A new exhibition on the history of HMP Wandworth opens at the Wandsworth Museum this Friday, commemorating the 160th anniversary of the former Surrey House of Correction.
Now an imposing and grim Victorian edifice, in 1851 the gaol was the acme of modern theory on incarceration and rehibilitation, incorporating the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and other deep thinkers on such matters. The name of the exhibition is a good summary: Separation and Silence. Victorians viewed criminality as a kind of illness that could be cured in the same was as disease, that is to say isolating patients/prisoners from infection, first and foremost. Hence prisons were built that accommodated prisoners one to a cell with no interaction with other human beings – apart from warders – whatsoever. And these are the gaols that are so familiar to us today through TV programmes such as Porridge and countless crime dramas.
The exhibition tells us all about the history of HMP Wandsworth – mostly grim but deeply interesting – yet also features photography, artwork and needlework by currently serving prisoners. Without being in any way patronising, these are all of astoundingly high quality: there’s talent behind them bars. So there is an upbeat side to the show as well.
The most engaging part of the show is inevitably celebrity (Oscar Wilde, Ronald Biggs) and capital punishment (John Amery, William Joyce, Derek Bentley). HMP Wandworth had a working gallows right up until 1993. Although capital punishment was generally abolished in 1965, there were still capital crimes on the statute books that recently (treason, piracy with violence etc.). The most macabre exhibit is an execution box, which contained the tools of the trade that despatchers such as Albert Pierrepoint used. See the image below.
This show is an excellent peek behind the walls of Victorian prisons, so many of which are still with us today.
Separation and Silence opens on 16 September and runs until 31 December. Entry is £4. More information from the Wandsworth Museum web site.