Peterhead Prison Pioneer Railroad Transported Criminals to Forced Labor Site



It was the first state-owned passenger railroad in Britain; a product of Victoriana that transported criminals to a forced labor site in North East Scotland.

And although more than 50 years have passed since the closure of the Peterhead Prison Railroad, a new exhibit is being organized to show how the road has passed through places such as the Long John Distillery in Glenugie and the Lost Village of Burnhaven.

The service, which was operational for the prison from 1888, ran between Admiralty Yard – which became the location of the new HMP Grampian building – and the quarry, which was located two and a half miles south of Peterhead.

Rail operators built a gate, which opened between the prison and the Admiralty courtyard, so that convicts could be transported daily to the quarry and back.

And there are evocative images of prisoners being taken to their daily grind, regardless of the weather, to do often backbreaking work.

Convicts from Peterhead Prison are heading for the railroad tracks.

The train has carried spooky characters over the years

Peterhead Convict Prison was built in 1888 and was originally designed to hold 208 prisoners, all of whom had been sentenced to “hard labor”.

Additional buildings were completed in 1909, 1960 and 1962, bringing the capacity to 362, but sometimes 450 were held within the walls.

The facility finally closed in 2013, to be replaced by the new HMP Grampian, Scotland’s first prison to jointly house young men and women.

Peterhead provided the manpower to work in the Stirlinghill Quarry and in the Admiralty Yard which was attached to the prison.

Glenugie Distillery.

These convicts supported the work of a civilian workforce employed by the Admiralty to build the breakwater at the Port of Refuge.

The Admiralty project was unique in Scotland as it was served by the only public railway carrying passengers at the time.

The last block of the port of Refuge was laid in September 1956 and the railway was taken out of service shortly after, but remains can still be seen in some places.

Peterhead Prison officials transported the convicts by train to a nearby quarry.

The museum is looking for more information on railway life

Although the old prison closed for a long time, it is now home to a popular museum that has attracted visitors from all over the world.

And although the venue is currently closed due to Covid-19, its officials are already planning exhibits they hope to unveil this summer.

Director of Operations Alex Geddes said: “We have been planning two new exhibition areas for two years now, as many of our visitors have said they would like to learn more about the old railway line and life in it. the career.

“The 2020 pandemic slowed down the whole process as we were closed for four months and while this delayed us from the schedule, it did not stop us from moving towards the final stages of the new exhibits.”

Peterhead Prison Railway was the first of its kind in Britain.

Can readers help add more information to the story?

Mr Geddes and his colleagues are working on an ambitious new initiative that they hope will bring the railroad back to life, albeit in miniature form.

But they appealed to Press and Journal readers for recollections and recollections of the days when the train routinely traversed the Aberdeenshire countryside.

Mr Geddes added: “We have a full-scale diorama of the railroad going between the prison and the quarry which we hope to open later this year.

“This railroad transported the condemned daily to the quarry to break huge blocks of granite by hand, before being brought back to the Admiralty site for the team to build the port of the refuge. [which was known locally as the breakwater].

“The diorama will also show places that are now long gone, such as the ancient village of Burnhaven and the Long John Distillery, as well as show visitors the scenery that surrounded the prisoners on their daily journey in secure cars.

“I am now on the lookout for anyone who might have any photographs, artifacts or memorabilia from the railroad, quarry, steam train, Burnhaven and the Distillery.

“If anyone has any images of the tracks or life in the quarry, or would like to share their memories of seeing the trains go, we would love to hear them.

“Although we are closed again in the meantime, anyone wishing to make contact can do so through the contact us page of our website at “

The last block was laid by convicts at Peterhead Prison in 1956.

Railroad cars were built to a high standard

The railroad was used by generations of often hardened prisoners, who were in armed custody and were found across the road in Stirling Hill.

It was a naturally isolated service, created for a purpose, but it was built to a high standard with its own fleet of locomotives, cars and wagons.

The trains were purpose-built vehicles with small barred windows, ensuring that there was no chance of convicts escaping while they were chained together in transit.

The track bed can be followed along the main road and there was a very nice pink granite viaduct in the road as people entered Peterhead.

The quarry is still active, but today mainly produces flint products.

Granite exhibit to highlight global impact

Mr Geddes said another room will showcase the granite itself and explain to visitors that the stone from the quarry has been used in various famous places, including the base of the fountains in Trafalgar Square and as part of Tower Bridge in London.

The first quarry at Stirling Hill was opened in 1815 and there have been no less than 11 separate quarries within miles of each other at different times.

Stirling Village came into being through the granite works designed by Heslop, Wilson and Co when they opened their first quarry in 1858.

In 1884, the Admiralty began building the breakwaters for Peterhead Harbor of Refuge: a vast undertaking that required a massive workforce.

A railway was built between the Admiralty Quarry at Stirling Hill and Peterhead Prison to transport prison labor and granite. The stones were crushed in the prison yard and turned into large concrete blocks and the project was finally completed in 1956.

Peterhead Prison pictured in 1952.

The stone went as far as Australia and America

Peterhead Red Granite from Stirling Hill and other local quarries can be found in a variety of surprising places.

The original Trafalgar Square fountains were made in Aberdeen from Peterhead granite and the Duke of Wellington statue at Buckingham Palace stands on a Peterhead granite pedestal.

The stone is also found in the Foreign Office and the British Museum. It was also used for the pillars of the Blackfriars and Southwark Bridges in London.

The know-how of the workers who produced the monumental stone was also exported all over the world. Men traveled to Australia to dress the masonry of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, Cape Town in South Africa, and Vermont in the United States.

The history of the granite community that arose Down Under was fascinating.

Dorman Long built the Sydney Harbor Bridge with the help of Aberdeen granite.

Jim Fiddes’ book “The Granite Men” shows how 30 formidable figures swapped Aberdeen for Australia in 1926 and the letters they sent to their friends and relatives indicated that they were more than satisfied with their working conditions. and a salary that increased by 10 shillings in the first few months.

Initially, Dorman Long of Middlesbrough, the company that built the famous bridge, received over 250 applications from people looking for work. Those seeking the roles were not deterred by the idea of ​​the crossing which took months, often in cramped conditions on rough seas with basic food and accommodation.

Mr Fiddes said: “They appointed John Gilmore of Harthill in Kintore, to manage the Moruya granite quarry, located 200 miles south of Sydney.

“He had worked in the quarries of Kemnay, Rubislaw, Peterhead, Brechin and Ailsa Craig and he had also been employed in North America.

Granite Town has been established in Australia for several years

“The first group of workers from the northeast left Aberdeen in February 1926, followed by another group in May.

This plaque commemorates the creation of the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

“Unlike most of the workers, who had gone to North America, they took their families with them and children were born in Australia and then returned to Aberdeen.”

Mr. Gilmore was one of life’s great pioneering figures and he accompanied his wife, son and no less than eight daughters on the grueling seven week journey, which usually tested patience and the endurance of the most navigable traveler.

The original contract was for three years with the possibility of continuing work beyond this period and the Scots joined forces in a place, colloquially known as Granite Town, alongside many tailors from Australian and Italian stone.

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