Skip to main content

Crumlin Road Prison History

The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.

C Wing Yard

C Wing Yard

Crumlin Road Gaol, known locally as The Crum, or HMP Belfast, as its official title proclaims, is situated unsurprisingly, on the city centre end of north Belfast's Crumlin Road. It was built in Victorian times, by the architect Charles Lanyon, who also designed Kilmainham Gaol, in Dublin and Queens University in Belfast.

Charles Lanyon and Jeremy Bentham

Crumlin Road Gaol was built in accordance with Utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison model. Bentham's model of prison accorded the guards maximum surveillance potential of the gaol and the prisoners who were held within its' four wings, which stretched out like spokes of a wheel from a central 'circle.' The circle is the gaol's central point, where the chapel, administration and governors offices were situated in more recent times. All Victorian prisons, built to Bentham's specifications, have a very similar design and this can be confirmed by looking at aerial photographs of Strangeways in Manchester, the 'Scrubs in London, or Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Bentham was viewed as a progressive in his time, as prior to this, prisons and the concept of imprisonment as punishment, were not what we understand them as today. In pre-Bentham times, prisons were mainly used for debtors or as places to await execution. The concept of imprisonment, as a distinct form of punishment, was very much a product of modernity.

Life in the Victorian Era Crumlin Road Gaol

Any account of prison life in this post-Bentham penal era, confirms that life within the Panopticon model prison was certainly a harsh existence for any inmates, unfortunate enough to find themselves incarcerated there. Prisoners were forbidden to communicate with each other, or even see fellow prisoners. In the exercise yard, they had to wear a hat that blinkered their vision, as they walked in regimented circles and this is where the term 'felon's cap' comes from. Prisoners were forced to perform harsh, mind-numbing menial tasks, such as turning a hand crank screw thousands of times per day (this is where the term 'screw', prison slang for prison warders has its origins). Another mind-numbing facet the Victorian-era prison regime were treadmills where prisoners were forced to complete sets of distances per day. Stern silence was the order of the day in Victorian prison regimes (there was certainly no shouting out of the doors or windows during lock-ups). No tobacco or newspapers were permitted in those days, with the only reading material available to prisoners being the bible.

Prison Slang

To combat this draconian penal regime, Victorian-era prisoners developed a sign language and a coded prison slang, which has survived to this day. For instance, to indicate if there was any illicit tobacco available, a prisoner would point to his nose, this is where the universally known gaol slang for tobacco, known as 'snout', has its origins. To combat the silence rule and the screws ban on verbal communications, prisoners developed an early form of Morse code, by tapping signals on the central heating pipes, which ran along the back wall of all cells. The tradition of walking around prison exercise yards in a counter-clockwise circle or against the clock originated in Victorian Panopticon prisons and has remained a penal tradition in contemporary times.

'The Circle' where true to Bentham's Panopticon model, surveillance of all four wings was made possible

'The Circle' where true to Bentham's Panopticon model, surveillance of all four wings was made possible

Irish Republican and Loyalist prisoners in the Crumlin Road Gaol

In more recent Irish Republican penal history, the 'Crum' was the gaol in which Tom Williams, was hanged. Tom Williams was the only Irish Republican Army prisoner to be executed by the post-partition, Stormont regime. The condemned cell and gallows in Crumlin Road's 'C' wing, is now maintained as part of a museum. During the recent Irish conflict, nearly all Republican and Loyalist prisoners, passed through the Crum's imposing gates, including the internees known as the Hooded Men. These unfortunate prisoners, also known as the 'Guineapigs', as they were subjected to torture and so-called Special Techniques of interrogation by the British army during the 1971 internment swoops. Contemporary political personalities such as Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly, to name but a few, are all Crumlin Road gaol alumni!


The Crum was also the scene of many escapes and escape attempts by Irish Republican prisoners held there. The famous Crumlin Kangeroos, immortalised in a ballad by the Wolfhounds folk band, made good their daring escape by scaling the perimeter wall using rope ladders in November 1971. Seven of the original nine 'Crumlin Kangaroos' made it to Dublin to appear in a Sinn Fein press conference a few days later.

Scroll to Continue

The M60 Squad's daring escape from the Crum in 1981 saw Republican prisoners, including Angelo Fusco, Dingus Magee and Joe Doherty, spectacularly escape via the front gates using a very convincing combination of bluff and firepower. Despite being shot at by undercover RUC men and British soldiers just outside the gaol gates, the M60 escapees made their way across the road, past the court and into the car-park of the Crumlin Road Health centre, with bullets still whizzing past them. Having got that far, they found themselves in the hostile Loyalist Shankill estate but from there, they hijacked cars and made their way to the safety of Republican West Belfast. The rest, as they say, is history..


During 1991, when the Crum was being used as the main remand centre for those facing political charges, Republican prisoners detonated a bomb in the canteen of the gaol's 'C' wing, killing two Loyalists and causing numerous injuries to their fellow UVF and UDA comrades. In retaliation, at a later date, Loyalists, from a firing point in the Shankill Estate, fired a rocket propelled grenade at one of the 3 canteens in the prison's 'A' Wing while Republican prisoners were using it, although it failed to detonate. Directly after the deaths of their two comrades, Loyalists escalated their campaign for segregation, held rooftop protests and badly injured a guard by emptying a container of boiling water over him. At one stage Loyalist prisoners, under the direction of the infamous Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair, using a variety of makeshift tools broke through interior cell walls in the prison's A wing, leaving the prison staff with a security nightmare. Eventually all political remand prisoners, Republican and Loyalist, were transferred to Long Kesh prison in a high speed convoy of cellular prison vans, known colloquially as 'horseboxes'.


The Crumlin Road Gaol Closes It's Doors For The Last Time

At present, extensive developments are being carried out and the gaol is now a museum. Up until fairly recently, the Northern Ireland Office had been using the old Annexe, off D Wing, (where Life sentence prisoners on the pre-release working-out scheme had previously been housed) as a detention centre for refugees. All the previous watchtowers and 'sangars' from the entire front of the gaol have been removed, as has the solid front perimeter fence. The imposing front gate of the gaol, which was usually caked with black soot from nearly a century of wear, has been sandblasted and restored to its former Victorian grandeur.

The Crown Court building across the road from the prison, a listed building subject to strict building regulations, is no longer used and was in the hands of a local property developer. The property developer purchased the old Crumlin Road courthouse from the NIO for the desultory sum of £1 and it subsequently was badly damaged in a series of mysterious arson attacks..

The notorious underground Crumlin Road prison tunnel, which was the scene of many scuffles between remand prisoners and their RUC escorts, as they crossed under the Crumlin Road to the Court, has still been maintained. The gaol, including the subterranean tunnel, has been used recently as a film set, including being used as the backdrop for the Channel 4 drama-documentary about the scenario of a return of capital punishment called The Trial of Gary Glitter.

Very few individuals will have any fond or nostalgic memories of that overcrowded, vermin-infested, prison, which lacked even the most basic facilities. Ironically, the only cell in the prison that had internal plumbing, was the condemned cell, on 'C' Wing, reserved for those prisoners enduring the grim wait for the death penalty to be carried out. The Crumlin Road prison had originally been designed in Victorian times to be single-cell accommodation but by the time of its closure 2 - 3 persons were regularly sharing the Crum's distinctly cramped cellular accommodation. The International Red Cross had regularly condemned the building as unfit for human habitation and it is therefore unlikely that anyone, either prisoners or guards, were upset to see the infamous Crum, slamming closed it's imposing gates for the last time.

The Crum As A Tourist Attraction

Once the 'Crum was finally decommissioned and had passed out of the Prison Services Estates, it was painstakingly refurbished to what it must have looked like in Victorian times. All the old plethora of high-security measures, including watchtowers, military installations, razor wire, anti-helicopter wire, and extra fencing was removed. The old prison which had been rodent-infested was painstakingly returned to its original Benthamian and Lanyon model.

It's still a creepy place to visit with it's hanging scaffold and the Condemned Cell in C wing where many an unfortunate fellow spent his last days, including young Tom Williams, an IRA hero sentenced to death. Bizarrely to many, the Crum is used as a wedding venue by some.

Given its creepiness as a building, there are regular ghost hunts with reports of images of the supposed long dead appearing in the digital photography of some visitors. With larger and steadily larger areas of the old prison being refurbished, including the subterranean dungeons under the various wings where screws reportedly cowered during the Belfast Blitz during World War Two, leaving the unfortunate prisoners trapped well above the ground to face the might of the Luftwaffe's bombs. This year, as in past years, the Crum specializes in a mass Halloween ghost hunt. Changed times for many who were unfortunate enough to be kept there in very different circumstances in the not too distant past.

The Hanging Cell In Crumlin Road Gaol


The Crum's Stock

Visitors enjoying their visit to the Crum

Visitors enjoying their visit to the Crum

© 2019 Liam A Ryan

Related Articles