Manual History of Londons Prisons

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What was it like to live in the Tower of London? Many prisoners in the Tower of London faced torture and even death, but privileged inhabitants brought servants and threw feasts. The Tower of London didn't start off as a prison, but it certainly became one of the gnarliest places to send criminals and political enemies.

In many ways, Flambard was a scapegoat for the unpopular policies William Rufus had implemented. Nonetheless, fhe ound himself in the Tower. Flambard was able to maintain his luxurious lifestyle while in confinement. He had an allowance, kept his servants, and ordered in the best food as he tried to maneuver his way out of prison through his political connections. According to legend, he lowered himself from the window of the Tower to associates waiting below with horses.

Flambard and his accomplices fled England for Normandy where Flambard became Duke Robert's chief advisor.

Newgate Prison Wall

He later led Robert's military on an attempt to invade England but the efforts proved unsuccessful. Coldbath Fields , the Giltspur Street Compter , and the Horsemonger Lane Gaol all segregated prisoners according to sex and category of offence, put prisoners to hard labour, provided separate cells for felons and included high levels of surveillance by prison officers. As the above narrative suggests, accounts of prison reform can easily be told from the top down, ascribing the impetus for change to reform ideologies, heroic prison visitors, parliamentary statutes, and the decisions of magistrates.

But this is only part of the story. Given the reluctance of many of those in government to spend money, it took the actions of the prisoners themselves to force the pace of change. The simple fact of the growth in the number of prisoners, even before the interruption to transportation in , and the consequent overcrowding, frequent escapes, and disease made some kind of rebuilding inevitable. While a number of political factors contributed to the passage of the Penitentiary Act , for example, the most pressing reason for its passage was clearly stated by William Eden: "the fact is, our prisons are full".

Prisoners' persistent demands for medical care thereby acquired a new force. The fact that prisoners largely ran their own affairs inside prisons added to the pressure for change, both because prisoners knew how to make complaints which would excite the attention of the government complaints of extortion and mistreatment by prison keepers were particularly effective and because the alternative political culture of the prisons came to be seen as a challenge to the authorities.

At the same time, improvements were often effectively resisted by prisoners as well as prison officers, both of whom sought to protect their traditional privileges, identities and customs. Prisoners were thus not merely the passive recipients of prison reform; in their numbers and by their actions they forced the pace of change and shaped its direction. Located on the Borough High Street until , and then on Tooley Street, this prison was used to hold debtors and accused criminals who were arrested in Southwark , south of the river.

Newgate Prison

The prison catered primarily for debtors: in it held fifteen debtors and only one felon, and when it was rebuilt in it had accommodation for twelve felons and fifty debtors. There were complaints early in the century that the keeper extorted fees from the prisoners, and later that male and female debtors were not separated. Originally used principally for religious prisoners sentenced from the court of the Bishop of Winchester, in the eighteenth century the Clink acted as the local gaol for Southwark , holding a small number of debtors and minor offenders.

Following its destruction in the Gordon Riots in it was not rebuilt. Built in according to the designs provided in the Penitentiary Act , this house of correction held prisoners of both sexes. It had single cells and radial wings consisting of two stories of sleeping cells above a vaulted ground floor. The prisoners were provided with an infirmary, religious instruction and employment.

The Worst Prison Riot in British History (Full Documentary)

The use of solitary confinement in order to force prisoners to reflect on their sins proved controversial, however, and there were complaints that inmates suffered from cold, hunger and abuse. Located next to the Fleet River in the City of London , the Fleet was a debtors' prison, not just for those arrested in London but also for those imprisoned elsewhere in the country who were transferred there under a warrant from the high courts. Like most debtors' prisons, within the walls it was a relatively free community of more than prisoners, run by a prisoners' committee.

The small number of officers who ran the prison had little power to regulate internal conditions, and most did not even have access to the prison at night.

Female Convicts: In 1853 Brixton was converted to a female convict prison.

Wealthier prisoners stayed on the master's side , where they had their own rooms and lived in relative luxury, while the poor prisoners lived in squalid conditions on the common side , and depended on prison charities for survival. In complaints about oppressive practices by the keeper, Thomas Bambridge , led to the formation of a Parliamentary inquiry into his government of the prison.

The committee's report found him guilty of extorting money from prisoners, and blamed the abuses on the system of making keepers purchase their office, which required them to charge substantial fees to the prisoners. Bambridge was also accused of torturing prisoners and was tried for murder and acquitted. He was subsequently also tried for the theft of a prisoner's goods and acquitted.

Prisons and Punishments in Late Medieval London

Nonetheless, Bambridge was dismissed from his office and new rules for future keepers were drawn up which included a prohibition on the sale of prison offices. The Fleet was rebuilt between and , but when the prison reformer John Howard visited it in he found it crowded and dirty. The prison was destroyed in the Gordon riots in , though the prisoners were warned in advance so they could remove their goods before the rioters set fire to the prison. Rapidly rebuilt, in the early s there were once again complaints about the prison being in poor repair and escapes.

Because the prisoners were debtors rather than criminals, this was not one of the prisons affected by the late eighteenth-century reform movement, and in the Fleet was described as "the largest brothel in the metropolis". It was not only the keeper who was accused of abuses. Indeed, there were complaints that some of the wealthier prisoners exploited the debt laws by moving into the prison, where they could live in comfort, in order to escape their creditors.

Fraudulent tradesmen allegedly entered the prison and then took advantage of the periodic insolvency acts to gain their release with their debts cleared. Some debtors imprisoned elsewhere deliberately obtained writs which allowed them to be committed to the Fleet, a more salubrious prison compared to provincial prisons. Similarly, it was alleged that some prisoners used writs of habeas corpus to move between prisons so that they could spend their winters in the warmer Fleet, and their summers in more airy King's Bench prison south of the river. For the resourceful debtor, the Fleet provided a valuable route to survival.

The Gatehouse held those accused of felonies and petty offences who were awaiting trial in Westminster , as well as, owing to the presence of the royal palace and Parliament nearby, state prisoners. The prison was vulnerable to escapes, and in was stormed by twenty-four armed Irishmen who released a member of the gang who had been accused of pickpocketing. Located close to Newgate Prison in the City of London , this prison was built on reformed principles in in order to replace the Poultry Compter and the Wood Street Compter.

Intended to hold prisoners, the prisoners were divided into four classes: debtors, felons, petty offenders, and those charged with assault. There were rows of cells for felons, separate buildings for male and female debtors, and separate rooms for those apprehended by the night watch.


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Despite the aspiration to keep prisoners divided by classification, in practice inmates were moved around the prison regardless of their class according to the space available. Built in , it was a model prison, with cells in three wings for petty criminals, and a fourth wing for debtors. A control keeper's house oversaw eight separate courtyards, allowing the prisoners to be both separated by sex and offence felons, petty criminals, debtors and constantly watched.

The Buildings That Replaced London's Prisons | Londonist

Two surgeons attended. Created following the statute which ordered that male prisoners sentenced to transportation should be put to hard labour improving the navigation of the Thames, 12 the hulks were an emergency measure to cope with prison overcrowding following the interruption to transportation caused by the outbreak of war with America. The London focus of the act is evident in the fact the work took place on the Thames, and the influence of reformist principles can be seen in the fact that prisoners were put to hard labour and subjected to restrictive discipline.

The first ships, the Justicia and the Censor , took on their first convicts in August The hulks were run by contractors, overseen by the Middlesex Justices of the Peace. There were difficulties from the start. Crowded and insanitary conditions led to a high mortality rate from August to April of prisoners on board died , largely due to gaol fever typhus. There were mutinies, and many prisoners escaped from the work parties on shore.


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  • The Central Criminal Court a. However, if you venture around the back of Amen Court see map below you will find something quite spectacular; the only surviving wall of Newgate Prison! Execution Dock in Wapping, London is the location where pirates were once hanged over the River Thames. Related articles. Blackwall Point. Tyburn Tree and Speakers Corner.