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Book Review: Bloody London by David Fathers.
’20 Walks in London, Tracing its Gruesome and Horrific History’

coverLondon’s history is nothing if not turbulent. Over the years, authors and historians in their dozens if not hundreds have latched onto this city’s violent past to produce books which are often sensationalised or speculative or both. Equally, there have been a shedload of guide books, also varying in quality. A sub-genre of this – becoming quite popular in recent times –  are the self-guided walk publications. This new book, by David Fathers, combines all of this in a volume which is of exceptionally high standard in all departments.

The book’s title and indeed his informative introduction, focuses strongly on death, murder and execution. I’ve always been quite interested in execution and even more so on duels. Yet there’s a lot here that’s new to me, for example the mid 18C axeman John Thrift who was particularly unpopular even by the standards of his trade; and on the very same page, the sword duel between Beau Wilson and John Law. All good, bloody stuff.  But actually you’ll find a huge diversity of topics. Riots, raids, disasters. The 1878 Princess Alice disaster is, of course covered. In the immediate aftermath of my previous review, it was pleasing to see a six page treatment of the first Zeppelin bombing of London on 31 May 1915 with the murderous route of LZ38 and every single one of its bombs mapped.

zeppelin page

So you’ll find both the familiar and a pleasing amount of the unfamiliar here, but the point is, all of it comes across as fresh.

The walks vary in distance from just under a kilometre to around 10K. Of course, one isn’t obliged to stay the distance. Each route is laid out by the author in elegant, easy-to-read maps which spread across the pages, skilfully integrated with the text descriptions and illustrations.

Bloody London is written in an interesting and matter-of-fact style, compelling material handled in a non-sensational way: as the reader, you feel in good hands. But for me the most impressive thing about this book is that the author has designed and illustrated it himself, and done it quite beautifully. Very few people indeed can do this. Ben Schott is the only other writer I can think of who does this successfully. The upshot is that the pages here are fit to bursting without seeming cluttered. And there are nice touches; every spread contains a tiny diagram telling you the exact distance of that part of the walk. Little additions which produce a very satisfactory whole.

At 174 x 150 mm the book is slightly larger than what one might call pocket size, but still small enough for easy handling and legibility on  your walks.
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This is definitely a book worth owning, whether you use it on the road or simply to have an enjoyable read.


Bloody London (128pp) by David Fathers is published by Conway in paperback, fully illustrated in full colour, with a cover price of £9.99.

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Review: Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors. A guest post by LH Member Joanna Moncrieff.

insolvent ancestors“A unique introduction to a neglected historical source” is what jumped out at me when I was first given this book to review. That sounded intriguing.

I have recently realised that many of the resources I use for researching my family tree are equally as useful for research for my guided walks and vice versa.

‘Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors’ by Paul Blake is a case in point. This book could definitely be marketed to an entirely different audience as it has a wealth of detailed information about many of London’s debtor prisons with lots of pointers as to where you can find out more.

Although it isn’t specifically about London the main focus is on it and the book is packed with facts and examples of records in relation to the prisons’ history. The background history of each prison is gone into together with how to access its records. Other chapters delve into the history of the various courts and how they operated. Everything you need to know about the history and operation of debtors’ prisons is in this book.

Those of us who are Clerkenwell and Islington Guides and who guide in and around Old Street talk about Whitecross Street debtors’ prison. An in depth history of the prison and how it operated together with examples of research about various inmates gives a real insight into life as a debtor.

In between the sections about what records are available are lots of interesting snippets perfect for tour guides. For example an 1847 report from the Inspectors of Prisons likened the prison at Lancaster Castle to a ‘noisy tavern and tea-garden’.

I was amazed to discover that the National Archives has an account book listing names of beggars and the tiny amounts they collected at the Fleet begging grate from the 1820s. This fact has already been shared by me with guiding colleagues.

But how do you know where to find this information? There are detailed instructions of what records are available and how you can access them. There are tips on what records have the most info and that some records show a key to more detailed records that are available elsewhere. We are also encouraged to use the TNA catalogue to get an idea of what is held in local archives.  The chapter on Newspapers, Periodicals, Journals and Directories includes lots of practical advice about what is available online and how you can find it.

So much work must have gone into this book to collate such a wealth of material and searching tips. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in social history.


Tracing your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians (224pp) by Paul Blake is published by Pen & Sword with a cover price of £14.99 but available for less if you shop around. Note: We have linked to National Archives bookshop here because same price as Amazon, they have a fabulous selection and have frequent sales from their online shop. Give them a try!


Joanna Moncrieff is a long-standing Member of London Historians and also a qualified guide for Westminster and Clerkenwell & Islington. Her blog.

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The Wandsworth Prison Museum was founded and has been run by a London Historians Member for the past 10 years. He is a serving prison officer at HMP Wandsworth. He has organised these on-site events during 2018.

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WANDSWORTH PRISON MUSEUM
2008-2018 10th Anniversary Events

20.5.18 Boardroom Talk “ The Prison & the First World War” Spies, hangings,
Conscientious Objectors, Easter Rising.

8.7.18 “The Ronnie Biggs escape” (8.7.1965) External and internal wall walk
and talk during the history tour of the escape.

8.9.18 Boardroom talk “Wandsworth’s Last hanging and the end of capital
punishment” (8.9.1961)

4.11.18 Boardroom talk “Oscar Wilde, his time at HMP Wandsworth

The above events are taking place for a maximum of 20 per event, as part of a small scale celebration of 10 years of the Wandsworth Prison Museum.

The venue for the talks is the Governor’s Boardroom inside the prison but all groups will meet initially at the Wandsworth Prison Museum at 11am. The talks and one walk will be for approximately one hour.

To book.
As the venue is inside the prison, the following is needed to make a booking:
Name, address and date of birth of each visitor. Visitors must be over the age of 18.
One booking per person, which is not transferable as there may be a waiting list should any event be over booked.
Bookings can be made by emailing: Wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk or in writing at Wandsworth Prison Museum, C/O POA Office, Heathfield Road, London SW18 3HS

The above is the current agenda, other events may be added if time and resources permit

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Clerkenwell Design Week allows the public rare access to the only remaining bits of Clerkenwell House of Detention, also known as the Middlesex House of Detention. They are the underground vaults, here pictured.

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This institution was primarily a remand centre for prisoners awaiting trial at the nearby Middlesex Sessions House (still standing in largely original condition).

The main incident for which this prison is well-known, if at all, was a Fenian bomb attack on 13 December 1867. It became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage. The plan of this attack was to affect the escape of Fenian prisoners, primarily one Michael Blake. In addition to killing 12 bystanders, the attack was a fairly bodgy affair, with the perpetrators having to borrow matches for the purpose from some passing children. The ringleader, Michael Barrett, was found guilty of murder and became the last person to be publicly hanged at the notorious Newgate Prison, on 24 May 1868.

Both prisons were demolished in the years ahead, Clerkenwell in 1890 and Newgate in 1907.

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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.

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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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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.

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No prison exhibition would be complete without this.

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Prison cell furniture, made by prisoners themselves. No nails, screws: all wood, dowels etc.

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Execution box. All the paraphernalia to despatch the condemned. Contains two nooses, just in case.

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Briefcase and personal belongings of HB (Harry) Allen, Britain's last working executioner, who despatched James Hanratty in 1962.

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.

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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.

Sources:
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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