Long post warning.
This turned out longer than anticipated, I hope you find it worthwhile and of interest.
When reading history books, or even novels, about England or London you often come across mention of Bedlam, or Newgate, or Tyburn or Bridewell &c. Like many, I know that these are historic places of asylum, gaol or execution, but that’s about the strength of it. I thought it would be a good exercise to find out a bit more and share it with you. But I soon discovered that this was a massive subject, too lengthy for a simple blog post. So here I’ve put together a snapshot of some well-known institutions and will have to open up with further details sometime in the near future.
But I will for the moment make a few observations. First, incarceration for whatever reason was perceived very differently in the past than from today. Fixed sentences such as we have today were rare. A prison was usually where you were on remand awaiting trial, the expected punishment being anything from the stocks, a fine, judicial maiming, transporation &c., to execution. Gaols were mostly mixed and often – particularly in the case of debtors prisons – prisoners were joined by their immediate family. Apart from the Tower, gaols were run privately, occasionally by charities. These institutions depended heavily for much of their income from the prisoners themselves, who could buy anything from preferential treatment to actually living at home or in other accommodation outside the prison (“Inside the Rules”), a bit like modern house arrest.
Second, a disproportionate number of London’s prisons were south of the Thames, notably in Southwark, along with the bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog fighting, early purpose-built theatres and other unseemly institutions.
Finally, during public upheaval – from Wat Tyler’s rebellion to the Gordon Riots – prisons were always a key target of the mob, many getting repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt down the centuries.
Bedlam 1247 – today.
Name derivation from Bethlehem. Founded 1247 as a priory for the Sisters of the Star of Bethlehem in Bishopsgate, site of today’s Liverpool Street Station. Mental hospital from 1337. The notorious Bedlam hospital of Hogarth, public spectacle and brutality was founded in Moorfields in 1675 in buildings designed by Robert Hooke. In 1815 a new purpose-built home was constructed in Southwark where inmates (“unfortunates”) were treated a little more humanely, but still under extremely harsh conditions by today’s standards. This building became the Imperial War Museum in 1936, the inmates having been moved to Bedlam’s current home near Beckenham, Kent as the Bethlem Royal Hospital.
HMP Belmarsh 1991 – today
Modern, Category A prison in Woolwich. Most famous inmate to date: Jeffrey Archer.
Bridewell 1556 – 1855
Bridewell Palace was purpose-built by Henry VIII in the early 1500s on the banks of the Fleet River; it was dedicated to St Bride. Less-enamoured with the palace than his father, Edward VI gave it to the City of London in 1553. The City converted it into a prison-cum-hospital three years later. The word “bridewell” became a general term for a prison elsewhere in London, England and beyond. The original gate house of Bridewell still exists in New Bridge Street.
HMP Brixton 1820 – today
Originally Surrey House of Correction. Housed men and women in the 19C, and also accommodated children of women prisoners during that time. Served as a miltary prison 1882 – 98. Today is a remand and trial prison.
Clerkenwell House of Detention, see New Prison (below).
The Clink 1444 – 1780
Notorious medieval prison for both men and women. Based in Southwark and owned by the Bishops of Winchester. Not much used after the Civil War except as a debtor’s prison. Burned down during the Gordon Riots and never restored. Today the Clink Museum is located on the original site.
Coldbath Fields early 17C – 1885
Based in Clerkenwell on the site now occupied by the Mount Pleasant sorting office. This was a mixed prison for felons, vagrants and debtors – originally the prison for the County of Middlesex, sometimes know as Clerkenwell Gaol. Rebuilt in 1794, extended in 1850. Fire damaged in 1877. Absorbed Clerkenwell Bridewell (1615 – 1794) in 1794.
Fleet Prison 1197 – 1844
Located on the east bank of the Fleet River, now Farringdon Street. Destroyed and rebuilt three times: Wat Tylers mob 1381; Great Fire of London 1666; Gordon Riots 1780. Mainly a prison for debtors and bankrupts.
HMP Holloway 1852 – today
Based in the Holloway area of Islington, Holloway was originally a mixed prison but changed to an all-women prison as it remains today. It was completely rebuilt in the late 20C. Five women have been executed in Holloway, the last being Ruth Ellis in 1955.
Horsemonger Lane Gaol 1790s -1878
Like so many prisons, based in Southwark. Mixed debtor and criminal institution, judicial executions for the County of Surrey were undertaken here. Known as Surrey County Gaol from 1859. The site is now a public park, Newington Gardens.
HMP Latchmere House 1948 – today
Based in Ham, near Richmond. Formerly a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers after World War I, it became a MI5 detention and interregation centre for enemy spies during World War II. Now a Category D mens’ prison.
King’s Bench Prison (pre-1400s – 1880)
Another Southwark Prison, near Borough High Street. Mainly a debtor’s prison, renamed the Queen’s Prison in 1842.
Marshalsea 1329 – 1842
Based in Southwark, and mainly known as a debtor’s prison, famously featured in Little Dorrit. Also used by the navy for servicemen under court martial. There were two Marshalseas, both on or near Borough High Street: Marshalsea I: c1329 – 1811 ; Marshalsea II 1811 – 1842, on the former site of White Lion Prison/Borough Gaol. Marshalsea was closed in 1842 by Act of Parliament and sold off.
Millbank Prison 1816 – 1890
Based in Pimlico, a model prison based on principles laid down by Jeremy Bentham. Mainly used as a holding facility for inmates facing Transportation (until 1868). Tate Britain now occupies the site.
New Prison 1717 – 1877
Detention prison in Clerkenwell, next door to Clerkenwell Bridewell. Rebuilt in 1773, 1818 and 1847. Target of Gordon Riots, 1780. From 1847 known as Clerkenwell House of Detention. Once housed the infamous Jack Shepperd.
Newgate 1188 – 1902
In use for over 700 years, Newgate was most well-known, long-lived and notorious of all London’s prisons, located where Newgate Street meets Old Bailey. It was damaged, destroyed and rebuilt many times. London’s public executions by hanging tranferred from Tyburn to Newgate in 1783, continuing until 1868 when they were held away from public view inside the prison. The Old Bailey now stands on the site.
Tyburn 1537 – 1783
Tyburn was originally a village in the County of Middlesex just west and to the north of modern Oxford Street before it became a notorious execution site. Condemned prisoners were tranferred, typically from Newgate Prison, to Tyburn’s gallows, which were commonly known as “the Tyburn Tree”. Today the site is marked on a traffic island at the junction of Oxford Street and Edgware Road.
HMP Wandsworth 1851 – today
London’s largest prison.
HMP Wormwood Scrubs 1874 – today
Site is in the north part of Hammersmith and Fulham Borough immediately north of the A40. Built by Edward du Cane of the Royal Engineers, using prison labour. Distinctive twin towered gatehouse.
UPDATE – Compters
When I originally posted this, I knew nothing of compters (sometimes known as counters). Compters were small City prisons dating from medieval times, most of which were closed in the early 19C and their prisoners dispersed to other institutions. Generally speaking, they were used to house less-serious civil miscreants such as debtors, religious dissenters and asylum-seeking slaves, typically from the West Indies. London’s compters included Wood Street Counter, Poultry Compter, Giltspur Street Compter and Borough Compter. I shall post separately on compters in due course.