Portillo's Hidden History of Britain

Shepton Mallet

Series 1 - Episode 3 Shepton Mallet



Gazing up at the walls of the now disused Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset, Michael Portillo admits, enigmatically; “I’ve visited a few friends in prison [he shrugs], after all, I used to be a Member of Parliament.” Whatever can he mean?

Portillo meets former Shepton prisoner Ben Gunn, (now a campaigner) who was jailed for 32 years for murder when he was just 14. Wandering around his old haunts, Gunn becomes visibly upset.

There are of course a fund of stories attached to the prison, which closed in 2012 after 400 years. The young Kray Twins were inmates in their twenties, where they learned to be gangsters from fellow prisoner and later head of the Torture Gang, Charlie Richardson.

In a revealing little anecdote, we learn that the twins liked mucking about with the prison’s gallows in the so-called Topping Shed.


Michael Portillo explores Shepton Mallet prison, which over its 400-year history has seen numerous executions and escape attempts. At the start of the Second World War, it became a safehouse for precious historical documents, and later in the conflict was transformed into the US Army's death row. In 1953, the facility homed gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, allegedly transforming them from tearaways into hardened gangsters. One-time officer Jim Butt talks to Michael about various escape attempts, and ex-prisoner Ben recalls meeting his partner, a former prison teacher, while behind bars.

Cast & Crew

Presenter Michael Portillo
Executive Producer Jazz Gowans
Series Director Ruairi Fallon
Series Producer Ruairi Fallon
Documentary History