Along with Pentonville, Wormwood (“the Scrubs”) Scrubs and Holloway for the ladies, HMP Wandsworth enjoys high brand recognition among the nation’s prisons. It was opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction. In design it mainly comprised a central domed hub from which six three-storey wings emanated. Not quite the pure panopticon idea as Jeremy Bentham would have liked, but thinking along those lines. The regime also imposed the latest in prison theory – a separation and silence scheme whereby inmates neither saw nor heard their fellow lags from one year to the next – this was thought rather enlightened at the time. Wandsworth was a hanging gaol – originally for the County of Surrey – with a working gallows right up until 1993 (the death penalty in the UK was suspended under the Murder Act of 1965). Of its 153 condemned, notable victims included the traitor John Amery and Derek Bentley.
Last week a small group of London Historians members were given a tour of the prison. A proper tour. Right into the heart of the building, into the wings and among the prisoners themselves. They looked at us, totally without expression, for my part I found it rather unnerving. Though totally understandable, it’s a great shame that we could not take photos. I say this for purely architectural reasons, because the building is classic Victorian institutional architecture: imposing. The inevitable dome; countless bricks; much iron, as one would expect – bars, grilles, mesh. The paintwork throughout is cream and blue, which sounds nice at least. It is very noisy, helped along by the echo effect derived no doubt from the cavernous nature of the central hall. You really have to speak up to make yourself heard. You know he sound effects at the beginning of Porridge? It’s exactly like that, only more so. The whole experience was fascinating.
Afterwards we visited the prison’s tiny museum, which is outside the premises. One of our number has written that part of our visit here.
We are especially grateful to serving prison officer Stewart Mclaughlin who sanctioned our visit and chaperoned us throughout. He is the founding curator of the museum which he runs entirely on a voluntary basis. Stewart has offered our members another visit later in the year.