Many people in Britain will have woken up early Friday morning, eaten a hot cross bun for breakfast and enjoyed a day off work, but not me. I spent most of Good Friday in bed in preparation to stay awake through the witching hour that night. Not only was it going to be a late night, but I was going to be spending it behind bars in the most haunted prison in the country.
I've been on quite a few ghost hunts before, but this was the first time I'd spent a night in a haunted prison, in fact the first time I'd spent a night in prison full stop. The event was hosted by Most Haunted Experience, an offshoot the long-running paranormal television show, fronted by Yvette Fielding.
This was my first time booking an event through MHE, but I had a good idea of what to expect having booked ghost hunts through other paranormal events companies in the past. Although MHE do run events with familiar faces from the TV show, this particular night was billed as a "non-celeb event."
The grade II listed prison, also known as Cornhill was the oldest operating prison in the UK when it closed in 2013. At this time it was home to almost 200 inmates serving the final years of their life sentences.
Dating back to 1625, the prison has a pretty grim past. Originally men, women and children were packed into Shepton Mallet together, apparently in dreadful conditions. The cells held debtors, thieves, vagrants and people with mental health disorders. Poor amenities and primitive sanitation led to frequent outbreaks of ulcers, jaundice, asthma and venereal diseases.
Following expansions in the late 18th century, the prison entered another grim phase of its history in the 1820s, when a large treadwheel was built in the prison. 40 men at a time were expected to tread the wheel for hours on end to power a grain mill outside the prison walls. Breaking stones for roadbuilding and unpicking old ropes were other tasks the prisoners were expected to engage in.
Due to a fall in the inmate population, HMP Shepton Mallet closed in 1930, but this wasn't the end of the story for the prison.
Over the years their were plenty of deaths in this formidable prison, including murders, suicides, accidents and judicial executions. The total number of hangings at the prison is unknown, but some of the documented executions include a local man who battered a 10-year-old girl to death, a man who drowned his wife in the River Avon, and a man who cut his 37-year-old girlfriend's throat.
The body's of executed criminals weren't allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, so they were laid to rest in unmarked graves within the walls of the prison.
In the mid-1940s, Shepton Mallet was used as an American military prison, during this time 18 US servicemen were executed within the prison walls. Sixteen were hanged in the execution block and two were shot by firing squad in the prison yard.
Three other American soldiers died at the prison, as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning in a locked cell. The ventilation had become blocked with leaves and a naked gas-lamp had used up the oxygen in the cell.
Executions were normally carried out at 1am. The last death sentence at Shepton Mallet Prison occurred in 1945 under military use. The gallows in the execution block was removed in 1967 and the room became the prison's library. The floorboards have recently been striped back in this room to reveal the original location of the gallows.
During the Second World War the building was used as a British military prison, it was notorious amongst British servicemen and was known as "the glass house". Discipline was said to be very strict and the punishments extremely severe. Some of the most infamous inmates at this time were the notorious East End gangsters, Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who were imprisoned after deserting the British Army.
The prison was handed back to civilian use in 1966, initially to house vulnerable and high-risk prisoners for their own protection. In 1991 the prison started taking regular category C prisoners.
In 2013, the Justice Secretary announced that Shepton Mallet Prison was to be shut down along with six other prisons in England, it closed in March of that year.
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With almost 400 years of detaining murderers, violent criminals and notorious gangsters, plus a history of brutal executions, cruel punishments, suicides, and countless dead in unmarked graves within the prison walls, it's no wonder HMP Shepton Mallet is said to be the most haunted prison in the country.
The areas of the prison which are said to be the most active are the prison's eerie kitchens, the general's office, and the exercise yard, which is reportedly haunted by a former inmate, Captain Philip William Ryal, who climbed onto the roof of the prison and took his own life in 1914. Ever since his final words, "get back," have been heard echoing around the yard by inmates.
A cell in A-Wing is reportedly haunted by a former inmate who was murdered here, while in B-Wing visitors report the most negative energy in the whole of the three-acre site.
C-Wing has a regular spook too in the form of a 'white lady', it's said she was wrongly convicted of murdering her fiancé, and sentenced to death in the 17th century. She's seen wearing her wedding dress, which she apparently wore in the condemned cell the night before her execution.
The prison is also said to be haunted by the spirit of an American serviceman. He's been seen walking through walls in the prison in his uniform. He's thought to have been killed in the yard by a stray bullet from an American army firing squad while overseeing an execution.
We arrived at the former prison at 9pm on a very rainy night. We were greeted by the MHE team who locked the main gate behind us and guided us in to an area of the prison which was formerly used for visitations.
As the prison is such a large venue, MHE had more staff than at any other ghost hunt I've attended. It was probably also the largest group of people I've ever seen on one of these events. They were a great bunch of people, everyone was very friendly and good fun.
After helping ourselves to hot drinks, we took a seat in front of a projector screen for a welcome and orientation video. Like with all these events you have to sit through health and safety rules, but it was kept brief. Perhaps a little too brief in some ways, it would have been nice to have heard a little more about the prison itself.
We were split into three groups, there were 13 people in our group as we left the light of the visitors room and headed into the pitch black prison blocks, guided only by torch light.
We started off on the lower landing of D-Wing, an eerie, cold cell block. We could hear the rain lashing down on the pitched glass roof of the wing. We were accompanied in this area by Graham and Claire from MHE who gave us a brief overview of the ghost hunting equipment that was available to us. This included K-II EMF meters, dowsing rods, an infrared thermometer gun, an of course a ouija board.
With a warning from Graham that a lot of the spirits are "nasty in this place," we started are first vigil. Stood in a circle with the lights out and the K-II meters scattered over the floor. Claire started calling out to the spirits, "I'm calling out to any prisoners in this wing, any spirit people come forward. Come and talk to us, come and join us."
Claire tried to encourage the spirits to bang a door, make sounds, touch one of us, or make the lights on the K-II meters flash by moving towards them. With such heavy rain outside, it was hard to pick out the faint knocks and tappings you would normally hear on a ghost hunt.
Graham then took over, "spirits who are here hiding in the shadows, please come forward and make yourself known. We're going to introduce ourselves to you now." We went around the circle and introduced ourselves to the spirits. A few of the guests then started calling out themselves.
After about 15 minutes we climbed the stairs to the first floor landing and broke off into one of the cells. I was in cell seven with a few others, armed with a ouija board. Claire expertly talked us through how to "open the board." This involves moving the planchette, or in our case glass, around to show the spirits how to use it. We moved the glass across the board to show the spirits that they can use the letters A to Z, the numbers zero to nine, and the words 'yes' and 'no.'
Straight away the ouija board was very lively, more active than I've ever seen one before. We did get some answers to a few direct questions. When asked how many years the spirit was in the prison, the glass slid to eight and the spirit confirmed that he thought the current year was 1957, at this time the prison was being used as a military prison.
However most of the responses we got were meaningless, the glass slid deliberately and purposely from random letter to random letter, the group thought that this was a sign that the spirits were playing with us.
When asked its name, the glass spelt out "MFN579", which some of the group concluded must be the spirit's prison number, but later when it was asked to repeat its prison number the glass indicated "CMKDZ379", perhaps we'd made contact with a different spirit? After quarter of an hour in the cell, we moved the glass to 'goodbye' on the board and end our vigil in cell seven.
We then moved through into the infamous hanging room. The small square room on the first floor would have originally had gallows in the middle. The convict would be brought from adjoining condemned man's cell to face the ultimate price for their misdemeanours.
We started off by calling out in this area, a few members of the group tried to make contact with the spirits of the executed, as well as the executioner, or even the governor. During this we did hear some distinct tapping sounds. At one point the spirit was asked to answer a question by knocking twice for 'yes' and once for 'no', there were two clear taps, which seemed to be in response.
The K-II meters that were placed around the room also triggered indicating a spike in electromagnetic energy at several points during the vigil. Because of what seemed to be responses to our questions, after ten minutes we decided to try some table tipping.
I've never seen such a dramatic demonstration of table tipping before. The small group huddled around the wooden table in the hanging in room had it rocking from side-to-side. It lifted on to two legs, then on to just one leg. It span around in circles, tilted to beyond tipping point before righting itself again, and finally it crashed on to the floor with a bang.
While the table tipping continued in the hanging room, half of us split off into the condemned man's cell, where we conducted an experiment called the "human pendulum." This involved one volunteer from the group standing in the middle of the room while I called out and encouraged the spirits to move her, forward to indicate 'yes' or backwards to indicate 'no'. There was someone stood in front of her and behind ready to catch her in case she was pushed too far.
According to the movement of the volunteer's body, the spirit was that of a male who communicated that they were being executed for committing murder. After all this excitement, it was time for a break and a hot drink.
After the break we went off to a new location, this time with a different Clair and Steve from MHE looking after us. We were taken to the smaller A-wing, which is where the "lifers" would have been incarcerated, as well as the vulnerable prisoners, "the nonces, ponces, and the grasses." Again we started of with a vigil in the dark on the lower landing of the cell block, where we were warned that there's a spirit who likes to lurk in the darkness.
The vigil proved to be a little quiet, so the team tried another yes/no experiment, this time using two lights on a table. A white light to indicate 'yes' and a red to indicate 'no', the idea was for the participants to place their fingers on a glass and encourage the spirits to use there energies to move the glass to the light which corresponded to their answer.
After seemingly making contact with a spirit, the two lights were switched for a ouija board in the hope of getting some more detailed answers. Again, while the board was very active, we didn't get any meaningful answers. Steve and Clair suspected that this was due to a "bad spirit" trying to come through. The spirit identified itself as "Hamal" and it transpired that this spirit had been following us around the prison since we first made contact with it via the ouija board in cell seven on D-Wing. Hamal is an Arabic name, which means lamb.
Steve asked the spirit if he knew anyone who was present on the ghost hunt, it spelt out "chezam," which isn't a million miles away from the name Cheryl, who was using the board at the time. She said her nickname is Chezza.
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Next we moved on to the prison's morgue. This was a fairly small room, unsurprisingly located near the bottom of the gallows. Whitewashed inside, with thick stone walls and arched ceilings, you wouldn't have guessed the room's grim past. In the new location we continued with some table tipping.
Certain members of the team reported feeling cold on very specific parts of their bodies during this vigil. There was quite a bit of activity with the K-II meters, which flashed for no obvious reason several times, and an orb was seen moving towards one of the group at the exact moment when someone suggested the spirit should effect him. But, despite everyone's best efforts to make contact, the table was unresponsive in this location.
We once again whipped out a ouija board, and within seconds the team were communicating with Hamal again. They were able to ask a few more questions. He responded well to yes/no questions, but was still unable to spell out anything meaningful. At one point the person calling out wanted to know how he had ended up in prison and asked what his crime was. The board spelt out "CNZA", they asked if this was prison slang, to which the spirit answered "yes." But the spirit couldn't spell out the true meaning of "CNZA" and it's not an acronym that relates to crime and punishment... or anything, in fact.
The only word the spirit did manage to spell out correctly on the ouija board was "bum," which happened when they team were having a bit of lighthearted fun with the vigil.
We moved on to the governor's office, said to be one of the most active places in the prison. The MHE team had set up a speaker, which was playing the audio from a mobile app called EchoVox. The app is pre-loaded with phonetics, the sounds that make up words. It spews out these sounds randomly. The idea is that spirits can affect the random nature of the app and use the sounds to form words in order to communicate.
The group stood around for ten minutes or so while it spat out noises and what sounded like words. To be honest, I'm not massively into these sorts of apps, so I went for a little wander around the pitch black recreational yard, which was just outside the office.
Everyone then moved on, I caught up with them and as I entered the room Steve was saying, "is no one up for doing a lone vigil in there?" Of course I was. Before I even knew where, I was up for it. It turns out I was going to have to climb through a hole which had been made in a brick wall.
Behind the wall was a very old, probably Victorian, cell. The cell was quite low, with a curved stone roof and wood panelled wall. It wasn't long enough for an adult to lie down in. The small, single window had no glass in it, just bars. It was a grim cell.
I was in total darkness in the cell, I have to admit it was pretty eerie. What made it even creepier was that when I looked out of the cell window I could see the window of an adjacent cell and there was an arm hanging out of the window. Obviously it was a fake plastic arm but it was really disconcerting.
I spent about 10 minutes in the cell looking out for spiders and calling out and trying to get something spooky to happen. Meanwhile the rest of the team were upstairs encouraging the spirits to blow in my ear, touch me and basically freak me out. But, sadly nothing happened.
The video below contains all of the highlights from the evening including the impressive double knock we heard in the hanging room, the table tipping, part of one of the very active ouija board sessions, an orb which was attracted to one of the team, and my lone vigil in the Victorian cell.
HMP Shepton Mallet was a fantastic location, it was great fun exploring the vast building during the free time at the end of the night. The team from Most Haunted Experience were very friendly, professional and knowledgeable and all of the guests were really nice, probably the best bunch I've ever met on an event like this.
It was also one of the most active investigations I've been a part of, the ouija boards and table tipping especially. It's a shame we didn't manage to get anything from the session which was a bit more meaningful or could be corroborated after the event.
For example, at one point during a vigil the question "how many people did you kill?" was asked and the glass slid across the ouija board to the number nine. No British serial killer has killed nine people, there are four who have killed more than nine, including Harold Shipman and the infamous killers Fred and Rosemary West, who lived relatively near to the prison and are thought to have killed up to 12 people between them. However there's nothing that links them to the prison, and the dates which came through on the ouija board don't add up.
Over all though it was an excellent night. I really enjoyed it and would like to give a massive thanks to the MHE team for putting on the event and making it so much fun.