THESE days guests jump at the chance to stay at the illustrious Malmaison hotel in Oxford Castle.

But two decades ago, people who stayed in the same medieval building in New Road didn't get a five-star experience – for it was full of county crooks.

Her Majesty's Prison Oxford Castle housed inmates for 800 years before it closed 20 years ago this month.

Oxford Mail:

This week, the current inhabitants, Oxford Castle Unlocked, held an anniversary evening with Oxford Preservation Trust to mark 20 years since it ceased to hold prisoners.

Made a jail because of its diminishing military value as a Norman medieval castle, conditions were harsh and prisoners were often hanged.

The majority of inmates were poorer members of society, driven into crimes such as theft and fraud through desperation.

Lauren Rhodes, general manager of Oxford Castle Unlocked, said the castle was used as a prison from the 1200s before it became a formal jail in the 16th century.

"During the English Civil War in the 1640s there was about 60 people to a room. The conditions were really awful and inhumane almost.

"It was then developed and reformed in the 1700s and that is a lot of what you see today. It was quire groundbreaking at the time."

Oxford Prison was one of the first county jails to be rebuilt during the period. 

Better ventilation, sanitation and sick wards were introduced, and prisoners were assigned separate cells and uniforms. But this did not mean softer sentences.

During the Victorian years, Ms Rhodes said emphasis was put on hard labour as a means of crushing the spirit of inmates, forcing them to change their ways. 

In its final decades these tasks were reduced in severity to working on the farm and in the laundry. In the mid-1970s a medical ward was introduced.

But in a report carried out by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1986 the jail was deemed substandard in many areas and the intention was for it to be closed by 1991.

The prison was severely overcrowded, with up to three people inhabiting a cell built for one.

The report said: "Each landing had only one recess equipped with two slop sinks, two WCs, one urinal and one washbasin, which were required to serve in excess of 30 cells, many of which were occupied by two or three inmates."

Oxford Mail:

Since its closure in 1996, it has been transformed in to the popular tourist attraction it is today.

Oxford Preservation Trust was awarded a £3.8 million grant by the Heritage Lottery fund to restore and reopen the castle prison buildings, opening Oxford Castle Unlocked in 2006.

The castle now welcomes more than 70,000 visitors every year.
Ms Rhodes said: "The castle has 1,000 years of history to explore and has served a number of purposes throughout that past millennium. 

"Perhaps the last 20 years has seen the most significant changes of all, with the redevelopment of the whole castle site into a tourism and leisure destination. 

"The castle is such an important part of Oxford's history, it originates before the university. We are really lucky to have St George's Tower, which has survived all that time.

"And now it's great that we have a team of tour guides who are bringing those stories from the past to life."