LH Member Caroline Derry reports on our outing to two great Brixton institutions on Friday 12 June: HMP Brixton (1820) and Brixton Windmill (1816).
The morning was spent inside HMP Brixton, which opened in 1819 as Surrey House of Correction. Initially innovative, it became overcrowded and conditions worsened to the point that drastic changes had to be made. It became a women’s prison, then a military prison, a remand prison, and most recently, a men’s Category C prison.
Despite the changes and expansions over the centuries, parts of the original House of Correction survive. These include an external wall – which soon had to be heightened because prisoners were climbing over it to escape; and the governor’s house, which is of an unusual octagonal shape, a reminder that this was a very early panopticon-inspired gaol. The governor’s view included the prison treadmills, the first in the capital. Later survivals include the prison chapel, built in the 1850s when Brixton became a women’s prison. Today it is multi-faith, and was being set up for Muslim prayers during our visit.
As a Category C and D prison, Brixton houses men whose sentences are within a year of ending. Vocational training is prioritised, and our visit was accompanied by the delicious smells of the Bad Boys Bakery (set up for a Channel 4 documentary with Gordon Ramsay, but still going strong). Finally, a delicious three-course lunch was enjoyed in the Clink Restaurant, which is also staffed by prisoners. We are grateful to our excellent guide Christopher Impey, fellow London Historian and the author of London’s Oldest Prison .
After a morning in spaces from which the public are usually carefully excluded, a quick stroll took us to Brixton Windmill, which positively welcomes visitors. It opens regularly during the summer, although we were fortunate enough to have the mill – and tea and cakes – to ourselves. In the company of volunteer guides we climbed to the top of the building, which celebrates its bicentenary next year.
Like the prison, the mill has seen significant changes in its long life. The Ashby family operated it as a windmill until 1864, when Brixton’s transformation from agricultural area to city suburb meant the all-important winds weren’t reaching it. The Ashbys moved to a watermill, but kept their Brixton site for storage. In 1902, though, it resumed milling once more – with steam-powered machinery. The mill finally closed in 1934, but was first restored in the 1960s. A more recent restoration in 2010 allowed the mill to open for tours, and it has even started milling flour once more!