London used to be full of prisons. Most of them were extremely well known and some names are still familiar – more so if you read nineteenth century novels. Yet apart from Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville, Holloway and Wandsworth, the overwhelming majority of prisons simply aren’t there any more. Having read Oliver Twist and Affinity (by Sarah Waters), I thought it might be interesting to have a look at some of the better known of London’s lost prisons.
Dickens mentions many of London’s prisons in his novels; in Oliver Twist it is Newgate, which at that time was the central criminal prison in London. The inmates were famous, and their exploits were regularly published in The Newgate Calendar, which also gave details of executions and sentences as well as the crimes. Some of the old cells now form part of the Old Bailey – I think they are holding cells for defendants on trial – but they can be viewed by appointment I believe.
Dickens also used the Marshalsea Prison as a setting in his novel Little Dorrit. Unlike Newgate, the Marshalsea was a debtors prison and it was demolished in 1852 with the inmates being moved. Dickens’ father was a debtor in the Marshalsea and all that remains of the building is a part of the original wall. It was situated in Southwark, just overlooking the river, and also housed men convicted of crimes at sea. However, given that nearly half London’s population were inmates of debtors’ prisons, you can guess what the majority of the inmates were there for.
Sarah Waters sets her second novel, Affinity, in Millbank Prison, a beautifully designed prison in Pimlico. It was both a men’s and women’s criminal prison and a holding facility for convicts awaiting transportation. It was loosely based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his vision of an ideal prison, being built in a “flower” shape. Unfortunately, the site was redeveloped, and Tate Britain now occupies most of the land, with the remainder forming part of Chelsea College of Art and Design.
Another ancient prison in London is The Fleet Prison in Farringdon, which started as a criminal facility and ended as a debtors’ prison. It went on to form part of Ludgate Station which, in turn, was redeveloped to be part of City Thameslink. However, if you want to find out what these old prisons were really like, it is possible to visit The Clink Prison Museum in Bankside, on the site of the original Clink Prison (“clink” is also a London slang term for a prison). They have put a great deal of effort in recreating some original cells and it would be a really interesting insight into (for example) Little Dorrit, if you happen to be reading that.
I must admit that given the number of Victorian prisons still operational – I live quite close to one – I’m surprised that so many have been mothballed. It is fair to say that the conditions weren’t wonderful, but given the current crisis of overcrowding, perhaps bringing some back online on a short term basis might not be a bad idea.