Behind bars: Michael Portillo visits a prison with a grisly past for Channel 5’s Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain

Michael Portillo visits the British prison where 18 American servicemen were executed during World War II

Michael Portillo

The quaint market town of Shepton Mallet in Somerset has a dark history. Today it’s best known as the capital of West Country cider production, but just 75 years ago it was a place where American soldiers were put to their death.

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Between 1943 and 1945, 18 US servicemen were executed at the town’s prison – 16 by hanging and two by firing squad – after being found guilty of murder and rape while stationed in the UK.

The prison had been handed over to the Americans in 1942 and, despite being on British soil, US jurisdiction applied, meaning that crimes such as rape, which wasn’t a capital offence in the UK at the time, carried the death sentence. All the hangings were carried out by the British executioner Thomas Pierrepoint, often assisted by his more famous nephew, Albert.

The Grade II-listed building, built in 1610 and Britain’s oldest working jail until its closure in 2013, is the subject of this week’s episode of Channel 5’s Hidden History of Britain, in which Michael Portillo explores fascinating locations.

Were you surprised about Shepton Mallet’s grisly wartime past?

I found the story of black US serviceman Leroy Henry especially chilling. He was found guilty of rape and, under the deal that we did with the Americans during the war, he could have been hanged, even though it was not then a capital offence in the UK. It looked like quite a flimsy case, but nonetheless he was convicted and sentenced to death. Luckily, his case was reviewed by General Eisenhower and he was pardoned. You have to come to terms with the fact that capital punishment was carried out there – under US military occupation rather than under UK law.

And yet at the same time, the prison was also used to house part of the National Archives…

When I thought about that, it made perfect sense. During wartime you want these documents to be out of London and out of other obvious storage places. The prison was secure and the wing in which the documents were stored was not used for anything else; it’s a magnificent piece of British civil service craft. I thought it was charming that the archivist moved down there with his family and lived in the prison, looking after these documents from the time of William the Conqueror and Henry VIII. And thank goodness he did, because the documents wouldn’t have been safe in London. I don’t suppose the Nazis for a moment thought of bombing Shepton Mallet!


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There was one story that particularly intrigued you…

Yes, I talked to ex-prisoner Ben Gunn, who at the age of 14 killed his friend, was convicted of murder and then spent 32 years behind bars. He’s the most interesting interview I’ve ever done. He took me to places inside the prison that he’d not been to since he was released, and each place set off a cascade of memories: his own cell, the cell where a friend of his committed suicide, the exercise yard where he wasn’t allowed to cross certain lines, and the workshop where he met his lover, a female teacher at the prison. Every place was so evocative to him, and he was constantly inhaling deeply as he coped with the flood of memories

Did Ben’s story make you think about how prisons work today?

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His story rather depressingly confirmed what I feared. Prison is meant to be about punishment and rehabilitation. But I think that what happens, when prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, is that the rehabilitation goes out the window. I’m not a legal expert, but it amazes me that a lad who was involved in a fight with a friend when he was 14 was convicted of murder as opposed to manslaughter, and then served 32 years. It’s quite similar to the cases revealed recently of 3,000 prisoners who are in the position where they have to prove that they’re not a danger to the public in order for them to be released, and the burden of proof is on the prisoner rather than the state. I think shocking things are happening in our prisons. There is injustice as well as justice, and our ideals that they should serve as a place of rehabilitation are on the whole not being realised.

The four-part series Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain is on Fridays at 9pm Channel 5