By Heather Barrett
On Saturday 8th December 2018, the Oldbury Writing Group was fancying another trip, so we went to the Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up Open Day.
With our heady summer well and truly behind us and colder grey days in place, we did not feel like another venture into the great outdoors; it was time to come inside. The Lock-Up is one of many architectural gems offering open days to the public which is run by the West Midlands Police in conjunction with Birmingham Hidden Spaces. With the likes of Fred West and the Peaky Blinders, amongst some of its notorious inmates, the prison proved an engrossing if not sombre choice for an OWG trip. So we set out to indulge in some crime and nourishment. Our group leader, Angela, who has a long established love of history and intrigue; Nicole, who discovered the Lock-Up tours; Julian; and I went on the visit.
The Steelhouse Lane custody block is an imposing and very tastefully decorated red-brick, Victorian build that served as a central lock-up prison for Birmingham and West Midlands Constabulary and the local courts. It operated from 1891, with the foundation stone being laid by Queen Victoria herself, until 2016 when Perry Barr Custody Suite took over.
The most striking aspect for me, was once we were through the charging area and into the main prison, we acclimatised to our environment, and left the rain-drenched street behind. It is designed typically as such that cells flank each side of the building. Passages are narrow to prevent huddling by prisoners and the grilled flooring allowed officers to keep an eye on all three floors, as with mainstream prisons. There is a kitchen where meals were prepared for prisoners, such as marmalade and chawl sandwiches in days gone by, and microwave suppers for more recent inmates. Also, some cells were converted into medical suites, storage and administrative rooms.
Cells were small, contained and Spartan with in-cell sanitation — a more modern feature — and a bench, cum bed with a sparse mattress atop it. However, we all made ourselves quite at home in those cells and took in a world most never get to see, with the comfort of knowing we could leave at any point, unlike many who had sat in there in previous times. The brickwork was painted cream, and the flooring came with a security line just inside the cell. The doors were heavy, with a hatch and spy hole to keep an eye on prisoner activity. The odd name scratched into the wall, and the footprints on the brickwork were reminders of those who had been there in circumstances less favourable than our own.
Julian pointed out that in many cases this would have been an offender’s window onto the wider penal system. Those who would go through the courts and maybe into mainstream prison got their first taste of that system right here in this very building. It had a sense of being a penal microcosm, a community sealed away from the wider community with its own characters, social strata, regulations and rites. Julian noted it would be the ghost of things yet to come and the old photos of past prisoners show keen apprehension or seasoned resignation on the faces of the hardened and green first time criminal. We could not help noticing that many prisoners from the turn of the last century were often children. As Angela observed, they were stunted by hunger and poor living conditions, making them look even younger than their already tender years. However, this did not stop them receiving corporal punishment like the whey-faced boy called Henry, who got the whip on top of three days custody for stealing cigars.
The building is known to be an area of paranormal activity, which is hardly surprising, considering the history. Reports have centred on sightings and sensations inside and around the tunnel that took prisoners from cells to court. These tunnels were installed following police deaths when ‘angry-mobs’ had tried to free or attack prisoners in outside transit. The tunnel was off limits, but we saw it through a small door window — a white tiled ominous passageway with a staircase turning to the right. Its style is much similar to the morgue tunnels underneath Birmingham Council House.
Some of our tour hosts and experts were former custody sergeants who had worked here from the 1970s upwards. While we looked through a selection of policing paraphernalia spanning Victorian to modern policing times, we were all taken aback by the illuminating tale of the man brought in after going berserk when his wife forgot to submit a winning Pools coupon, back in the 1970s. Some conversations ran quite deep, such as the impact of cutbacks and extra work pressure on police officers today, in what feels to many as an exhausting and thankless task. Another custody sergeant also told us what a grim job this could be. She was ordered to keep an eye on the prisoners, even when they were taking a scrub, which from her reckoning was not too often. The reality of the job was noisy and smelly, prisoners banging on their iron cell doors, people, for reasons known to them, avoiding soap and water for a while. On tour days some of those same prisoners had often returned on nostalgia checks, debating and arguing which cell they had spent their time in.
The visit was certainly thought-provoking. The images of Peaky-Blinders types in the sepia mug shots were evidence that even in an age of supposed respect for law and authority, there was still the kind of ‘Wild West Britain’ the Red Tops lament about today. Offenders were still young, and gangs still prowled the streets. It could be argued then and now, with certain types of crime, the common denomination boiled down to a disparity of wealth, with Victorian and modern age austerity serving as a breeding ground for crime, when policing is thin, living becomes survival and aspiration is reduced to raw opportunity. It made us think about a side of life most ordinary people assume they will never encounter. Nicole observed, “I learned a lot of new things about prison life that could inspire a story one day.”
As for us, we got a chance to show our criminal wild side by taking in-cell snaps and having our fingerprints taken. Angela and I got to unleash our inner Juliet Bravo, trying on officers’ hats, although we looked more like the laughing policewomen! We were not the only ones having a ball. The place was packed with other sightseers and children were fascinated with all the accoutrements of prison and policing life. The gift shop was a lovely little find towards the end of our visit with plenty of affordable items for souvenirs and gifts, and the adjoining interview room with felt walls and tape deck felt like a step back into a golden oldie crime series. Angela commented, “It was an inspiring place, a brilliant setting for a story.” Julian shared my views that we were a little too comfortable for comfort, “Brilliant! Great atmosphere for ideas. I felt strangely at home.”
On stepping back on the outside, a few hours later, with its rainy sky and bustle of Christmas shoppers, I could not help but ponder the words of a friend who had served some time back in the 1980’s, that being spat back out into the world can be as jarring as the point the prisoner is first taken from it. The wind and cold shook me after the warm and isolating prison space. Little wonder, for some prisoners, that a return to society is such a fragile and daunting time.
The Lock-Up tours cost £5 per person, and more information on tours can be found on Eventbrite.