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The River Thames at Abingdon, with the Old Gaol in the background.

The River Thames at Abingdon, with the Old Gaol in the background.

Photo: Claire Ward, licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0, via Geograph.org.uk

Ghosts of Abingdon Old Gaol

23 April 2021 (Updated 2 September 2021)

The Old Gaol is an imposing building in a prominent position on the banks of the River Thames in the centre of Abingdon.

A short history of Abingdon Old Gaol

For a building of its size, it actually had quite a short lifespan as a prison. It first opened in 1812, but by 1844 a larger prison had been built at Reading which better served the county of Berkshire's needs, and the gaol at Abingdon finally closed as a prison in 1868.

After that time it was used as a grain store and slum dwellings. In the 1970s it was converted into a leisure centre, which operated until 2002. Today it has been converted into a modern apartment complex.

Despite these more modern uses, its origins as a gaol and place of capital punishment are echoed in the various hauntings that have been reported in the building over the years.

Haunting echoes of the past

When the building was a leisure centre members of staff reported hearing strange noises when the building was empty including banging doors. Others reported seeing clothes baskets in the changing room begin to swing of their own accord.

Perhaps the most disturbing haunting reported at the Old Gaol is related to one of Abingdon's most macabre claims to fame. In 1629 Abingdon was the site of the youngest person to be hanged in British criminal history.

The hanging of 8-year-old John Dean

On 23rd of February 1629 8 year-old John Dean was convicted of arson at the Abingdon Assizes. The boy had reportedly set fire to two houses in Windsor, and the judge accused the boy of 'malice, revenge and cunning' when he passed his sentence and condemned the boy to be hanged.

Despite this taking place nearly 200 years before Abingdon Gaol opened, the hanging of young John Dean has been cited as the reason that staff at the Old Gaol have reported hearing the sound of a child laughing from inside the building when they are locking up for the night.