The Need for a Depot at Norman Cross

In the summer of 1796 the requirement for new prison accommodation became essential when Sir Ralph Abercrombie reported that he was sending 4,000 prisoners from the West Indies.

The Transport Board rapidly searched for a site on which to build a new prison. The Board had several requirements to consider: any new prison had to be within easy reach of a port so that prisoners could be disembarked and conveyed rapidly and at minimal cost to their place of confinement.

The site was not to be too near an unfortified port as this would facilitate escapes, and possibly enemy intervention to release and arm the thousands of prisoners of war in England.

The site had to be healthy, with a good water supply and near to local markets for provisions. It also had to be near trunk roads not only for ease of administation but also so that in the event of a rising a sufficient number of troops could be rushed to the spot.

Norman Cross prison depot was built on a site that possessed all these advantages. It was later found that some of the poor, half naked Frenchmen, used to a warmer climate, complained bitterly of the cold and exposed position.

On the Great North Road (A1) it was seventy-six miles from London. Prisoners landed at Yarmouth or Lynn1 could be marched to the depot, or first transported by water to Yaxley, Stanground or Peterborough, from where it was only a short march to the depot. Deep wells were sunk to supply water, and provisions could be obtained readily from the towns in the surrounding fertile countryside.

Plans were drawn up in December 1796 and work began almost immediately. It was decided to build the prison of wood as rapidity of construction was a prerequisite, and the war was not expected to last as long as it did (19 years). The framework was constructed in London and conveyed to Norman Cross where 500 carpenters and labourers were employed day and night, seven days a week.

The layout of the depot, looking south.
The Ordnance Survey map of 1812 with later amendments, showing the flat plateau upon which the depot was located.