14 June 2015

Research: Spilsby's Quarter Sessions & Prison

For a novelist, research comes in all shapes and sizes. For my purposes I shuffle it into three groups:
  • General - undertaken to test if an idea has legs
  • Background - for usable window-dressing
  • Pertinent – facts to feed with subtlety direct into the text to emphasise that my characters aren’t idiots
There is also a fourth – Serendipitous – where I happen to come across something interesting enough to be stored for some future reference that may never occur or, there again, may trigger the initial idea for a piece of work. In truth, serendipitous research is what novelists undertake every waking hour – keeping our eyes and ears open for something that snags our interest.

Visiting Spilsby in Lincolnshire fell into this latter category. It’s not a part of the near-country we drive through often. We were there on a genealogy trace for some of my husband’s ancestors, and a visit to nearby ruins of Bolingbroke Castle. When we’d driven in we’d passed a building so imposing that it seemed out of keeping with the nature of a small rural market town with a population of only 3,000 people.

With the church opposite locked, I decided on a closer look. It now houses the local independent theatre, and the two people tending its gardens out front took my request for information as divine intervention – or at least a good excuse for some respite from their weeding.

The theatre is the current tenant of the Quarter Sessions Courthouse dating from 1825-27, and despite its newer theatrical trappings, the original blue and gold painted ceiling still gazes down. Beyond the stage, the original cells provide surprisingly spacious single dressing rooms, and the Judge’s Rooms the bar area.

Until 1876 when it was demolished, the Courthouse fronted a House of Correction, as the accompanying gaol was referred to, which covered two acres and housed up to 80 convicts. Some were bound for prison ships and Australia, while others found themselves on one of four treadmills. The fact that a sketch-plan of the complex still existed I found fascinating.

click to enlarge

Will I be using this information in a future work? I've no idea at the moment, but it is sitting in my subconscious, being quietly nurtured. One day, probably out of the blue, the experience will connect with another and an idea will glow.

With many thanks to members of www.spilsbytheatre.com who took time out to show me round. Y’see, if you don’t ask...


  1. Can't beat a bit of serendipity. But you do have to be open to the opportunity and armed with the means to record your findings. That's what successful writers like you do all the time, of course. Thanks for the post. Enjoyed this one.

    1. Thanks for calling by and saying so, Stuart.

  2. The little previously Barclays Bank at the NW area of the mkt has a deep 'dungeon' under it. One is only allowed 38mins a month down there because of Radon. A small jaildoor seperates part of it, and a large walkin safe.
    I don't know how the White Hart Hotel copes with radiation in the cellars 2 plots away.

  3. Gosh, how fascinating. Thanks for letting me know. I looked up a map of known Radon sites - none near me, thankfully. There again, Spilsby wasn't showing either. However, Devon and Cornwall have high concentrations. I don't think I'd like to turn the earth down there, never mind work in a cellar!

    It was good of you to pop by and leave a comment. Enjoy the rest of the website.

  4. I reached your site through good old Mr Google as I was researching an ancestor who was tried here in 1845 for stealing chickens and sent to Australia.
    “Quarter Sessions Spilsby” I had no idea what I was really looking for so thanks.

    1. You're quite welcome. I'm pleased my little article was of use to you.