Tag Archives: Georgian prisons

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.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Buildings, Crime

From Palace to Prison – a Short History of Bridewell

prospect-of-bridewell

How does somewhere turn, in the space of thirty years, from a royal palace where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was lavishly entertained to a place whose name became generic for prisons for the punishment of vagrants and fallen women?

Bridewell Palace was built for Henry VIII between 1515 and 1520. Its southern façade faced the Thames, its eastern face was on the banks of the River Fleet and it was named for the nearby holy well of St Bride and it was a typical rambling, brick-built Tudor palace around three courtyards. It was the location where Hans Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors was set, the venue for masques and celebrations when Charles V visited and the home of Henry’s illegitimate son Henry Blount, Duke of Richmond and Somerset.

Its days as a palace were short-lived after it served as the venue for conferences with the Papal Legate over the royal divorce and Henry’s last meeting with Catherine of Aragon in November 1529. By 1531 it was leased to the French Ambassador and it was there in 1533 that Holbein’s The Ambassadors was painted.

In 1553 Edward VI gave Bridewell away, granting it to the City of London as a home for destitute children and vagrants and as a prison for punishing disorderly and loose women and petty offenders with short periods of incarceration and regular whippings. Queen Mary confirmed Edward’s gift – perhaps not wanting to take back the place of such ill-memories of her mother.

The model of prison, hospital and workrooms proved successful enough for many others to be opened across the country, all called Bridewells. The whippings took place in  public twice a week, there was a ducking stool on the banks of the Thames in 1628 and there were also stocks. The regime appears to have been one of “short, sharp shock”, although it seems doubtful that it was very successful in reducing vagrancy, petty crime and immoral behaviour with no support for its inhabitants once they were released. More fortunate were orphans of City Freemen who were accommodated here for an education before being apprenticed to a trade.

The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed much of the old palace and it was rebuilt in 1667. Judging by the print at the top of this post from a drawing by Jan Kip made in the early 18th century, some of the old Tudor palace survived. It can be seen surrounding the courtyard in the foreground with the 17th century and later additions behind. This version of Kip’s drawing was published in 1720 by John Strype and shows the view from the east – in other words, the artist is hovering above the Fleet River and looking west. The two courtyards of the rebuilt Bridewell can be clearly seen in this detail from John Rocque’s map of 1747 (below) turned to be in the same orientation.

bridewell-roque

Despite the floggings the Bridewell was more liberal than other prisons of the time – it had a doctor in 1700, seventy five years before they were appointed to prisons elsewhere, and in 1788 prisoners were not only given straw for their beds but actual beds to put it in – other gaols had neither beds nor straw. Women were not whipped after 1791. The air quality must have improved somewhat after the Fleet was covered in 1764 with the creation of New Bridge Street down to Blackfriars Bridge (1760-69).

The beds filled with straw can be seen in this print of The Pass-Room at Bridewell, 1808 from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London. Here single women with babies were locked up as punishment for their ‘loose behaviour’. The notice on the wall warns that “Those who dirts Their Bed will be Punished.”

bridewell

Building work and improvements carried on until 1833 when all the Bridewells passed from local control to become part of the government’s prison system. In 1855 the prisoners were transferred to Holloway prison and the buildings were demolished in 1863/4. The only remaining fragment is the façade and gateway of 1802 which is now 14, New Bridge Street.

The outline of the site remains in the block bounded by New Bridge Street to the east, Tudor Street to the south, and Bridewell Place which wraps around the west and north sides. Tudor Street can be seen on the Rocque map and led towards one of the notorious and lawless Alsatias from which many of the inmates of Bridewell probably came.

As with Bedlam, the public could gain admittance to view the unfortunate inmates. Priscilla Wakefield, author of Perambulations in London (1814) wrote, ‘Many of the prisoners who we were permitted to see, were women, young, beautiful and depraved.’ Like much of Wakefield’s moralising writing this fills me with the desire to give her the life-chances those ‘depraved’ young women had and see how she got on!

The print below is from Ackermann’s Repository of May 1812 and shows the view looking south down New Bridge Street from what is now Ludgate Circus where Fleet Street dips down to the Fleet Valley and then rises eastwards up Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Cathedral. Bridewell is concealed behind the furthest range of brown buildings on the right of the print.

new-bridge-street

This area is included in Walk 8 of my Walking Jane Austen’s London and Walk 9 of Walks Through Regency London.

 

 

Save

Save

Save

6 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Buildings, Crime, Rivers