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West View of Newgate by George Shepherd

Capital punishment: 7 lost London prisons

Image: West View of Newgate by George Shepherd | Public Domain

Today, the only prison anywhere near Central London is Pentonville, three miles from Charing Cross, but for hundreds of years the capital’s grim gaols loomed large over Londoners in the heart of the city. They were part of the fabric of London life. Dickens wrote about them in his novels and even tourists from abroad wanted to visit them.

In 1800 there were 19 prisons in London, and out of these, only the Tower of London is still standing today. Here we will look at seven penitentiaries of London’s past, in the order that they ceased to function as prisons.

1. The Gatehouse (1370-1776)

The Gatehouse Prison was built in 1370, during the reign of King Edward III. This small slammer was initially the prison of the powerful Abbot of Westminster, but from the 16th century onwards it began to receive all manner of yardbirds.

The Gatehouse stood next to Westminster Abbey for four centuries until it was demolished in 1776. The Crimean War Memorial now stands on the site of the ancient cooler.

Famous former captive guests of the Gatehouse include Gunpowder Plot conspirator Thomas Bates, Sir Walter Raleigh, held here the night before his execution in 1618, and Samuel Pepys, detained here for a time in 1689 and 1690 on suspicion of being a Jacobite. Stuart poet Richard Lovelace penned his famous poem, To Althea, from Prison while doing bird in the Gatehouse.

2. The Clink (1151-1780)

The Clink Prison, which gave its name to a slang term for a detention building, opened in 1151 in Southwark.

Over the centuries the Clink housed all manner of prisoners from debtors to heretics. In the late medieval period, it also served as a local drunk tank for ‘The Liberty of the Clink’, the area owned by the Bishops of Winchester and home to the gaol. A notorious part of the Liberty was ‘The Stews’, a sort of Tudor red-light district which thrived here until they were shuttered by Henry VIII.

The Clink was burned to the ground by rioters in 1780 and all that remains is a Tudor wall (viewable today in the Clink Museum). Its most famous inmate was arguably the Jesuit priest John Gerard, well-known for his dramatic account of torture and imprisonment in Elizabethan London, in The Clink from 1594-1597.

3. Poultry Compter (1550? – 1817)

The Poultry Compter was a notorious nick that once stood on Poultry, a street in the heart of the City of London. The Compter’s precise date of foundation is unknown, but it was up and running from at least the 1550s, as John Bradford, burnt at the stake in 1555, was incarcerated here for a time.

This little lockup had such a reputation for depravity, shocking conditions, and for being extremely dangerous to internees that it was even too horrible for the Georgians, who pulled it down in 1817.

Famous cons incarcerated at the Compter include playwright Thomas Dekker, imprisoned in 1599 for debt, and slave John Strong, freed from the Compter in 1765 by early anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp.

4. Marshalsea (1373-1842)

The Marshalsea, in Southwark, was made famous by Charles Dickens in his 1855 novel Little Dorrit. Dickens’s own father spent time in the Marshalsea, which was finally closed in 1842. The only surviving part of the old prison is a wall that runs along the modern Angel Place.

Overcrowded and dirty, at one point 150 inmates of the Marshalsea plus their families were sharing just two toilets, which were emptied once every two months.

Well-off prisoners had access to mod cons and were even allowed out, something which their out-of-pocket creditors frequently complained about. The most destitute detainees were subject to torture and were often starved to death. In the 1720s it was reported that over a typical spring and summer, eight to ten prisoners would die every day.

Famous detainees of the Marshalsea include playwright Ben Johnson and Tudor bishop Edmund Bonner.

5. The Fleet (1197-1844)

The Fleet Prison was an infamous gaol situated on the east bank of the River Fleet, a London river built over in the 1730s by the Fleet Market (now Farringdon Street). The prison stood on the northeast corner of what is now Ludgate Circus.

In the 18th century the Fleet Prison was notorious for its brutality. One warden, Thomas Bambridge, was even stripped of his office and sent to Newgate Prison for the cruelty he inflicted on his inmates.

Prisoners who could pay turnkeys a fee were allowed to live outside the prison walls, in lodgings near the gaol known as ‘the Liberty of the Fleet’. For the poorest lags, though, life at the Fleet was tough – some had to sleep two to a bed and many were forced to beg from passers-by through a grate in the prison’s west wall.

Famous cons of the Fleet include Shakespeare’s Falstaff and artist William Hogarth’s father, who spent five years in the Fleet for debt. The Fleet was closed in 1844 and torn down in 1846.

6. Newgate (1188-1902)

For over 700 years the mere mention of Newgate was enough to make any Londoner go white as a sheet. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of plays, novels, songs, and films have featured the infamous London gaol, the dread of the capital for so many years.

Built by the order of King Henry II in 1188, Newgate held all manner of inmates from the outset, from petty thieves and debtors to heretics and traitors. Men, women, and children lived in the chaos and danger of the gaol. Animals were even a familiar site at Newgate, with pigs a favourite pet of prisoners until they were banned in 1714.

Of the estimated 50,000 people executed at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) most, if not all of these, would have spent their last night at Newgate Prison. The commute of the condemned was made much shorter in 1783, however, when public executions were moved from Tyburn to just in front of Newgate Prison.

Newgate had many famous convicts over the years, including William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, in 1670, and the Jacobite conspirator John Bernardi, who died in 1736 after 40 years languishing in Newgate without trial (where he married and had ten children).

Newgate was pulled down in 1902 and today, on the site of the old prison, stands the Central Criminal Court, commonly known as the Old Bailey.

7. Tower of London (1100-1952)

Built by William the Conqueror, the Tower of London is one of the capital’s most famous landmarks – and one of its scariest. The thought of ‘being sent to the Tower made 30 generations of Brits shudder with fear. With its dark dungeons and ‘Traitors’ Gate’ and the screams of those being tortured on the rack echoing down torch-lit stone corridors, the Tower was itself a symbol of terror and state power in Britain.

As well as hosting several high-profile executions, such as that of Anne Boleyn, the Tower welcomed its first captive in 1100.

The Tower has a surviving punishment cell known as ‘Little Ease’, which measured 4 sq. ft., purposely made too tiny for the prisoners inside it to sit, crouch, or lie down. Worse still was ‘The Pit’, a lower-level dungeon that brought vast numbers of rats up with the tide, forcing prisoners inside the cell to fight off the rodents in the darkness.

The Tower’s hefty guest book includes some of the most famous names in history, from William Wallace to the future Queen Elizabeth I, from Guy Fawkes to Rudolf Hess. Interestingly, it is thought that the Kray Twins were the last ever prisoners held in the Tower of London, banged up there in 1952.