Monthly Archives: January 2020

Cold Bath Prison – the Gaol That Gave the Devil Ideas

This bleak place is Cold Bath Prison, or the House of Correction, Cold Bath Fields, a place so notorious for its harshness that the poets Southey and Coleridge wrote of it in their Devil’s Thoughts (original edition 1799):

As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw

A solitary cell;

And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint

For improving his prisons in Hell.

The Cold Bath was a county prison supervised by magistrates and used for male, female and juvenile offenders serving relatively short terms. It was also known as the Steel, perhaps as a reference to its tough regime.

“The prison is divided into two sides, for males and females. On the former are five day-rooms for convicts, two rooms for vagrants who are sent thither for seven days previously to being passed to their respective parishes, one separate apartment for for debtors, an infirmary, a foul ward, and an apartment for the clerks. On the female side are six day-rooms, a wash house, two store rooms, an infirmary, a foul ward, and an apartment for the children of the convicts…There are 333 cells, in which the convicts are locked up separately at night, and more commodious apartments for such prisoners as can afford to pay half-a-guinea a week for the indulgence.” (Ackerman’s Repository 1814).

The prison was opened in 1798, closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889. The Post Office sorting office, somewhat ironically  named Mount Pleasant, was built on the site. It can be clearly seen in the top left hand section of Horwood’s map of London below.

The road to the NE of the site is now Farringdon Road, Baynes Row to the SE is now Mount Pleasant and Phoenix Place covers the Fleet River on the Western edge.

Right at the top edge of the map you can see ‘Bagnigge Wells’ and ‘New River Company’. This area was part of a complex of springs, pools and reservoirs that stretched between Clerkenwell and Islington and included amongst several others, the Peerless Pool, Sadler’s Wells, Islington Spa, the London Spaw, Merlin’s Cave and Coldbath spring. The Cold Bath building can be seen in Cold Bath Square immediately to the SE of the prison.

“The edifice, which is of brick, stands within a large area, encompassed by a strong buttressed wall of moderate height. The gate is of Portland stone, contrived in a massy style, and sculptured with fetters, the hateful but necessary appendages of guilt.”

The cartoon (1799) shows ‘Citizens Visiting the Bastille’ although The House of Correction for the County of Middlesex is clear over the gateway, as are the bunches of fetters on either side.

The notes to the 1814 print state that the prison “is built on the plan proposed by the late Mr Howard, and may be considered, both in construction and discipline, as a real experiment of his severe principles on convicted felons and hardened offenders.”

Mr Howard was John Howard (after whom today’s Howard League for Penal Reform is named). To quote http://www.parliament.uk: “In 1774 his evidence to a House of Commons committee led to two Acts which aimed to improve conditions in gaols. His published writings on the subject were widely read and his detailed accounts of inhumane conditions caused dismay. He advocated a system of state-controlled prisons in which the regime was tough, but the environment healthy. In 1779 the Penitentiary Act authorised the construction of two prisons in accordance with his own theories. He advocated a regime of solitary confinement, hard labour and religious instruction. The objective of imprisonment, he believed, was reform and rehabilitation, not just punishment.”

Prisoners undertook hard labour in prison, much of which was pointless and brutal – a punishment rather than an attempt to reform them by teaching useful skills. One of the most dreaded was the treadmill, known as the ‘cockchafer’, where inmates climbed the equivalent of 8,640 feet for six hours every day, quite uselessly as the great wheels turned no engines or equipment. The print below shows the Cold Bath treadmill in about the middle of the 19th century.

One of the labours that did have a useful end product was working the crank that either drew water or ground corn. The print below from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London shows “two of the convicts at hard labour, in which they are employed for an hour at a time. The view is taken from the Water-Engine Court…the turn-key [is] bringing two fresh men to relieve those who have completed their task…”

The prison also followed Howard’s principles of putting people to useful work, some of which may have given them skills that helped them on release. “The prisoners are severally employed in  useful labour: the men in  picking oakum, knotting yarn, making spun yarn and rope, making and repairing the prisoners’ clothes, whitewashing and painting the prison, attending the county carpenter, bricklayer, mason and plumber as labourers, and others as gardeners, or carpenters in making wheelbarrows and other utensils for the garden; the women in spinning thread, making, repairing and washing of the bedding, linen and clothes of the prisoners, picking oakum etc.”

The diet included  no vegetables or fruit at all and very little protein either. “The county allowance to the convicts is a pint of gruel and a pound of bread each day for breakfast, and a quart of broth of rice and oatmeal, and six ounces of meat, alternately, for dinner. All sick persons have wine or whatever indulgence the medical attendant may order.” It seems incredible that the authorities could boast that, “It is a strong proof of the healthiness of the prison, that from November 1793 [presumably when in the old prison] to November 1807, out of 19,862 male and female prisoners, only ninety-one have died.”

Over the same period twenty four babies were born to add to the dependent children who entered the prison with their parents. These children were separated from their parents – as they would have been in workhouses – “and are taught to read, say their catechism, etc” Possibly the “etc” included sewing for the girls and basic craft skills for the boys. Writing and arithmetic are not mentioned.

I can imagine that anyone released from Cold Bath Prison was strongly motivated never to return, but given the levels of poverty and the severity of sentencing for even the most trivial property crime, it seems likely that many came back.

 

 

 

 

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The Story of a Square 7: Finsbury Square

In my occasional series on the history of London Squares I am going eastwards to Finsbury Square, shown outlined in green in Horwood’s map of c1800.

Finsbury Square was built between 1777 and 1791 in an attempt, according to The London Encyclopaedia, to ‘recreate a West End atmosphere near the City’. The principal architect was Charles Dance, but others were involved, and each side of the Square was different. It was severely damaged during World War II and now none of the original buildings remain, nor the circular central garden.

It was built on the land marked on Roque’s map (1740s) below as Upper Moor Fields.

This was originally part of a larger marshy fen or moor outside the City walls which was fully drained in 1527. It ran from immediately north of the City walls and ditch, with the Wall Brook, draining into the City ditch, on the eastern side and a causeway (now the A501, City Road) to the west. Where the causeway met London Walls was the Moor Gate, built 1414 by the Lord Mayor Falconer ‘for ease of citizens that way to pass…into the fields…for their recreation.’ The print shows it at the time of its demolition in 1762.

On the western side Cheselstrete, now Chiswell Street, came in at a right angle to an area of the Moor called Mallow Field, bounded on the east by the parish boundary between St Leonard Shoreditch (east) and St Giles Without Cripplegate (west). The eastern part of the moor in St Leonard’s parish was simply called The Moor and, by the time of Roque’s map, was built over.

To the south of the junction of the causeway with Chiswell Street was the northern boundary of the City, By the 1740s narrow Ropemaker Alley ran along that line to the west and is now Ropemaker Street.

South of the City boundary and north of the Wall was Moor Field, its distorted rectangular shape preserved in the formal landscaped area behind the Bethlem Hospital marked as Moor Fields on Roque’s map. Finsbury Circus (1815-17) occupies much of this area today.

A 16th century illustrated map (below) shows these areas shortly after they were drained. Animals are pastured, archery practice is going on, laundry is laid out to dry and cloth is being stretched on tenterhooks. Finsbury Square occupies the area approximately where the horses are grazing.

By the 1740s the tenter grounds were clearly defined and laid out to the east and north of Upper and Lower Moor Fields and the adjoining Upper Moor Field to the west and, stretching up further north, was The Artillery Ground. The Honourable Artillery Company (who still provide the salutes at the Tower and on state occasions) continue to occupy the site which is now their sports field with the headquarters to the north. In 1672 Moor Gate was rebuilt and made higher so that the trained Bands (the local militia) could march through with their long pikes upright on their way to military exercises on the Moor.

In 1785, as work began on Finsbury Square, Vicenzo Lunardi, the Italian pioneer balloonist, took off from the Artillery Ground with a vast and excited crowd spilling out over the Moor all around. (He landed safely near Ware, in Hertfordshire.)

John Wallis, in his London (quoted below), incorporates  Pennant’s London Improved which mentions Moor Fields, describing the area immediately to the north of Bethlem Hospital as “The City Mall” a popular, tree-lined promenade.

The upper part which had been partly enclosed with a dwarf wall, contained waste, and was long a rendezvous for the boxers and wrestlers that composed old Vinegar’s [a bare knuckle boxer] Ring; and for mountebanks, methodist preachers, old iron stalls, etc.

Upper Moor Field might not, with its military drills, the gunfire of the Artillery Company and its use for such displays as balloon ascensions, fights and scrap iron sales,  seem to be an ideal place to erect a fashionable square. John Wallis in his London: Being a Complete Guide to the British Capital (1810) remarks:

A sudden transformation, as it were, of a marshy moor into the magnificent abodes of some of the wealthiest merchants in the metropolis, cannot be otherwise than interesting to the curious observer.

[An] improvement, truly magnificent, must certainly be admitted in the erection of Finsbury-square, and those new and elegant edifices which now cover all the northern site of ancient Moor-fields. This erection commenced about 1777. After this period the west side being erected first, the others rose with as little interruption as possible, and the whole was nearly inhabited in 1783; the rents, which then produced £4792, in 1797 encreased [sic] to £7598.

It is believed that Finsbury Square was the first public space permanently lit by gas.

The best-known occupant of Finsbury Square is probably Lackington’s Library, known as the Temple of the Muses, in the south-east corner. This vast shop, with a frontage of over forty three metres held a stock of thousands of volumes. I have devoted a post to London libraries, including Lackingtons, and you can read more about it here.

The exterior is shown below, in a print of 1828 when it was no longer owned by James Lackington. It burned down in 1841.

 

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