The Southgate Arch is the last remaining medieval gateway into Launceston, and dates from the time when Launceston was the only walled Town in Cornwall. It was essential that it should be strong enough to ward off any attacks from outside and to this end it had a portcullis, drawbridge and moat.
Two Keepers were employed and they were responsible for the raising and lowering of the drawbridge at the necessary times, and for keeping the mechanism in working order.
In 1446 the Town spent £3.8s.01/2d in cleaning and repairing the Arch but, by the sixteenth century, the chambers you now see replaced those which had been constructed solely for the purpose of fortification.
The early eighteen hundreds saw it as a house of detention - a gaol for petty offenders and a prison for debtors. The top storey was for debtors but this was rarely used because of the scandalous conditions; rather than confine them in such a dungeon many local tradesmen let their debtors go free.
The lower room was for criminals and, like the room above, was in a filthy and dilapidated state. No fire was allowed, sanitary conveniences were unknown and water had to be brought in by the jailer when it suited him to do so.
In 1827 matters came to a head when five suspected burglars were refused bail and had to remain in the dark house - as it was known - with only one bed between them and without ventilation or comfort of any kind. The Home Secretary was notified of their plight and an order was issued for their immediate release on bail and that the prison be refurbished. In 1884 it was closed as a prison.
The Town Council resolved that it should become a Museum and duly voted funds for its repair and improvements. A cottage beside the Arch was demolished and a smaller Arch built with pedestrian footpath for easier access to Southgate Street. Battlements around the top of the Gateway and a plaque on the side of the building commemorating Queen Victoria's Jubilee completed the refurbishment.
It was the Town's Museum until the 1950s, then an antique shop for a number of years, followed by being used as a Gallery for the Arts and a Photographic Studio. From February 2010 it was used by the Town Council as offices, whilst the Town Hall underwent major refurbishment. It is now a Gallery and opening hours may vary.
Updated November 2015