Langdon Convict Prison on the White Cliffs

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Langdon Convict Prison has left almost no traces, but in its heyday in the late 19th century it housed 102 prisoners on 20 acres of Dover’s cliffs. It was open only for 12 years, until 1896, although the work cost nearly £6 million in today’s money.

After the transportation of prisoners to the colonies ended, the employment of convicts became an increasing problem. Britain also needed a harbour to house its fleet on the south-east coast, so in 1883 a Parliamentary Committee recommended that a 520 acre harbour should be built at Dover using convict labour, thus solving both problems.

Building begins

Land was purchased from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the grand sum of £16,000 and permission granted for the building of a prison on the cliffs, despite opposition from Dover Town Council. Construction progressed rapidly, with the site terraced into four levels and bricks for the buildings brought by horse tramway from the Dover – Deal road. The main parts were completed by April 1885, and the first prisoners arrived in the August. As it turned out, these convicts never did work on the construction of the harbour, but spent their sentences sewing mailbags and the like. In 1896, after just 11 years, the prison closed its gates - a situation that didn’t go down well in Parliament.

Ready for use

Once construction of the prison was completed, a perimeter wall surrounded it, with a gated entrance archway on the western side, near where the inner gates are located. The Visitor Centre now stands on part of the Level 1 area, where two blocks of cells stood originally - traces of footings are still visible on the seaward side of the site.  Each cell was only 6 feet by 4 feet, with a single high window. Level 2 contained the exercise area, with the laundry, bath house and bakehouse located at the Visitor Centre end.  On Level 3 were the solitary confinement cells and Level 4 held a two-storey building housing accommodation for hospital staff, a surgery for the prison doctor and six cells for his patients. Married quarters for the prison staff were built about a quarter of a mile away inland, on the far side of what is now Upper Road.

The governor's house

Just outside the perimeter wall was the governor’s house, where the coach park now is. It was a three-storey, double-fronted house, reached either by steps up from the road or by a sloping path (the coach access). Not much remains above ground, but there are some traces to be found towards the back of the parking area. The levelled grass area, reached by going up the steps at the back, may have been a tennis court or croquet lawn.