Posts Tagged ‘Prison’

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.

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.

DSC03307c DSC03308c DSC03309b DSC03313c

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.

wandsworth museum

wandsworth museum

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.

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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Long post warning.
This turned out longer than anticipated, I hope you find it worthwhile and of interest.

When reading history books, or even novels,  about England or London you often come across mention of Bedlam, or Newgate, or Tyburn or Bridewell &c.  Like many, I know that these are historic places of asylum, gaol or execution, but that’s about the strength of it. I thought it would be a good exercise to find out a bit more and share it with you. But I soon discovered that this was a massive subject, too lengthy for a simple blog post. So here I’ve put together a snapshot of some well-known institutions and will have to open up with further details sometime in the near future.

But I will for the moment make a few observations. First, incarceration for whatever reason was perceived very differently in the past than from today. Fixed sentences such as we have today were rare. A prison was usually where you were on remand awaiting trial, the expected punishment being anything from the stocks, a fine, judicial maiming, transporation &c.,  to execution. Gaols were mostly mixed and often – particularly in the case of debtors prisons – prisoners were joined by their immediate family. Apart from the Tower, gaols were run privately, occasionally by charities. These institutions depended heavily for much of their income from the prisoners themselves, who could buy anything from preferential treatment to actually living at home or in other accommodation outside the prison (“Inside the Rules”), a bit like modern house arrest.

Second, a disproportionate number of London’s prisons were south of the Thames, notably in Southwark, along with the bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dog fighting, early purpose-built theatres and other unseemly institutions.

Finally, during public upheaval – from Wat Tyler’s rebellion to the Gordon Riots – prisons were always a key target of the mob, many getting repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt down the centuries.

Bedlam 1247 – today.
Name derivation from Bethlehem. Founded 1247 as a priory for the Sisters of the Star of Bethlehem in Bishopsgate, site of today’s Liverpool Street Station. Mental hospital from 1337. The notorious Bedlam hospital of  Hogarth, public spectacle and brutality was founded in Moorfields in 1675 in buildings designed by Robert Hooke. In 1815 a new purpose-built home was constructed in Southwark where inmates (“unfortunates”) were treated a little more humanely, but still under extremely harsh conditions by today’s standards. This building became the Imperial War Museum in 1936, the inmates having been moved to Bedlam’s current home near Beckenham, Kent as the Bethlem Royal Hospital.

William Hogarth's Bedlam
William Hogarth’s Bedlam, 1730s, from The Rake’s Progress

HMP Belmarsh 1991 – today
Modern, Category A prison in Woolwich. Most famous inmate to date: Jeffrey Archer.

Bridewell 1556 – 1855
Bridewell Palace was purpose-built by Henry VIII in the early 1500s on the banks of the Fleet River; it was dedicated to St Bride. Less-enamoured with the palace than his father, Edward VI gave it to the City of London in 1553. The City converted it into a prison-cum-hospital three years later. The word “bridewell” became a general term for a prison elsewhere in London, England and beyond. The original gate house of Bridewell still exists in New Bridge Street.

HMP Brixton  1820 – today
Originally Surrey House of Correction. Housed men and women in the 19C, and also accommodated children of women prisoners during that time. Served as a miltary prison 1882 – 98. Today is a remand and trial prison.

Clerkenwell House of Detention, see New Prison (below).

The Clink 1444 – 1780
Notorious medieval prison for both men and women. Based in Southwark and owned by the Bishops of Winchester. Not much used after the Civil War except as a debtor’s prison. Burned down during the Gordon Riots and never restored. Today the Clink Museum is located on the original site.

Coldbath Fields early 17C – 1885
Based in Clerkenwell on the site now occupied by the Mount Pleasant sorting office. This was a mixed prison for felons, vagrants and debtors – originally the prison for the County of Middlesex, sometimes know as Clerkenwell Gaol. Rebuilt in 1794, extended in 1850. Fire damaged in 1877. Absorbed  Clerkenwell Bridewell (1615 – 1794) in 1794. 

Fleet Prison 1197 – 1844
Located on the east bank of the Fleet River, now Farringdon Street. Destroyed and rebuilt three times: Wat Tylers mob 1381; Great Fire of London 1666; Gordon Riots 1780. Mainly a prison for debtors and bankrupts.

HMP Holloway 1852 – today
Based in the Holloway area of Islington, Holloway was originally a mixed prison but changed to an all-women prison as it remains today. It was completely rebuilt in the late 20C. Five women have been executed in Holloway, the last being Ruth Ellis in 1955.

Horsemonger Lane Gaol  1790s -1878
Like so many prisons, based in Southwark. Mixed debtor and criminal institution, judicial executions for the County of Surrey were undertaken here. Known as Surrey County Gaol from 1859. The site is now a public park, Newington Gardens.

HMP Latchmere House 1948 – today
Based in Ham, near Richmond. Formerly a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers after World War I, it became a MI5 detention and interregation centre for enemy spies during World War II. Now a Category D mens’ prison.

King’s Bench Prison (pre-1400s – 1880)
Another Southwark Prison, near Borough High Street. Mainly a debtor’s prison, renamed the Queen’s Prison in 1842.

Marshalsea 1329 – 1842
Based in Southwark, and mainly known as a debtor’s prison, famously featured in Little Dorrit. Also used by the navy for servicemen under court martial. There were two Marshalseas, both on or near Borough High Street: Marshalsea I: c1329 – 1811 ; Marshalsea II 1811 – 1842, on the former site of White Lion Prison/Borough Gaol. Marshalsea was closed in 1842 by Act of Parliament and sold off.

Millbank Prison 1816 – 1890
Based in Pimlico, a model prison based on principles laid down by Jeremy Bentham. Mainly used as a holding facility for inmates facing Transportation (until 1868). Tate Britain now occupies the site.

New Prison 1717 – 1877
Detention prison in Clerkenwell, next door to Clerkenwell Bridewell. Rebuilt in 1773, 1818 and 1847. Target of Gordon Riots, 1780. From  1847 known as Clerkenwell House of Detention. Once housed the infamous Jack Shepperd.

Newgate 1188 – 1902
In use for over 700 years, Newgate was most well-known, long-lived and notorious of all London’s prisons, located where Newgate Street meets Old Bailey. It was damaged, destroyed and rebuilt many times.  London’s public executions by hanging tranferred from Tyburn to Newgate in 1783, continuing until 1868 when they were held away from public view inside the prison. The Old Bailey now stands on the site.

Newgate Prison 19C

The second Newgate Prison, 19C

Tyburn 1537 – 1783
Tyburn was originally a village in the County of Middlesex just west and to the north of modern Oxford Street before it became a notorious execution site. Condemned prisoners were tranferred, typically from Newgate Prison, to Tyburn’s gallows, which were commonly known as “the Tyburn Tree”. Today the site is marked on a traffic island at the junction of Oxford Street and Edgware Road.

"The Tyburn Tree", c1680

"The Tyburn Tree", c1680

HMP Wandsworth 1851 – today
London’s largest prison.

HMP Wormwood Scrubs 1874 – today
Site is in the north part of Hammersmith and Fulham Borough immediately north of the A40. Built by Edward du Cane of the Royal Engineers, using prison labour. Distinctive twin towered gatehouse.

UPDATE – Compters
When I originally posted this, I knew nothing of compters (sometimes known as counters). Compters were small City prisons dating from medieval times, most of which were closed in the early 19C and their prisoners dispersed to other institutions. Generally speaking, they were used to house less-serious civil miscreants such as debtors, religious dissenters and asylum-seeking slaves, typically from the West Indies. London’s compters included Wood Street Counter, Poultry Compter, Giltspur Street Compter and Borough Compter. I shall post separately on compters in due course.

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