Dark tourism, darker history: exploring museums of crime

If you want to know more about your criminal ancestors, there are an increasing number of museums catering to your needs, as Nell Darby explores.

Dark tourism is the act of travelling to sites that are associated with death, tragedy or crime. As such, dark tourism has been increasingly analysed by academics, drawing parallels between the Victorian act of attending a public execution, and the entertainment offered by contemporary museums. Certainly, there is a curiosity in human nature that makes us seek out the dark side of history – hence the popularity of places such as the London Dungeons (www.thedungeons.com/London) or the Clink Museum (www.clink.co.uk). Even the controversial new Jack the Ripper Museum in Shadwell, east London (www.jacktherippermuseum.com), is symptomatic of this; the reason why the original plan for a museum dedicated to women’s history was jettisoned was apparently because the owner saw Jack the Ripper as more ‘popular’ and better placed to bring in the punters.

Police museums

There are numerous other police museums across the UK, from Glasgow (www.policemuseum.org.uk) and Manchester (www.gmpmuseum.co.uk), to Belfast (www.psni.police.uk/index/about-us/police_museum.htm) and Tetbury in Gloucestershire (tetbury.gov.uk/tourism/tetbury-police-museum-courtroom/).

But away from these better known, or notorious, places, there are a growing number of historical sites and museums that aim to offer a mix of education and entertainment. Here, you can learn about your criminal ancestors – the conditions they were kept in whilst incarcerated, their punishments, their reactions to incarceration; and where they may have been executed or transported. They are joined by a number of police museums, which set out the challenges and rewards of policing in history, primarily from the time of the 1839 Metropolitan Police and County Police Acts, but sometimes looking further back to the days of the Bow Street Runners and provincial village constables.

This is a fluctuating market, and fortunes change. The Old Town Jail in Stirling (www.destinationstirling.com) closed in 2012, and remained so until it reopened for the summer season in 2015. A particular attraction of the jail when it was formerly open was its performance tours, featuring actors as characters from the jail’s history, taking visitors through its story. These were surprisingly effective, and it’s good to know that, when the jail reopened last year, the performances were also started again.

The sites can’t be blamed for sometimes focusing on the more notorious or infamous cases from their histories – they need the headline-grabbing cases to get the widest range of people possible through their doors. But behind every headline name – the Happy Hangman of Stirling, Lincolnshire executioner William Marland, or even Jack the Ripper – there is a wealth of detail about our ‘ordinary’ criminal ancestors to be found.

Six criminal museums to visit

Lincoln Castle: The castle site at the top of the hill in Lincoln was home initially to a Georgian prison, built in 1787; although its façade remains, the rear of the prison was, in the 1840s, torn down and replaced with a ‘model’ Victorian prison based on Pentonville. Following a three-year renovation project, visitors can now walk around the prison and see some impressive films projected onto the walls of the individual prison cells, featuring specific case studies. One of the most stirring parts of the castle is the prison chapel, with its enclosed seating – preventing each prisoner from seeing anyone else, part of the ‘separate system’ – intact. www.lincolncastle.com

Judges Lodging: This is how to do a dark tourism museum. Low key, staffed by loyal volunteers, and situated in a somewhat remote location just over the border into Wales, the Judges Lodging is a vivid recreation of life in the former county court of Radnorshire. It is where the Victorian judges would have stayed when they were holding Quarter Sessions, and it has been recreated to look as it would have done in the 19th century. Historically accurate wallpaper and rugs; genuine furniture and crockery – everything, even down to the flickering gas lamps that just about guide you round, is researched well. This is an old fashioned interpretation of criminal history (take, for example, the audio tour, which is still given to you on a 1980s style personal stereo), but it is no worse for that. www.judgeslodging.org.uk 

City of London Police Museum: London, as might be expected, is home to several museums that look at crime and punishment in history. In Brompton, there is the small but perfectly formed Met Police Museum, and there is also the fascinating Thames Marine Police Museum in Wapping. But perhaps the most comprehensive place is the City of London Police Museum. Staffed by volunteers, it is situated in the Police HQ and offers a comprehensive, yet eclectic, history of London policing post-1829. There are police uniforms, truncheons, and, on the other side of the fence, criminal’s tools on display. The volunteers are a source of lots more information, too. www.cityoflondon.police.uk/about-us/history/museum/Pages/default.aspx 

Bodmin Jail: This is a former prison designed by Sir John Call for prisoners of war, and built in 1779, on the edge of Bodmin Moor. It now bills itself as a ‘family attraction’ – but given that it also boasts ‘the only working execution pit in the UK’, you may doubt that! However, a tour round the dark cells with its tales from the history of the jail and stories of individual prisoners there, does bring to life the grim reality of life in a Cornish prison. Try and ignore the waxwork recreations of offences and offenders dotted around the place, though, as they don’t add much to the atmosphere. www.bodminjail.org

St George’s Hall: This iconic building in the heart of Liverpool is the former location of the city’s civil and crown courts. Because it is still open for functions, the criminal side of the building’s history is, if not neglected, rather muted in terms of publicity. There are no showy tours or multimedia displays here; but it is free to enter and walk around the cells used by prisoners awaiting trial; the criminal court and the judge’s robing room. There are also explanatory boards detailing the hall’s history and the crimes that were tried there – including possession of explosives, stealing herrings, murder, poisoning, and bigamy. www.liverpoolcityhalls.co.uk/st-georges-hall/ 

The Galleries of Justice: In the Lace Market area of Nottingham is an impressive building that was once a 19th century courtroom, gaol and police station. The courtrooms date back to the 14th century, but the Galleries of Justice Museum located there focus on the 18th and 19th century history of the building. Although there are more ‘showy’ exhibitions here – such as the Gallows Theatre, featuring nooses, black caps and the gallows’ trapdoor – the bleakness of the building is still striking. Make sure you see the cell featuring ceiling to floor mugshots of Victorian criminals who were held there. www.galleriesofjustice.org.uk