Exhibition telling stories of Barnstaple's 19th century prisoners to open at Museum

Three photographs in black and white of people from 19th century with handwritten notes beneath each

An exhibition which shines a light on Barnstaple’s hidden 19th century underclass is opening at the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon on Saturday 2 December.

"Barnstaple Prisoners: unveiling Barnstaple’s Victorian underclass 1867- 1877" exposes the hard life led by working class people during that era, with small indiscretions often leading to harsh punishments, even on the streets of a country town like Barnstaple.

A rare photograph album containing the images of local Victorian men, women and children - all of whom were named - was discovered by the local historian and author Dr Sadru Bhanji in 2009. Dr Bhanji’s research revealed that all of the individuals had had their images taken at the Barnstaple jail, with each person having been arrested and imprisoned for committing crimes including theft, fraud and embezzlement. The majority of these crimes were committed on Barnstaple’s streets, in its pubs, shops and markets.

The hidden stories from the album have now come to light thanks to Dr Bhanji’s research, and this exhibition draws on their once-forgotten stories to explore Barnstaple’s Victorian underclass.

Dr Sadru Bhanji said "The exhibition owes much to the chance acquisition of an album of Victorian photographs which transpired to be of some of the inmates of Barnstaple Prison during the decade beginning 1867. As all but a handful of the 98 people depicted were named, curiosity was aroused. A fruitful exploration of contemporary sources then followed and made it possible to provide accounts of the subjects’ backgrounds and criminal lives and bring back into awareness forgotten members of one of Victorian Barnstaple’s underclasses."

A historian of Devon, Dr Todd Gray said: "This is an amazing discovery. It is the earliest collection of photos of members of North Devon’s working class. Each girl, boy, woman and man was photographed to provide a record in case they re-offended and a century and a half later they allow us today to gaze at their faces and begin to understand their lives. North Devon’s past has just become a little bit more accessible. I commend the museum for highlighting such a challenging collection with its exhibition. Another great contribution from the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon!’

The exhibition runs between Saturday 2 December 2023 and Saturday 17 February 2024. Museum opening hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm and entry is free. 

To keep up to date with events happening at the museum, visit their website or Facebook page.