02 June 2022
The museum in Buckingham
looks like a Gothic castle but
was built as a town gaol
Buckingham Palace is not in Buckingham, and there is no Castle on Castle Street in Buckingham. The building that looks like a castle on Market Hill is sometimes known as Lord Cobham’s Castle. But this is Buckingham Old Gaol, the former town prison and now the town museum.
Buckingham Old Gaol in the heart of the market town is one of the most easily recognisable buildings in Buckingham and one of the key visitor attractions.
Following an Act of Parliament in 1747, known as Lord Cobham’s Act, the original prison was built in 1748. Most of the funding came from Sir Richard Temple (1675-1749) of Stowe, who had been MP for Buckingham. It was built in 1748, looking like a Gothic-style castle.
One of the prisoners jailed here was the Irish bare-knuckle prize fighter Simon Byrne (1806-1833), known as the ‘Emerald Gem.’ He was tried at the Buckingham Assizes in 1830 for the manslaughter of the Scottish prize fighter, Alexander McKay.
The rounded front of the building, added in 1839, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a local-born architect. This provided accommodation for the gaoler and became known as the Keeper’s Lodge.
For 60 years or so, the Old Gaol acted as the police station for Buckingham, until a new police station was built a short distance away on Moreton Road. It became a fire station in 1891, and the C Company of the 1st Bucks Rifles rented part of the building for their armoury from 1892 until 1926. Public toilets were installed in 1907. It became an antiques shop and café In the 1950s.
Aylesbury Vale District Council took responsibility for the building in 1974. Buckingham Heritage Trust was formed in 1985 to save the building, and it opened as a museum in 1993, together with a tourist information centre. The Old Gaol Museum obtained finance from the Heritage Lottery Fund to add a glass roof over the original prisoners’ exercise yard in 2000.
The purpose-built prison is now a museum, a tourist information centre, a gift shop which includes a selection of local interest books and a unique venue to hire.
The museum, exploring the history and rural life of Buckingham and the military heritage of Buckinghamshire, occupies part of the old cell block and the prison courtyard.
The original 18th century cells form themed display areas, including Tudor and Georgian Buckingham, as well as an Edwardian shop and mementoes of Florence Nightingale. The museum also includes the collected works of Flora Thompson, author of Lark Rise to Candleford.
The Buckinghamshire Military Museum Trust is based at the museum, and houses its collections there. In addition to arms, regalia, and other military memorabilia, the Buckinghamshire Military Museum Trust also holds a small collection of military musical instruments, including early examples of rope-tensioned side drums.
The building is a member of the Milton Keynes Heritage Association and the Association of Independent Museums.