Found guilty as charged

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Celeste Halpin witnesses a group of primary pupils stand trial in a Nottingham courthouse, 18th-century style

Gazing up at this imposing Nottingham court house, it's hard to believe that until the 19th century public hangings were carried out on the very steps on which I tread. Thousands would gather at the foot of these steps to be entertained, and the public executions were only halted only in the 1800s after 17 people were crushed to death in a crowd.

Built in the 1770s, the Galleries of Justice, as it is now known, has been restored to its original splendour and since April 1995 has run a "Condemned!" tour which has already been given the status of East Midlands Tourist Attraction of the Year.

The tour starts with a fierce-looking man who plays the part of a court official, ordering a 30-strong class of nine and 10-year-olds into line before giving them a criminal identity number and reading out their crimes. Once inside the court room, the crimes are assessed and sentence passed - none too leniently - by the judge. Surrounding us are lifelike models of a judge, a criminal and lawyers. We listen to the trial of three men accused of burning down a silk mill and subsequently accused of setting fire to Nottingham Castle. The background noise of peasants condemning or defending the accused makes it difficult to concentrate at times, but the story is all the more more interesting for being true.

Once all have been found guilty, the group follow the fate of these men as they are taken down to their cells. We meet the warder, who describes the living conditions and routine of prisoners. "Prisoners were expected to hand over all their belongings, which I would either keep or sell," he says. One boy whispers: "Me mam'll kill me if he takes me watch." Prisoners would then have to wash in the grim communal baths which now have a rather unpleasant, and probably quite realistic, aroma, and include the figure of a man washing, supposedly to rid him of lice and disease.

The children in the group are then ordered to "get their uniforms on", and 30 identical prisoners are led further down the steps of the gaol. The teacher is condemned to the stocks and looks understandably worried. He begs for mercy, but to no avail as his 30 charges hurl fruit at him with sporting energy.

As the army of prisoners is led down the stone steps of this dingy, and by now very cold, gaol. Very realistic and vile smells emanate from the dark cramped cells. We are told that three prisoners used to occupy a cell until, more often than not, they were executed.

Outside the gaol is the exercise yard, where the group traces the steps of prisoners who would have been tied together by rope and made to walk continuously around the yard. Evidence of the prisoners' existence litters the yard in the form of graffiti and initials etched into the walls. We are told there are four prisoners actually buried under the cobbles; as proof, their gravestones are hung on a wall like trophies. We are led up the steps to the gallows, where there is the customary trap door and a noose still hangs - the warder asks for a volunteer and everyone takes a nervous step back. The exercise yard seems to hold most interest for the children and they are keen to ask questions, as though the etchings and noose confirm its reality. Macabre though that may sound, Karen Wyre, marketing manager, points out that "Condemned!" is "not trying to sensationalise these horrors, just tell it how it was".

The final leg of the tour takes us into another part of the gaol where there are models depicting the full horror of the living conditions - complete with model rats, vomit and human excrement. Typically, this part of the tour is the most popular, although the cramped conditions make it quite difficult for a party of 30 to see everything. The teacher of this group was impressed with the tour, although he remarked that "they were a bit short-staffed and children would benefit more if they were split into two or even three groups".

There is a book of comments at the end of the tour. Some comments are from people moved and saddened by their visit, but one remark sums it up: "Whether you are for or against capital punishment, the Galleries of Justice certainly makes you think, and maybe even adjust your viewpoint." For me, however, this tour demonstrated that this form of punishment has its place in society - and that place is definitely in the past.

Open every day except December 25 and 26. April-September 10am - 6pm. October-March 10am - 5pm. For group rates and educational material, tel: 0115 952 0555

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