London's Most Notorious Prisons

Throughout history London has seen its fair share of notorious prisons, and today places like HMPs Brixton and Holloway prove that being in jail is hardly a walk in the park.

Every so often reports surface in certain media outlets about a stay in prison being akin to living it up in a luxury hotel, where high quality food, a gym and even entertainment like video games are provided for the detained. While perhaps some may have got away with the upmarket version of a prison stay, it’s safe to say these are firmly in the minority. Throughout history London has seen its fair share of notorious prisons, and today places like HMPs Brixton and Holloway prove that being in jail is hardly a walk in the park.

But conditions today are nothing compared to the past. Up until the 19th century prisons were privately owned; which meant that the prisoners had to pay for their food and board while in jail. In many cases inmates had no choice but to beg for money to be able to pay prison staff, who did not receive a salary and who frequently abused their position.

On the site of what was the Clink Prison there is a blue plaque which calls it the most notorious medieval prison. Built in 1144, is one of London’s oldest, and is where the term “the clink” comes from (it is believed the name stems from the sound of clinking metal when cell doors were being locked). Clink was handily located for the Southbank area, the capitals centre for entertainment as well as vice, with pubs, adult theatres and even bear-baiting. As well as making money from the inmates, prison staff accepted payments from their friends and relatives on the outside, for the purpose of improving their quality of life on the inside. Some prisoners were even allowed to leave the prison and work, as long as they paid the right fee, and brothel owners could keep their business going - despite being imprisoned for working in prostitution - so long as a cut of the profits went to the jailers.

A museum now sits here, where visitors can learn about some of the methods of punishment formerly employed. There are some very interesting facts to find out about, such as the musicians who played the fiddle in the street and would be jailed as this was considered the devil’s music. There are chastity belts and torture devices on display, which visitors are allowed to play with. However morbid exhibits show the most common form of torture used up until the 18th century: scourging with hot rods. It’s hardly surprising that some claim that the Clink is haunted. The Clink wasn’t the only infamous prison of the era. Fleet Prison was known for being the most expensive in terms of food. The poorer inmates, who lacked friends or family who were able to help financially, were given cells that overlooked the street so that they could beg passers-by for help. Thomas Bainbridge, who took control of the prison in 1728, exercised a particularly savage rule. The fees he demanded for rent were extortionate, and the favoured punishment was to load inmates with heavy irons, which made walking, standing up and lying down incredibly painful. For the right price lighter irons could be used.

The horrific goings-on of Newgate Prison, in the area now known as Holborn, inspired great authors like Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe, and even spawned a sensationalist genre of literature called the “Newgate novel” in the 1800s. The place was diseased, as many inmates contracted typhus and died while awaiting trial; starvation and violence were also common. From the 18th century till 1868, this was also where most of London’s executions took place. Petty treason incurred being hung and quartered; in cases where high treason was committed the accused would be castrated, disembowelled and beheaded. Women were burnt at the stake, alive. The executions took place in public, as a warning - you did not mess with the law, the church or the monarchy in those days.

Clerkenwell was home to several prisons. The New Prison was where people were imprisoned if they required examining before being seen by the magistrates. Next door was Clerkenwell Bridewell, which was fairly peaceful by comparison. When these closed down Coldbath Fields Prison opened, which was supposed to be one of the most humanitarian, but instead it became known for its use of the treadmill, an engine powered by people treading on paddles, and the silent treatment. In use since the prison reforms of 1835, the silent treatment was used in prisons as an alternative to physical punishment, as it was believed that forbidding prisoners from speaking, calling them by a number rather than their name, and making them cover their faces so they couldn’t see each other would encourage reflection on their crimes. It was also around this time that single-person cells were introduced so that prisoners were kept separately.
There had been hope on the horizon for prison conditions since the Gaol Act of 1774. John Howard, the son of a wealthy businessman, had spent years building homes for the workers on his estate and their families. When he became the High Sheriff of Bedford, one of his duties was to inspect Bedford Gaol. Horrified by what he saw, he recommended that prison workers be paid a salary to end the corruption and barbaric treatment of prisoners. He visited prisons up and down the country for three years, and spoke in the House of Commons about what he had witnessed. As a result Parliament passed the act, however implementing it was another story. He tirelessly toured prisons and published books on the subject till his death, and new laws were passed in 1823 which introduced salaries for gaolers, the prohibition of irons, and female warders for female prisoners. But this failed again as there were no prison inspectors to ensure the new legislation was being complied with. In 1833 the first inspectors were appointed, and in 1877 the government took control of all prisons.

Torture is no longer acceptable, but that does not mean conditions have wholly improved; Brixton and Holloway were named as London’s worst prisons roughly a decade ago. Holloway, a women’s prison, was found to be infested with pigeons and cockroaches, and prisoners couldn’t shower more than twice a week. Reports of racism abounded at Brixton. The two jails were rated as the worst in England, however they were still vastly better than the prisons of medieval times, when they were run by private entities whose chief concern was money.

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