Inside the Birmingham prison where murderers were once locked up – and it’s now open to visitors

Britain’s newest and biggest police lock-up museum on Steelhouse Lane is opening to visitors once more – and you can take a trip inside the cells, hear stories of past prisoners, and take a look at items left behind by hardened criminals.

Staff are hoping a captivated audience will turn it into Birmingham’s No 1 tourist attraction. Ever since the National Trust’s Back to Backs opened on Hurst Street in 2004, it has consistently been at or very close to the top of TripAdvisor’s ratings for the best day out in Brum.

Now the Victorian cells that were originally opened in 1891 and would have housed many murderers and notorious criminals are opening to the public as a six-days-a-week museum.

Heritage lead Corinne Brazier says with a cheeky grin: “I would absolutely love for us to take the No 1 spot on TripAdvisor! When we were open before Covid, we only had one open day per month and we managed to get all the way up to No 2 at one point, so I’d like to think that being open every day we might just be able to get up there!”

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The building opened a year after the first recorded peaky blinders’ attack on Adderley Street on March 23, 1890 left victim George Eastwood in hospital for three weeks. Today, it is estimated to have already had more than one million ‘visitors’ during its entire history, but most of those would have been unwilling and of criminal intent unless found innocent in the nearby law courts. For the young and old now set to follow in their handcuffed footsteps, the museum will be the closest thing in Birmingham to visiting Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco where inmates included Al Capone in the 1930s.

Transforming the Grade II listed Steelhouse Lane site into a stellar visitor attraction has taken two years with the help of £1 million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. As well learning about the downside of what happens to people when they end up on the wrong side of the law, children taken on parental, school or other activity-led group visits to the West Midlands Police Museum are bound to have their eyes and ears opened about the sheer number of different careers that are available in police forces.



The new West Midlands Police Museum opening at Steelhouse Lane lock-up – a Grade II listed building

After an unpublicised soft opening this weekend, the museum will be fully open from 10am on Monday, April 11. Six years after the last person was held in custody there, you can go into most of the cells complete with miniscule loos in the corner and see everything from handcuffs to truncheons and examples of ‘the birch’ through to more scientific displays exploring the importance of fingerprinting, DNA techniques, photography, interview techniques and forensic science applications.

There’s even a model horse to show just how big they are, old fashioned bicycles and two Norton motorcycles as well as notes about brave police dogs and tributes to officers who died in the line of duty. Even the history of police vehicles is included if you lift the flaps of hidden photographs to see how they have changed over the years. There are also cells dedicated to the Peaky Blinders, the Victorian era and World War 2 and there’s also a Tardis-like police box. Given that various cats used to keep the building’s former mouse problem in check, younger visitors on paw patrol can follow the site’s ‘Lock-Up Mouse’ mascot through the displays and collect a cuddly toy from the museum shop.

With the option to climb iron staircases, walk caged gantries that make you feel like you are a giant budgie and to hear the sounds of the place when it was full, the museum will effortlessly transport you back to the days when suspects were brought in for what were typically one or two-night stays ready for a porridge or gruel breakfast followed by a court appearance in the adjacent law courts.

The feel of the lock-up means it’s the nearest many of us will get to visiting a real prison, though if you are expecting it to chill your bones be warned that the brand new heating system is ultra-efficient and you might well be much warmer than anticipated.

Unlike the Back to Backs you will have more freedom to wander around in your own time and to stay for as long as you like. In common with the Back to Backs, each visit will have a real sense of purpose whereby people will know why they are there. The experience is completely different to popping into a general-purpose museum.

The other thing that will make it a popular family attraction is that it’s really handy to get to – just five minutes’ walk from Snow Hill Railway Station and the Bull Street tram stop, even closer to the giant luxurious B4 underground car park off Weaman Street. If you are still not sure where it is, it’s at the back of the Corporation Street Victoria Law Courts and directly opposite the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. From Colmore Row, keep walking in a straight line in the opposite direction to Birmingham Cathedral.



Find out what it was like to put into a small cell at the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up turned West Midlands Police Museum
Find out what it was like to put into a small cell at the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up turned West Midlands Police Museum

What they say

For the attraction’s heritage lead, Corinne Brazier, the museum is a real passion project. Ask her just about any question to do with the history of the lock-up and she’ll either know the answer or where to find out more.

Could it really become Birmingham’s No 1 tourist attraction very quickly?

“We absolutely hope so,” she says. “We are really, really excited to share what we’ve been working on with the public and to share some of the incredible stories from 200 years of policing history.



Norton motorcycles are part of the attractions at the West Midlands Police Museum on Steelhouse Lane
Norton motorcycles are part of the attractions at the West Midlands Police Museum on Steelhouse Lane

“Part of it is the deterrent effect and people getting a real sense of what it’s like to sit in a cell and really get the chance to think about what you’ve done and your future life choices. With all of the museum displays and interactives that we’ve put in, I don’t think that we’ve really taken away from the sense that you are in a lock-up and what it would be like to be locked in a cell.

“There are various police museums all over the country, but I think it’s fair to say this is probably the biggest one and the most accessible. West Midlands Police also has the biggest ambition of any force in terms of what it wants to do with its museum, to engage with the public, to recruit new officers, to get the chance to share different histories and to build bridges with different communities.

“Our ambition is considerable and it’s a huge engagement asset for the force.”



Police mugshots from 1931
Police mugshots from 1931

The history

The lock-up was built in 1891 and originally had 70 cells. At its peak there would have been two or three prisoners to a cell. There were certain time periods when it had Home Office prisoners. If prison officers went on strike, inmates on short sentences would then be sent there.

Corinne says: “At that point there could be three people locked in a cell overnight. These cells are a lot smaller than prison cells so that would have been quite unpleasant and uncomfortable but at least you’ve got a coherent account of what went on, not just one person’s word against another.

“We used to use the Moor Street public office which was one of the first purpose-built buildings to deal with law and order functions in Birmingham back in 1806 and the facilities there were really ageing by the 1880s. When Birmingham became a city it was decided to have new law courts and cells adjoining. With the peaky blinders, they would have been some of the early residents here during the 1890s and early 1900s.

“If you were unlucky enough to be arrested on a Saturday afternoon, you might have to spend two nights here before the courts reopened on Monday morning.

“When we had the Home Office prisoners, they could sometimes spend a couple of weeks here and if you consider we have no outside space, no recreation space and the height of the cells, every day spent here counted as two days off their sentence so some people wanted to come and spend their sentence here.”



Corinne Brazier is the heritage lead at the West Midlands Police Museum inside the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up
Corinne Brazier is the heritage lead at the West Midlands Police Museum inside the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up

Corinne says it’s a myth that serial killer Fred West spent time in the lock-up. “He went through court in Gloucester and was then sent to Birmingham Prison (Winson Green) so that rumour has been well and truly dispelled. But from 1891 to 2016, anyone arrested for a serious offence in Birmingham would have come through here before they appeared at court. Anyone arrested for murder, charged with murder or any of the notorious offences such as the likes of the ‘peaky blinders’ would have been involved in and the real-life Sheldon characters, would have come through here. and be locked up behind these doors.

“People who used to work here said the noise was a real part of this building and how it operated. Lots of people in these cells would be very unhappy – there would be banging and shouting, kicking the doors and then of course you’ve got the noise of footsteps from officers going around.

“There would be very loud noises of keys unlocking the doors and then you have to slam the doors to get the locks to work again. It would generally be a very, very noisy place. When the officers were working during the night, they would obviously stay as quiet as possible trying not to wake people up.

“If you came in during the early morning you would creep around very quietly because as soon as you’ve woken one prisoner up as soon as they start banging and shouting everyone would be woken up and want feeding, cups of tea and things like that.

“The noise and the smell are two very distinct features that people would remember about this building.”



A model police horse at the West Midlands Police Museum inside the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up
A model police horse at the West Midlands Police Museum inside the former Steelhouse Lane lock-up

Women in the lock-up

Corinne said women could work at the site and be held there, too.

“Some of the first operational women used to work at the lock-up as lock-up matrons all the way back to 1895. That’s when they started to have responsibility for welfare and the security of prisoners and escorting female prisoners to court or maybe other prisons.

“All of the early policewomen were effectively developed here in the lock-up – two of those lock-up matrons went on to become our first female officers.”

Those being held would typically be fed porridge or gruel, perhaps a bit of toast in more recent years.

Corinne says: “There used to be a big kitchen here but, as things have progressed, and with the introduction of microwave meals, that became the staple diet for lunch and dinner with some very unappetising-looking microwave meals.

“Officers who used to work here, throughout the 1980s and 90s, marmalade sandwiches were generally the lunch or dinner of choice along with a very cheap variety of meat.”

On the day of our preview visit, the site was baking hot, but the new heating had only just been fully commissioned and was being adjusted. Modern heating was originally installed in the 1970s and would have made the cells ‘reasonably’ warm for people to sleep in winter.

Corinne adds: “When we ripped out some of those pipes we found some interesting exhibits shoved behind them from a driving licence to a knife to some pairs of pants which were a bit creepy, a couple of notes that maybe were intended for some of the visitors to prisoners which never found their way to their intended recipients.”

View from the top



West Midlands Police Chief Constable Dave Thompson with Digbeth-based PC Mohammed Rahman and his son during the 2018 Eid celebrations in Small Heath Park
West Midlands Police Chief Constable Dave Thompson with Digbeth-based PC Mohammed Rahman and his son during the 2018 Eid celebrations in Small Heath Park

West Midlands Police Chief Constable Sir David Thompson said: “The museum will give people a chance to learn more about their local police force today, as well as learning all about its history. That is essential for us when we consider the good and bad from our history; from pioneering female, black and Asian officers, to lessons learned when we haven’t quite got it right.

“The objects on display are not just obsolete pieces of kit and collections of old pictures and records. Each tells a poignant story. They demonstrate struggles of those who’ve gone before us and shine a light on the social history of policing.

“The museum will give us a chance to build bridges with communities through our shared history, and educate people on how policing has developed. It will be an important education resource for young people in the West Midlands and beyond.

“The museum also remembers those who have gone before us, particularly those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. That is really important. It’s a fabulous addition to the region, both for residents and tourists: the vast array of exhibits and the history of the building itself is truly fascinating.”



Dieu et mon droit: BirminghamLive reporter Graham Young dresses up and goes back in time at the West Midlands Police Museum
Dieu et mon droit: BirminghamLive reporter Graham Young dresses up and goes back in time at the West Midlands Police Museum

Tickets

Admission is £9 for adults, £5.50 for children (three to 15) and there’s a concessionary discount for students, senior citizens, disabled visitors and blue light card holders of 15 per cent (£7.65). Children under three go free. You can spend as long as you like here but advance booking is recommended to avoid disappointment.

Although part of West Midlands Police, all of the money will be ploughed back into the museum which will be required to fund itself so that it does not take any money away from front-line policing. The money pays for staff costs to run the museum six days a week. to carry out conservation works on rare artefacts, to stage new events and activities and also to help low income and deprived communities to access the attraction.

The museum will be open seven days a week during school holidays but ordinarily from 10am to 4pm every Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Mondays and Christmas Day, you are recommended to spend three hours on site. Tickets can be booked online via this link here

Group visits for 15 people or more can be organised as can sleepovers (£700 plus VAT).

The cost for a group to hear a bespoke talk on topics such as the history of the Lock-up, women in policing, World War II, the police strike or the Peaky Blinders is £15 per person and includes a demonstration of some of the handling collection and refreshments.

Generally speaking, the building is accessible by wheelchair (but not mobility scooter) via a side entrance off Coleridge Passage and lift. The narrowest part of the three floors is 820mm at specific points.

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