Posts Tagged ‘crime and punishment’

LH Member Caroline Derry reports on our outing to two great Brixton institutions on Friday 12 June: HMP Brixton (1820) and Brixton Windmill (1816).

DSC08999cOur Brixton visit included two buildings a short walk apart, both built at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and both still used for their original purpose – but very different!

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 .

HMP Brixton is on Jebb Avenue. Jacob Jebb was a long-serving and enlightened governor of the prison in the mid-19C.

HMP Brixton is on Jebb Avenue. Jacob Jebb was a long-serving and enlightened governor of the prison in the mid-19C.

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!

Brixton Windmill

Brixton Windmill

Brixton Windmill

Brixton Windmill


Brixton Windmill

Brixton Windmill



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A guest post by Wendy Wallace.

old bailey

The 20 tonne gilded statue of Justice by F.W. Pomeroy.

On a bitterly cold March evening, a group of London Historians had the opportunity to look around the Old Bailey – London’s most famous and historic criminal court.

There’s been a court on the site since the 1500s and much of the pomp and gravitas attached to this venerable institution survives. Dressed in an elaborate lace bib over a specially tailored suit, a black rosette hanging down from the collar at the back (a wig guard, for catching the powder from the syrup someone in his position would traditionally have worn) our guide and host had a title as elaborate as his garb.

Charles Henty, Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark, is an ex-military man who’s been running the Bailey for the last eight years. Disarmingly, when asked how long it took him to master the job, he replied that he is still learning.

And it is quite a job. The Bailey contains 18 courts and what the Secondary’s talk made clear above all else is that it’s a business. Each court costs around £80-100 per minute to operate and keeping courts running, with defendants, counsel, judges, press, relatives and public all in the right place at the right time, is a mighty exercise in logistics and security.

The Bailey – so known for the street on which it sits, is in its current incarnation an architectural mix, with the old building opened by Edward V11 in 1907 and the ‘new’ extension built in the 1970s. Its courtrooms and steps are familiar to all of us through television dramas and news programmes; trials ranging from the Kray twins to that of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and the quashing of the convictions of the Guilford Four, have occurred here.

In the sombre grandeur of court number one with its scarred wooden desks, curtained witness box, wide dock and under a dome through which pours what looks like natural light but is in fact electric light, Secondary, as he is addressed, gave a witty and passionate talk about an institution which lies at the heart of British justice. He expressed his concern over the ever-younger ages of defendants. Eleven and twelve year old children have in recent years appeared in this dock charged with murder, and rape.

Outside the main courts, briefs congregate in a magnificent marbled hall, its domed ceilings decorated with painted allegories of justice by the artist Gerald Moira. (Moira slipped in his own face in to a couple of these, showing himself as a artist in one and, in his painting of the Blitz, a tea-drinking crone.)

High on a wall in the new building, an embedded shard of glass has been allowed to remain; it’s a tiny and telling reminder of the IRA bomb that partially destroyed the building in 1973.

Down two or three storeys, in the bowels of the building, carpet gives way to quarry tiles. Here the walls are not Carrera marble but the most utilitarian painted brick. Here, in small cells, prisoners are held on their way in to and out of court.

And beyond this holding area, outside the building, in the most sombre and spine-chilling aspect of the visit, Secondary walked us by torchlight down Dead Man’s Walk – a series of brick doorways of ever decreasing size through which condemned prisoners once made their lonely way to the gallows.

The Old Bailey seems to indicate in its architecture the range of social positions, from the most exalted to the lowliest. One can’t help wondering how many of the defendants down the ages – if they’d had the advantages of those who run the system – would never have been ended up in the dock.


Wendy Wallace is an author and journalist, whose first novel – The Painted Bridge – was published in 2012.


Our visit was also covered by London Historians member, the writer Vic Keegan here.

Here’s a video clip showing interiors of the Old Bailey and featuring Charles Henty, Esq – Secondary of London and Under Sheriff, High Bailiff of Southwark.

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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.

hmp wandsworth

HMP Wandsworth: imposing.

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.

hmp wandsworth

Death warrants for high treason of John Amery and William Joyce (“Lord Haw-haw”)

HMP Wandsworth

Our group at the prison museum.

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.

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Mr Briggs' HatA murder, an investigation, a chase, a court case, an execution. That’s what this book is about. On 9 July 1864, Mr Thomas Briggs – a senior bank official in the City – was murdered while travelling home to Hackney on a train from Fenchurch Street. It was the first ever murder on Britain’s railways and it caused a sensation.

The story actually involves two hats: Mr Briggs’, which was stolen; and the murderer’s (or possibly one of the murderers’, plural, but I shan’t give the game away!), which was left in the carriage. Both were recovered. In the days when forensic policing was still in its infancy, it was these items of headgear which were at the centre of both the investigation and the prosecution case.

The narrative is compelling, exciting, deeply moving in many places, and gallops along at a good lick, not unlike the popular crime novels of the day: it is high drama through and through. In this sense, it really is a page-turner, as they say.

But Mr Brigg’s Hat is so much more than this. It is a thoroughly researched work of history from which the reader will learn much of mid-Victorian London, in particular (in the case of suspects) the daily lives of a specific social layer, I suppose what one might describe the bottom end of the lower middle class, people who lived on the rung above the subjects of Mayhew and Booth. Added to these we have shopkeepers, railway workers, cab drivers, doctors, lawyers and – at stage centre – the first generation of plain clothes detectives, a tiny band of sleuths who carried on their shoulders the expectations of millions of newspaper readers and the reputation of the Met itself.

We are given a snapshot in time of 1864 mid-Victorian London. As you read this book, you will learn without noticing all sorts of useful things about the contemporary historical landscape: public transport; the cost of living; the Law; gaol conditions; 19C New York during the American Civil War; contemporary policing. Most interesting for me were two particular issues. First, the role of the press – both popular and upmarket – in informing and influencing the public, police and politicians alike. Reporting restrictions on criminal cases such as we have today simply did not exist. Second, and related: attitudes generally to capital punishment. Large sections of the public loved it for the spectacle, turning out in their thousands: remarkably, a full forty years after the coming of the railways, we still had public hanging in this country. But, as the author demonstrates, at this time much influential opinion was turning against public executions in particular, and capital punishment in general. Yet it took a full century after the Briggs case for the ultimate sanction to be removed from our Statutes. Kate Colquhoun covers these issues excellently, giving the reader much pause for thought.

When I review a book, the more I like it, the harder it is to review because I rattle through it happily with hardly at thought to analysis. So if I tell you that Mr Briggs Hat has been particularly difficult to review,  you’ll know what a joy it was for me. The author has seemingly  without effort and without leaving anything out used 280 breezy pages where another would require double that. Quite an achievement.

The book is well-illustrated with photographs, maps, diagrams, prints etc. There are copious notes and references at the back, and a good index.

Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun (339pp, incl notes and index) is published by Little, Brown. Cover price £16.99 but available for £9.00 from our Amazon iStore, here.

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