For 30 years, Birmingham wanted to be an assize town and have an assize court. This would mean that they could hold serious court cases every quarter of the year. They were successful in 1886, with planning and building beginning for the Victoria Law Courts and Steelhouse Lane Cells. The Moor Street Public Offfice was the main custody block in the city beforehand.
The Grade II listed Steelhouse Lane Lock-up opened in 1891, operating until 2016. A tunnel that goes under Colebridge Passage separates the building. It allowed prisoners to be sent to the courts directly from the cells.
Prisoners would normally spend less than 24 hours in the Lock-up before going to court. The building had a mixture of “Steelhouse Lane prisoners,” who’d been arrested in the city centre, and people who’d been charged with offences all over Birmingham. They would come in via a custody van every morning, and they were called “Lock-up prisoners.”
In some cases, prisoners served short sentences at the Lock-up. They were called Home Office prisoners, as they’d been convicted. This would normally happen during a prison strike, although some prisoners came to the Lock-up after the Strangeways Prison riot in 1990.
Originally, there were 70 cells across three floors. You enter the Lock-up on the ground floor, but there’s also a basement and first floor. The basement contains the original kitchen, where there is evidence of a dumbwaiter which would have transported food and drink to the prisoners on the other two floors.
The glass roof provides all the natural light into the building, with a single window on each floor on the side of the building. There’s evidence of small enclosures next to each cell door, where an oil burner or lantern would have given light into the cells for prisoners, as well as staff working there.
The top floor is where the prisoners’ mugshots would be taken, including the famous Peaky Blinders. The cells get smaller as you go down the building, with the ones in the far originally only used for women. The women cells moved to the top floor, but were out of action in hot weather. This is due to the greenhouse effect created via the roof and lack of ventilation.
The 1970s saw some beds replaced with “drunk beds.” These are low to the ground, due to the number of drunk prisoners brought into the Lock-up. In later years, a breath testing machine came into the ground floor to take breath samples. There were also two separate rooms to take fingerprints, DNA and a custody photograph.
Safer prison conditions came in in the early 2000s. As the whole building is listed, we negotiated with Birmingham City Council to implement these conditions, as long as four cells at the Lock-Up were kept in the same condition as they were at that point. Four cells still have their original porcelain toilet and glass window above the door.
We refurbished the Lock-up between 2021 and 2022. During this time, we discovered an original window between the charge area and the cells. It’s increased visibility across the landings of the ground and first floors. We’ve also knocked through cells on both of the sides of the building, creating two new stairwells and installing a lift.
There’s also now an accessible entrance on the side of the building into Coleridge Passage, meaning wheelchair users can enter. In addition, we’ve also replaced the original roof. The timber was in poor condition, with many glass panes cracked. The modern roof includes vents that open automatically so the building can be naturally ventilated. This meets all modern building regulations, and results in a much more thermally efficient building.
Come see the Lock-up in its new permanent home of the West Midlands Police Museum. Book your tickets on the website now.