Trondheim’s Prison History


Trondheim’s Prison History

This online exhibit shows how the prison and slavery systems in Trondheim have functioned from the 13th century to modern times.

This presentation is dedicated to Terje Leer. Without his support, it would not have been possible. It was originally adapted for the internet by Maren Marie Sørli Enga og Agnar Einarsson, at Thora Storm Videregående school, class 2DHIU.

During the reign of King Magnus Håkonson, at the end of the 13th century, the law allowed for incarceration at the King’s fortresses in response to violent crimes. However, this type of incarceration was more about hard labour than the loss of freedom. Christian V’s Norwegian Code of 1687 shows that there was a rising tendency to differentiate, but prison sentences were still mostly about hard labour.

This watch was the slaves’ main quarters from around 1700. The area was surrounded by a 9 foot high plank wall with spikes. As late as 1840, 46 slaves were interned here.

The loss of freedom, which is the core principle in the modern prison, was more a by-product of the punishment.

In Trondheim, after a war with Sweden and the rise of absolutism in 1660, works on the fortresses began. Munkholmen was rebuilt from 1662, and after a fire in the city in 1681 new regulations were put in place and the city rebuilt as a fortress-town, with Kristiansten as the fort. This opened up new opportunities for the use of prisoners in the region.

During the beginning of the 18th century, Trondheim’s fortresses were increasingly used as prisons. The slaves were divided between Munkholmen, the city gate out by Ila, and by the watch at Brattøra.

In 1764 the running of the prisons was handed over to their own administration with their own officials. The oldest prison protocol in Trondheim’s Fortress archive is from the same year. This might indicate that this reform led to a more orderly prisoner treatment.

The slaveries, however, lay outside the local fortress commandant’s control, and was not placed under the Ministry of Justice’s administration until 1841.


Munkholmen was used as a state prison during the 17th and 18th centuries, especially for political prisoners. The most famous of these was the Danish politician Griffenfeld (1635-1699), who was imprisoned between 1680 and 1698.

Plan from Christian Vs’s journey to Norway in 1733, plan of Munkholmen. Public domain image from Det Kongelige Bibliotek København
Photo: Justismuseet

Kristiansten festning

In 1739 it was decided that delinquents could be sentenced to work in the “nearest fortress”. Kristiansten was one of these, and was used as a slavery to ca. 1800. It was again used for a period in the spring of 1945 as an internment camp for those accused of treason.

The Watch at Skansen

The watch was built in 1837. It monitored the traffic through the city gate that originally spanned Kongens gate, and also the Slavery behind it (later known as the Criminal Asylum, today The Norwegian Museum of Justice).

Photo: Justismuseet. The watch at Skansen as seen from Kongens gate.

The town jail

Underneath Trondheim’s old town hall, which today is part of the city’s library, lay the city jail until 1863. As late as the early 19th century, the floors of the cells were made of earth. Sanitation was very poor. The stench, which sometimes rose up through the floors above, could become so overwhelming that the city court had to burn incense. The jail had room for no more than 12 people, but research shows that there were occasions when up to 42 people were jailed. Most of the people in jail were awaiting trial. Many were put there due to drunkenness, or to serve short sentences.

Under Trondheim’s old town hall, today the library, was the city jail until 1863. Drawing: Mathiesen, Henrik. Photo: NTNU/Gunnerus

The most famous “guest” was probably Gjest Baardsen and the notorious counterfeiter Jens Fenstad. These two gentlement occupied so-called secure cells. These cells had no windows or heating. The only light in the cells came once a day when the small door for food was opened.

In the jail, men and women were placed together. The authorities were not too concerned with what went on inside the cells. Marit Andersdatter, for example, came to the workhouse on the 26th of September 1791 and explained the child was the result of time in the jail with a fellow inmate.

In Norway, Trondheim became the first city to organise its poverty work according to the new incarceration model developed in England and Holland from 1555 to 1596. In 1639, the so-called “Verkhuset” (workhouse) opened, built between the cathedral and Kjøpmannsgata. The institution was meant for the begging poor – mainly women.

The workhouse

After the city fire of 1681, the workhouse was not rebuilt, despite having the available space set aside. It wasn’t until 1732 that a new workhouse was built at Kalvskinnet by a citizen of the city, across the street from Hospitalkirken. The king had gifted the land, and the neighbouring plot and building was bought to make room. Already in 1768 it was said that the workhouse was in such a poor condition that thieves couldn’t be kept out, nor the inmates kept in. In 1770 the buildings were sold, to be destroyed.

The workhouse from Kongens gate. Photo: Justismuseet

By royal decree on the 1st of June 1770, permission was given to spend 1/3 of the proceeds from the Thomas Angells foundation over six years to rebuild the workhouse. The new drawings were provided by Chief inspector Heide. The main building still stands today. One building was also erected to the west, towards Kongens gate. The work took about one year, beginning in the spring of 1771.

It was only during the 19th century that incarceration and the loss of freedom became the central element in punishments. This was embodied by the new prison architecture, the Philadelphia model. This system required strict isolation of the inmates, preventing their ability to make money and buy food to supplement their rations. Instead, they were given the opportunity to work for extra rations. There were clear goals for every type of work, and to get extra food the inmate had to work beyond the norm. One inmate in Trondheim’s fortress slavery knitted socks, and normally made 2 pairs of long socks and 4 pairs of short socks. To earn extra food, he had to knit 3 pairs of long socks or 6 pairs of short socks. If he wanted double extra food, he had to deliver 4 pairs long, or 8 pairs of short socks. This same system was used for all types of work.

From inside the courtyard of the workhouse. Photo: Justismuseet

In the workhouse the separation of the sexes was fairly random, and unwanted pregnancies were not uncommon. From the arrest-log for the jail: 19.05.1745 the boy Johan Friderich Andersen is transferred from the workhouse to the jail to serve a 3 month sentence, after impregnating no less than 3 women in the workhouse, where he was already serving time. There was a difference between work-institutions and slaveries. While slaveries were institutions with clear criminal connotations, the workhouses were considered social institutions that aimed to care and intern vagabonds and unemployed who had trouble integrating into society.

The prison

Trondheim District Prison. Photo: Justismuseet

The prison system underwent a massive reorganisation from the middle of the 19th century towards the 20th. In 1875, a new position was created in the Ministry of Justice to oversee the entire prison system. The Board of Prisons began their work at the same time, and from then on the entire leadership of the prison system operated under the Ministry of Justice’s purview. With the law of 30.04.1877, Trondheim’s workhouse was made equal to the fortress penal works. This meant that the workhouse officially became a prison.

In 1879 the workhouse received all male and female prisoners from Trondheim and Trømsø districts. It was eventually decided that Trondheim workhouse should take all male inmates as far south as Toten magistrate. The same year that the workhouse changed its name to Trondheim Penal Institute, it was decided that the male inmates from Bergen workhouse, including the city’s fortress penal works, were to be transferred there. In October of 1900 there was another name change. It was now called Trondheim Country Prison. In 1920, the prison was shut down and the majority of buildings and positions were incorporated into Trondheim District Prison, as ward C.

By a new resolution on 16.03.1904, it was decided that the prison was to become the South Trondheim County District Prison from 1.4.1904 onward. With the simultaneous creation of Trondheim District Prison, the main administration’s office was at Vollan. Until 1971, Trondheim District Prison existed primarily as an administrative unit. Before the move to today’s Tunga, the District Prison consisted of various wards located in different buildings spread around Trondheim’s center.

Trondheim District Prison:

  • Ward A: Vollan
  • Ward B: Mungegata 16
  • Ward C. Kongegate 85
  • Ward D: The Criminal Asylum.

Trondheim’s District Prison was instituted by royal resolution on 6.8.1864. The prison was initially under the city magistrate. In reality the prison was a continuation of the town hall jail. By royal resolution of 31.12.1913 it was incorporated into Trondheim District Prison. With the closing of the Country Prison in 1920, the District Prison ward B was, along with the other wards, placed under the city magistrate. The prison in Munkegata was closed between 1951 and 55, and during the institution’s last days it was occupied by those violating house arrest.

The District Prison, Tunga, was completed in 1971. It replaced the various wards in the city centre.