Posts Tagged ‘Giltspur Street Compter’

Yesterday’s trip to town started at St Sepulchre without Newgate, my “new experience of the day”. It is diagonally opposite the Old Bailey, the former site of Newgate Prison, on the junction of Newgate Street and Old Bailey. It’s celebrated in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons with the line: When will you pay me? say the Bells of Old Bailey.

St Sepulchre is one of the larger of our City churches, originally being in a well-populated parish outside the wall (“without Newgate”). In common with many of the others, it bears the scars of time. Although founded in the 12th Century and dedicated to St Edmund, the oldest parts of the extant building, namely the tower, the porch and the outer walls, date from the mid-16th century. Following severe damage in the Great Fire, the parishioners, too impatient to wait for Wren to get around to them, were able to engage one of his leading stonemasons to restore the church very quickly in 1670.

"St Sepulchre without Newgate"

St Sepulchre without Newgate


The Execution Bell

The Execution Bell

The Execution Bell
My main interest in the church is its relationship with Newgate Prison down the centuries, in particular with regard to condemned prisoners. These unfortunates, on the day of their execution, were literally carted from Newgate to Tyburn. On these particular days, and on no other, the bells of St Sepulcre were rung. From 1605 there began a macabre ritual whereby at midnight on the eve of execution, a man would go to the prison via a tunnel that ran underneath the street, stand outside the cell of the condemned, ring a handbell and recite a grisly rhyme:

All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls
The Lord above have mercy on your soul. 

As if the prisoners were not suitably traumatised already! Today the bell is displayed in a glass case in the church.

St Sepulchre is also the regimental church of the Royal Fusiliers, whose monument in High Holborn I referred to last week. The south aisle is dominated by their chapel, standards and battle honours. Some of their better known recruits, for all the wrong reasons, were the Kray twins, who did their national service with the regiment. Ronnie and Reggie ended up in the Tower for going AWOL!

In addition to all of this, from the mid-20th Century, St Sepulchre became known as the Musician’s Church and their are stained glass windows commemorating John Ireland, Sir Henry Wood and Dame Nellie Melba. The church frequently hosts recitals.

One last thing. In the middle of the south aisle, there is a stained glass window dedicated to Captain John Smith, early American pioneer of Pocahontas fame. He was a parishioner and is buried somewhere in the church, the exact location lost due to the Great Fire.

I cannot recommend too highly a visit to this fascinating church.

Prison Cell in Giltspur Street

Prison Cell in Giltspur Street

I nipped across the road to the Viaduct Tavern pub, wafted my London Historians card, and requested that the barmaid accompany me to the cells in the basement. Many sources claim that these cells were from Newgate prison. This is not possible. Far more likely that they were from Giltspur Street Compter, previously covered here. I took a few pictures, and took my leave.

Quick tube to Leicester Square and a stroll down Whitehall through driving rain past the Cenotaph to the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster. “Doing my bit” for Armistice Day. The builders’ hoardings that recently obscured the statues of World War II top brass field marshalls Montgomery, Alanbrook and Slim are now gone.

Dark now. Back up Whitehall to Covent Garden. I had an hour to kill, which I spent in Stanfords. Very dangerous. Managed to escape having spent just £27.50, could have been worse. London street map from 1891; two area maps (Charing Cross area, 1871 ; St Paul’s area map, 1873); Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell  by Stephen Halliday.

Northern Line to Warren Street and a short walk to UCL. Dark now. Nearly get killed crossing Tottenham Court Road when a gust of wind blows away my M&S tweed cap. Straight into a large puddle. Typical.

On to the UCL campus for the Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture by Professor Amanda Vickery. The topic was What did eighteenth-century men want? Professor Vickery told us how the modern image of bachelorhood as being a carefree, manly lifestyle – indeed, something to be admired among the Loaded generation –  is quite the opposite of that during the 18th Century. Older bachelors were portrayed in art and literature as being physically poor specimens and social misfits. Failures in life. This was sharply in contrast to the manly head of the marital household: hard-working, worthy, virile, deserving. Professor Vickery illustrated all of this with very amusing slides and diary entries by seemingly rather naive young men, desperately wooing any eligible young ladies who socially crossed their bows.

Professor Vickery has presented history programmes on Radio 4 recently and her forthcoming series, At Home with the Georgians, airs in the very near future on BBC2. Look out for it.


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When I wrote about prisons recently, I did not include compters, simply because I was unaware of them. Shortly afterwards I was at a talk at Camden History Society, at which the speaker, in passing, mentioned these institutions.

Compters – sometimes called counters –  were small prisons for minor transgressors such as debtors, religious dissidents, drunks, prostitutes, homosexuals and asylum-seeking slaves. But their inmates were overwhelmingly debtors. They existed from medieval times and were all closed by the mid-19C, their inmates being dispersed to other institutions.

London had two compters north of the river (Wood Street and Poultry) and one south (Borough). Wood Street was preceded by Bread Street until 1555 and succeeded in 1791 by Giltspur Street, but essentially the heyday of  compters involved the three mentioned.

Compters were run by a sheriff and his staff, all of whom were essentially a law unto themselves, parliamentary inspectors having no jurisdiction whatever within the walls. They charged inmates for everything essential to survival and comfort: food, drink, clothes, bedding, warmth, medicine – the lot. Many prisoners – by definition already having money problems – often found themselves in a downward spiral of increasing poverty and squalor. In theory they could take in work from outside – tailoring, shoe repairing and the like – but this seems rarely to have happened in practice. At their height in the 17th and 18th centuries, compters would often lose half a dozen inmates per week to disease, but there was on shortage of re-supply.

These institutions were notorious even in their own time with constant complaints from reformers and former prisoners via Parliament, newspapers and pamphleteering, to little avail. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1712 designed to aleviate the plight of demonstrably irredeemable debtors – it had little effect. It was not until the groundswell of Victorian reform was sufficiently powerful that compters were finally shut down for good in the 1850s.

Wood Street Compter
Wood Street Compter, in Cheapside, opened in 1555 as a replacement for Bread Street Compter from where all the inmates were transferred. Depending on how flush you were, when entering the compter you could choose to stay in the Master’s Side, the Knight’s Ward or the Hole, these names being self-explanatory as to what level of comfort you could expect. Every officer and every service had to be paid for by the prisoner, what was known as “garnish”. Incarceration in the compter could be a very expensive experience indeed. A pamphlet of 1617 complained that:

…when a gentleman is brought in by the watch for some misdemeanour committed, that he must pay at least an angell before he be discharged; hee must pay twelvepence for turning the key at the master-side dore two shillings to the chamberleine, twelvepence for his garnish for wine, tenpence for his dinner, whether he stay or no, and when he comes to be discharged at the booke, it will cost at least three shillings and sixpence more, besides sixpence for the booke-keeper’s paines, and sixpence for the porter. ..

wood street compter

Wood Street Compter

Wood Street Compter was burned down in the Great Fire and rebuilt within a few years. It was eventually closed in 1791 and its inmates transferred to the new Giltspur Street Compter.

Poultry Compter

Poultry Compter

Poultry Compter

Also based in Cheapside, Poultry was so-named because of its proximity to the poultry market. Compters did not officially have specialities, but Poultry was known for its Jewish and black inmates. The former was probably simply due to its proximity to Jewry with its concentration of Jewish residents. It is said that the compter escaped attack during the Gordon Riots of 1780 because Lord Gordon had strong Jewish sympathies. The black prisoners were almost all ex-slaves, whose status was under law ambiguous. Their owners claimed that they were still slaves, while reformers and the men themselves, reasonably argued that there was no slavery in Britain and therefore once on British soil they had become free men. It was shortly after an ex-slave James Somerset won his freedom in just such a case in 1772, that the poet William Cowper wrote:

Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Imbibe our air, that moment they are free

Poultry Compter was pulled down in 1817.

Borough Compter
Borough was the only compter south of the river. Originally in Borough High Street, it moved to Tooley Street in 1717. It was overwhelmingly a debtors prison, but held a small number of proper felons over the years. It was closed in 1855, almost simultaneously with Giltspur Street, bringing an end to the era of compters. 

Giltspur Street Compter
The newest of the compters, Giltspur Street opened in 1791, replacing Wood Street and absorbing some of Poultry’s inmates when that institution closed in 1817. It was based in Smithfield, opposite Newgate Prison. There was a plan to convert the compter into a full-fledged prison in 1819, but nothing came of it in the end. Giltspur Street was eventually closed in 1853 and demolished two years later.

Wikipedia, as per.
The best source I found, drawn on heavily here, is Old and New London, Vol.1 (1878) by Walter Thornbury, re-published online by British History Online (sponsored by the Centre for Metropolitan History). The bits about Wood Street Compter and Poultry Compter, as linked here.

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