult convicts, as they were more likely to successfully escape. Whenever the alarm was raised of an escape doors all over the island would be securely locked. The Borstal's governor H. Scott formulated an idea to transform an old convict quarry into a sports stadium, Grove Sports Stadium, at the back of St. Peter's Church. After five years the Wembley-sized pitch was complete, and could hold over 3000 spectators.[23][24]

From the beginning of World War II, there was a large demand for magnetic coils to counter German magnetic mines being laid around the English Channel, and close to Portland. The naval base at Portland decided to approach the governors of the Borstal. The result was that all boys were put at the disposal of the naval authorities and they soon began to manufacture the magnetic coils in large sheds at the institution. This was a big operation as large vessels alone would require 25-30 miles of cable.[25] During the war Portland was a natural major target for German bombers and air raids. On 15 August 1940, a raid on Portland saw the Borstal, an easy target, hit by three bombs within Rodney House. This left four boys dead and others severely injured, including five being admitted to hospital.[26]

Throughout early 1941, air raid sirens would sound on a frequent basis across the island. Over what is now remembered as "Black Easter", a raid over the Grove village saw the destruction of three houses in Augusta Road, the roof of St. Peter's Church, and the Borstal gymnasium, once the prison chapel, the latter which was burnt down.[27] In 1949, the government opened another prison on the island, HM Prison The Verne within the Verne Citadel.[28]

In November 1965, prison officer Derek Lambert was murdered by Borstal boy Roger Keith Maxwell. In 1968, Rodney House was rebuilt, and some of the stones saved from the World War II bombing was used to build the Bowls Pavilion in the Governor's Garden. During the 1960s through to the 1980s, a new gatehouse, kitchen and administration block were built, as well as Hardy House, the induction wing.[29] By the 1970s, neither the borstal or Verne prison, caused much problems to local life on the island, though annoyance was met with road blocks that would be set up on Portland's causeway whenever a prisoner escaped.[30] In 1983, the Borstal's name was changed to Youth Custody Center.[31]

Young Offenders Institution 1988-present[edit]

In 1988 the prison was re-rolled as a Young Offenders Institution (YOI, Portland), and has held young males aged 18 to 21 ever since. It was officially titled as a Youth Custody Centre beforehand. Accommodation at the prison is divided into 7 house blocks, Benbow, Raleigh, Drake, Nelson, Grenville, Collingwood, and Beaufort all of which have integral sanitation. Grenville House is an Induction Unit, Beaufort is a Skills Development Unit, Raleigh is the Resettlement wing and Collingwood a 'Super enhanced' Wing. There is also a Care and Control Unit. Most of the original buildings of the prison have been demolished.[31]

The establishment offers a range of vocational training which includes, Bricklaying; Building Operatives; Painting and Decorating; Carpentry and Joinery; Fork Lift Truck; Recycling Workshop; Hard Landscaping; Barbering; Catering; Motor Mechanics; Motor Cycle Maintenance; Multi-Skills in Construction; CSCS (with card being available); BICS; Animal Welfare; Radio Production; Groundsmanship; Performing Manufacturing Operations; Steelworks and Rail Track.

In 2009, the prison was the setting for Ian Wright's Football Behind Bars television series. The Sky1 reality TV series featured Wright's work to transform the lives of 24 serious young offenders. It was based on socializing the young men by organizing them in a football academy. The program was an experiment with the prison authority with an eye to expanding it to other prisons if it was successful. The series ran 6 episodes, aired weekly from 7 September to 12 October 2009.[32][33]

In April 2011 the prison's role changed to an Adult/Young Offenders establishment.[34] In late 2013, it was announced that the YOI will be one of a number of resettlement prisons. The previous resettlement prison for the area was Dorchester prison but its closure was announced in September. The idea of the are resettlement program is that prisoners are moved close to their local area towards the end of their sentence if it is a longer one, or they may spend the entire of a short sentence in a resettlement prison.[35] This news coincided with the recent decision to turn HM Prison The Verne into an immigration removal centre.

In 2010, with the assistance of the prison, a community project was completed to restore the Governor's Community Garden and open it to the public. These gardens were originally attached to the prison governor's residence opposite the main entrance of the prison. Around 2011, at The Verne prison, the Jailhouse Cafe was opened to the public, which was created to reduce re-offending and to offer prisoners work experience. When The Verne prison was converted to an Immigration Removal Centre in early 2014, the cafe has continued by using prisoners from the YOI.[36]

Inspection reports[edit]

In March 2000, an inspection report by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons severely criticised conditions at Portland YOI, including foul-smelling toilets and filthy showers. There were also complaints of rats in food service areas lodged by inmates.[37] Just over a month later, prison officials were forced to extract 26 prisoners who had for eight hours used furniture to barricade themselves away from their cells.[38]

In November 2004, a report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons highlighted racial tension, and distrust between Muslim inmates and staff at Portland Prison[citation needed]. The report also criticised the fact that inmates were still slopping out, because of poor sanitation facilities at the jail.[39]

A further report in June 2007 following an unannounced inspection heavily criticised conditions at Portland YOI. The report stated that some buildings "were unfit for purpose and lacked basic sanitation", with the continued practice of inmates without access to toilet facilities using buckets which they emptied through their windows.[40] The report criticized other elements of the prison, including opportunities provided to prisoners for physical activity and training, but indicated that the situation was better in Portland than it had been in 2004 at the time of the last inspection.


In 1995/96 there were three escapes from the prison, two in 1996/97, and another two in 2000/01.[41] At the beginning of the 21st century John Davies escaped from the prison.[42]

Failed attempts[edit]

In August 2013 one inmate attempted to escape with a broom handle, a bag of salt and bedsheets. Justin Paul Lee, serving a six-year jail term for an offence of burglary and other matters, was seen by a prison officer at the foot of the inside perimeter wall in an area that was out of bounds to inmates. Admitted to having been in the area for two hours, Lee had put the bag of rock salt and breeze blocks against the wall and attempted to use torn strips of bed sheet and a broom handle to try to pull down the razor wire on top of the wall. When interviewed he said he had made the attempt to escape because he wanted a transfer out of the prison, and back to his former prison at Exeter, closer to his family. He was given 10 months in prison to be served consecutive to his existing sentence.[43]

Grove Prison Museum[edit]

In late 2013, it was announced via local news that a museum would be opened to cover the history of HM Prison Portland, from the initial adult convict prison, the Borstal Years and as a Young Offenders Institution. The Grove Prison Museum opened in March 2014, with initial opening times of three days a week; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.[44]

John Hutton, a retired prison officer had been working with other retired officers Steve Ashford and Chris Hunt to open the small exhibition within the deputy governor's residence, across the road from the main prison entrance. The idea for a museum had dated back over 20 years, when it was agreed to store some prison memorabilia items for a possible future museum. These were left untouched for 20 years in storage. The YOI governor agreed to set aside two rooms for the museum. Among the items on display are aerial photographs of the area, an old restraining jacket, a replica musket and mannequins showing how the prisoner and officer uniforms changed over the years.[44]

South Dorset MP Richard Drax visited the deputy governor's building to officially open the prison museum and the Lighthouse Learning Centre. After opening the museum, Drax went upstairs in the same building to open the new learning centre offering prison officer access training, where a number of courses are on offer, ranging from IT to literacy and mental health awareness to bicycle maintenance.[45][46]

A year after the museum's opening, it was announced that over 1000 visitors had been to the museum. In a Dorset Echo article, dated 6 May 2015, Hutton thanked the visitors, both from overseas and from the local area, for helping the museum become a success in its first year.[47]

Grade listed features[edit]

Various features of the prison have since become Grade Listed.

In September 1978, the gatehouse, including the attached VR Letter Box, became Grade II Listed. The gatehouse is dated 1848, and is no longer used for entry.[48] In May 1993, both the east and west cell blocks became Grade II Listed. The East Block, dated 1898, consists of the Grenville and Nelson wings, whilst the West Block, also dated 1898, holds the Raleigh, Drake and Benbow wings. Both the east and west blocks, although of late 19th century, have a characteristically bold design, carried out in very splendid masonry showing little signs of discolouration or deterioration. It replaces the former timber-clad 1848 structures of the original prison group, and the two blocks figure prominently in views from many parts of the island.[49][50] At the same time, the E Hall, a prison cell block with attached punishment block from 1848, became Grade II Listed. It would seem likely that this block was part of the original 1848 prison scheme.[51]

The Overseer's Hut with inclines became Grade II Listed in May 1993, and this was provided for overseeing activities by prisoners entering and leaving by the doorway central to the north wall. It is set on the central axis of the whole complex aligned on the main gate to the south. Built with Portland stone ashlar, including the roof, the back is set partly into a bank. On either side are approach inclines from the main prison level, in large Portland stone setts, and with stone gutter sections on the north side.[52]

Boundary wall[edit]

One of the prison and village's most notable features is a high wall running along the village's main road, Grove Road. This boundary wall remains a significant visual element within the village, and was built in the 19th century to enclose the convict quarry workings. It has an opening to allow traffic to turn off left to the top of the incline road which once ran down to the Naval Base. Set in this wall is an old prison sentry box. Both remain Scheduled Monuments and are not able to be removed. The boundary wall has been Grade II Listed since May 1993.[53] The sentry box, along with the gate pier became Grade II Listed in September 1978. It is about 30 metres west of St. Peter's Church. Dated from around 1848, it is part of a former prison quarrying work ground.[54] The boundary wall, and gate piers, running from St Peter's Vicarage to Alma Terrace, and dating from 1875, was Grade II Listed at the same time as the sentry box.[55] The early 19th century gate piers at the junction with Grove Road, along with the boundary walls to Ivybank and the Vicarage became Grade II Listed at this same time too.[56] In May 1993, the boundary wall west of the prison became Grade II Listed, and this section dates from 1848.[57] The prison's north and east boundary walls have been Grade II Listed since May 1993 as well, dating from 1848 and later. The walls are interrupted by late 20th century structures in the south-east quadrant, as considerable damage occurred during World War II.[58]


Alma Terrace, on Grove Road is a terrace of houses, built in 1854, originally as six large houses for prison wardens, and now set out as twelve occupations in two continuous parallel ranges. The terrace has been restored with great sensitivity, and was designated Grade II in September 1978.[59] The wash houses and connecting boundary wall to the rear of the terrace has also become Grade II Listed in May 1993. The five former wash houses, now stores are linked by the continuous rear boundary wall, and probably date from around 1854. They have been well restored with the houses to which they belong, and are unusually grand.[60]

The Governor's House (102 Grove Road), with its front boundary wall, has been Grade II Listed since May 1993. The detached house was formerly the Governor's House to the prison, built around 1850. It is an important part of the group of prison buildings, with a visually significant position at the junction between Grove Road and The Grove.[61] Additionally the prison itself has various Grade Listed features. The adjoining School House of Grove Infant School, along with the rear boundary wall, became Grade II Listed at the same time. Forming an extension of the school, it was originally the house of the Assistant Governor of Portland Prison. Built around 1870, it was possibly from office of Capt. Du Cane, RE. The house is an important unit in a good group, set between St. Peter's Church and the school, and from its detailing clearly from the same design office.[62]

Quarrying industry[edit]

Grove Lime Kiln lies approximately 320 metres north-west of St Peter's Church. The Grade Listed II structure was designated in January 2009.[63] Still owned by the prison service, the lime kiln remains in a derelict and uncared for state. It was built and once operated by convicts from the prison, and is an important survival and one of the last vestiges of lime production in Portland.[63] Another lime kiln is located close-by along the road passing the eastern edge of the YOI, near the cliff edge, and this remaining shell has been fenced off and hidden by the prison service for health and safety reasons.[64]

At the top of the nearby, private incline road is the abandoned Old Engine Shed that once served the cable-operated inclined railway that ran to Castletown through the Navy Dockyard that is now Portland Port. The Portland Gas Trust has made plans for a £1.5m project to transform the buildings into an interpretation centre, which were to be the highlight of the Trust's work for the next few years. Situated on the cliffs above Portland Gas' Dorset facility, the centre was planned to have an audio visual room, display areas and café, and will function as a visitor attraction and an educational resource. However as of 2014, work has yet to start.[65][66] Close to the old engine sheds is a now derelict area which was once used by the Portland Dog Training Club. The shed has been Grade II Listed since January 2001.[67]

Notable former inmates[edit]


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External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°33′01″N 2°25′21″W / 50.5502°N 2.4226°W / 50.5502; -2.4226