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[HMS Belfast] [Tower of London] [Clink] [Borough Counter] [Marshalsea] [White Lion] [King's Bench] [Horsemonger Lane] [Sessions House] [Surrey Bridewell]

FURTHER READING The London Encylopaedia by Weinreb & Hibbert has entries on all these locations. The Handbook guide to Murder Horror London covers this and other areas. ‘Prisons and Punishments of London’ by Richard Bryne. Criminal London: a pictorial history from medieval times to 1939' by Mark Herber.
A detailed report on prisons was made by Mayhew published as Criminal Prisons of London by Henry Mayhew & J Binny (1862). Read more on Victorian prisons
online. There are some images of London prisons on a website. The Institutions website includes a section on (UK) prisons.

SOUTHWARK LOCAL STUDIES LIBRARY (located on the site of the Marshalsea Prison!) has lots of additional information including maps and illustrations [more info] [website]

Prisons feature in a number of the works of CHARLES DICKENS. The Marshalsea is a major location in 'Little Dorrit' based on Dicken's own knowledge of the prison where his father spent three months in 1824. He was horrified by the crowds reaction to the public hanging of the Mannings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1849 and wrote an article which prompted the abolition of this practice. In 'David Copperfield' Mr Micawber is imprisoned for debt in the King's Bench Prison. The book ‘Dickens England’ by Tony Lynch records locations featured in the author’s works. There is a website which has a section about Dickens London.

The GORDON RIOTS took place in June 1780 and began as a protest against the repeal of anti-Catholic legislation organised by Lord George Gordon. However the crowd of some 50,000 got out of hand and started a campaign of general destruction. There were several days of looting and arson which included burning down the Clink, King's Bench and Surrey Bridewell prisons and releasing the inmates. Gordon was arrested and accused of high treason. He was aquitted but later convicted of libel and died of gaol fever in Newgate in 1793. A number of the ringleaders were hanged as hundreds of people had been killed in the riots.

The MUSEUM Of LONDON has information on London crime and punishment. [more info] [website]

Prison only became used as a punishment for society in general in the 18th century. Prior to this it was only for those awaiting trial or execution and debtors, although the church had imprisoned wayward clerics since the 9th century.
The keeper of a prison bought his office – a system open to abuse as prisoners were regarded as a source of income. They could pay for privacy, better accommodation or release from fetters. However they were also charged, at whatever price the keeper thought fit, for food and water even when this had been provided by charitable donations! This system was still in operation when Dickens was writing and features in ‘Pickwick Papers’ and ‘Little Dorrit’. Some prisons had a grilled window facing onto the street where prisoners would take it in turns to beg food or money from passers-by which would be shared around.

HMS BELFAST is a cruiser launched in 1938. The vessel has two punishment cells. Here sailors could be incarcerated for up to fourteen days for offences such as drunkeness or sleeping on watch. The cells were smelly because of fumes from the paint store below and very uncomfortable in rough weather, being right forward where motion was greatest. The ship is now managed by the Imperial War Museum and is open to visitors daily. website

The TOWER OF LONDON built by William the Conquerer has served many functions including that of a prison since 1101. In 1298 600 Jews were imprisoned, 267 of whom were later hanged. The Black Prince held the defeated King John II of France plus nobles and knights. Other Royal prisoners have included the 'Princes in the Tower' and Princess Elizabeth, by her half-sister Mary. Also in the Tudor period Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Essex and supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. A number of Jacobites were held and subsequently executed in the mid 18th century. The last prisoner was Rudulph Hess during WW II. There is much to see in the Tower which is open to visitors daily. website. There is also a website with additional information.

The CLINK was a small prison, open by 1161, in the Bishop of Winchester's park for people who broke the peace on Bankside and in the brothels. In the 16th century it housed both Protestant and Catholic prisoners of conscience. When the house and park were sold after the Civil War the prison fell into disuse. In 1761 it was described as 'a very dismal hole where debtors are sometimes confined, but little used'. Having been attacked in both the Peasant's Revolt and Jack Cade's Rebellion it was burned down in the Gordon Riots and not rebuilt. The Victorian warehouse on the site now serves as a museum. website.

The BOROUGH COUNTER In 1598 St Margaret's Church (now War Memorial site) was turned into a court house with prison. In 1608 a separate house became a new prison. This was destroyed by fire in 1676 and rebuilt in 1685. It moved in 1714 to become part of the Marshalsea and again in 1787 to a new small building in Jamaica Road. Counter Court recalls its location.

The first MARSHALSEA was located to the north of Mermaid Court. It was the prison of the Knights Marshal of the Royal Household, second in importance only to the Tower of London. It was open by 1370 and there were a number of riots and breakouts. It declined in importance and in 1729 was housing some 300 debtors. Conditions were bad and the building was in a poor state of repair. In 1811 it moved to a new site having been vacant since 1799.

The second Marshalsea was built on the site of the earlier WHITE LION Prison. This had been an inn prior to 1535 and became the Sheriff's Prison in 1540. The Surrey County, started in 1513, moved to the site in 1580 and a Bridewell of 1601 in 1654. The Bridewell, or House of Correction, had a chapel of 1661 which was later rebuilt in 1723. It closed in 1666 when prisoners were moved to the (Old) Marshalsea. The Surrey County was transferred to Horsemonger Lane in 1799.

The second MARSHALSEA was constructed in 1811 at a cost of 8000. The entrance lodge with two doorways was set back from other High Street frontages and led into the yard. The buildings between the day room and the chapel, including the Admiralty section which had formed part of the Borough Gaol were retained. It was divided into two sections with the debtors housed in a barrack block of eight houses with 56 rooms.These often accommodated 2 or 3 prisoners plus their families making them very cramped and the narrow wooden staircases were a fire hazard. They had use of some common rooms which provided newspapers and coal and a yard of no more than 5 yards wide, which with the high wall, made it very confined and unhealthy. Although allocated a room on arrival prisoners often made their own arrangements with money changing hands. The doors were locked between 10pm and 8am but during the day visitors could come and go and even prisoners were allowed out (for a fee!). The Admiralty section housed those under sentence of naval courts martial. Because of the condition of their old cells some prisoners were chained up in the more secure infirmary buildings. Both classes of prisoners had access to the chapel. The Marshalsea was closed in 1842 when an Act of Parliament reduced the incidence of imprisonment for debt. The buildings were sold and used by an ironmonger then Hardings hardware. Illustrations of the 1930s show the building converted for use as a printing house by the Marshalsea Press. Some parts survived until the 1970s. The site is now occupied by the John Harvard Library and Local Studies. The southern boundary wall of the prison remains alongside with a plaque on the south side which can be viewed from the park. There is a window from the prison in the Dickens House Museum and a pump in the Cuming Museum.

The first KING'S BENCH was located to the north of Angel Place. It came under the authority of the Marshal of the King's Bench. It was originally two houses, the Angel and the Crane. During the reign of Henry VIII new buildings were constructed with an enclosing brick wall. The prison was burned by rebels in 1381 and 1450. According to the chronicles Henry V, as a prince, was imprisoned here for striking a judge. In 1613 most of the 399 inmates were debtors. The prison was moved to a new site in 1758. The buildings were demolished in 1761 and the site leased to Layton.

The second KING'S BENCH occupied a site of about 4 acres. There was a long range of four storeys with a central chapel. The front rooms facing the yard were better those those around the back and there were also 8 superior rooms. Besides the 225 rooms there was a kitchen, coffee house, stalls and public houses. The yard provided 3 pumps and racket grounds & fives courts. Women and children were excluded after ten o'clock. Those who could afford it purchased 'Liberty of the Rules' allowing them to live within 3 square miles of the prison. In 1842 it became the Queen's Prison taking debtors from the Marshalsea and Fleet and sending lunatics to Bedlam. Fees and the benefits they could buy were abolished and in the 1860s imprisonment for debt ceased. It remained a transit or military prison until 1880 when it was demolished and replaced with flats. These in turn were taken down for the present Scovell Housing Estate.

HORSEMONGER LANE was built as the Surrey County Gaol, together with a sessions house, by George Gwilt in 1791-9. There were three wings for criminals and a fourth for debtors. Public executions took place on the roof of the gatehouse, which could be viewed from the houses in Bath Terrace. It closed in 1878 and was demolished in 1880. In 1884 part was made into a children's playground. The gatehouse was used by the LCC as a Weights & Measures office for a time.

The SESSIONS HOUSE came into use in 1794 and a second court was established in 1855. However the premises became too small and were rebuilt in 1875 by C H Howell. In 1888 the County of London was created and the Middlesex Sessions held at Clerkenwell were merged with Newington with work continuing on both sites. In 1913 all work was transferred to Clerkenwell whilst Newington was rebuilt. Designed by W E Riley it was completed in 1917 at a cost of 179000. It was used as Government offices until 1921 when it became the County of London Sessions and the Clerkenwell building was sold. It was damaged on several occasions during WW II. The two courts were insufficient for post war crime and in 1954 they moved into Marylebone Baths whilst a new four court complex, completed in 1958, was built. In 1964, again outgrowing its premises, it became the Inner London Sessions and temporary accomodation was utilised. An act of 1971 made it a Crown Court and in 1974 an extension was built at a cost of 350000 so that there are now ten courts in regular use. The Sessions House is a listed building.

Between present Glasshill and Great Suffolk Streets was the one acre White Lion Field, also known as the Hanging Field. A House of Correction, the SURREY BRIDEWELL was built here in 1773 at which prisoners received one halfpenny loaf per day. In 1798 the inmates were moved to Horsemonger Lane. The building is shown on a 1872 map as a soap factory. 2006

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