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A Penitential History

There have been more prisons in London than in any other European city. From the penitential cell in the church of the Knights Templar to the debtors’ prison in Whitecross Street, from the Clink situated in Deadman’s Place, Bankside, to the compter in Giltspur Street, London has been celebrated for its places of confinement. There was a prison in Lambeth Palace where early religious reformers, the Lollards, were tortured, and a roundhouse in St. Martin’s Lane where twenty-eight “were thrust into a hole six-feet square and kept there all night,” four of the women being stifled to death. New prisons were always being built, from the Tun in Cornhill at the end of the thirteenth century to Wormwood Scrubs in East Acton at the end of the nineteenth century. The prisoners were obliged to wear masks in the new “model prison” at Pentonville, while the “new prison” of Millbank was supposed to have been built as a “panopticon” whereby each cell and inmate could be individually scrutinised.

By the early seventeenth century the London prisons, like its churches, were celebrated in verse:

In London and within a mile I weene

There are of layles or Prisons full eighteene

And sixty Whipping-posts and Stocks and Cages.

The first prison mentioned in this sorrowful litany is the “Gatehouse” at Westminster, and it is followed by an encomium upon the Fleet Prison.

The Fleet was the oldest of them all, older even than Newgate, and had once been known as the “Gaol of London”; it was also one of the first of the medieval city’s stone buildings. It was situated on the east side of the Fleet and surrounded by a moat with “tree clad banks” where now Farringdon Street runs down to the Thames. The lowest “sunken” storey was known as Bartholomew Fair, although the usual reports of brutality, immorality and mortality render it an ironic sobriquet. The prison was, however, most notorious for its “secret” and unlawful marriages performed by “degraded clergymen” for less than a guinea. By the early eighteenth century there were some forty “marrying houses” in taverns of the vicinity, with at least six known as the Hand and Pen. Women, drugged or intoxicated, could be taken there and married for their money; innocent girls could be duped into believing that they were lawfully joined. There was a watch-maker who impersonated a clergyman, calling himself “Dr. Gaynam”—or, perhaps, gain them. He resided in Brick Lane and it was his practice to walk up Fleet Street. Crossing Fleet Bridge “in his silk gown and bands,” he was known for his commanding figure, and a “handsome though significantly rubicund face.” In the locality he was named as the “Bishop of Hell.”

On several occasions the Fleet Prison was itself consigned to the flames, the last notable fire taking place in 1780 when a mob—led, perhaps appropriately, by a chimney-sweep—mounted an incendiary assault upon it. It was rebuilt in its old form, with many of its more interesting details left intact. Along what is now Farringdon Street, for example, the wall of the gaol had one open grating with bars across it. Here was placed an iron box for alms and, from within, one chosen inmate would call out perpetually “Remember the poor prisoners.” This was the prison in which was incarcerated Samuel Pickwick who, after speaking to those who lay there “forgotten” and “unheeded,” muttered, “I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too.”

The Fleet Prison was demolished in 1846, but the site was not cleared for another eighteen years. Where once were walls and cells there emerged “blind alleys” which, even on summer days, were so narrow and crowded that they “are bleak and shadowed.” The atmosphere of the ancient place lingered even after its material destruction.

It is likely that the Fleet inspired Thomas More’s famous metaphor of the world as a prison, “some bound to a poste … some in the dungeon, some in the upper ward … some wepying, some laughing, some labouring, some playing, some singing, some chiding, some fighting.” More eventually himself became a prisoner, too, but, before that time, as under-sheriff of London, he had sent many hundreds of Londoners to gaol. He consigned some to the Old Compter in Bread Street and others to the Poultry Compter near Buck-lersbury; in 1555 the prison in Bread Street was moved a few yards northward to Wood Street, where one of the inmates might have been echoing the words of Thomas More. He is quoted in Old and New London: “This littel Hole is as a little citty in a commonwealth, for as in a citty there are all kinds of officers, trades and vocations, so there is in this place as we may make a pretty resemblance between them.” The men consigned here were known as “rats,” the women as “mice.” Its underground passages still exist beneath the ground of a small courtyard beside Wood Street; the stones are cold to the touch, and there is a dampness in the air. Once a new prisoner drank from “a bowl full of claret” to toast his new “society,” and now the Compter is on occasions used for banquets and parties.

The image of the city as prison runs very deep. In his late eighteenth-century novel Caleb Williams, William Godwin described “the doors, the locks, the bolts, the chains, the massy walls and grated windows” of confinement; he affirmed then that “this is society,” the system of prison representing “the whole machine of society.”

When Holloway Prison was opened in 1852 its entrance was flanked by two stone griffins which are, of course, also the emblems of the City of London. Its foundation stone carried the inscription “May God preserve the City of London and make this place a terror to evil doers.” It is perhaps suggestive that its architect, James B. Banning, used the same principles of design in his work upon the Coal Exchange and the Metropolitan Cattle Market. There was a visible affinity between some of the great public institutions of the city.

In the 1970s V.S. Pritchett described London as “this prison-like place of stone” and in 1805 Wordsworth cursed the city as “A prison where he hath been long immured”; in turn Matthew Arnold in 1851 depicted it as this “brazen prison” where the inhabitants are “Dreaming of naught beyond their prison-wall.” In 1884 William Morris added his own note to this vision of incarceration with his account of

this grim net of London, this prison built stark

With the greed of all ages

A mean lodging was his “prison-cell/In the jail of weary London.” Keir Hardie, on returning to his native Ayrshire in 1901, wrote that “London is a place which I remember with a haunting horror, as if I had been confined there.” A report on London prisoners themselves, in London’s Underworld by Thomas Holmes, in the very same period as Keir Hardie’s observations, notes that “the great mass of faces strikes us with dismay, and we feel at once that most of them are handicapped in life, and demand pity rather than vengeance.” The conditions of poverty in the city were such that “the conditions of prison life are better, as they need to be, than the conditions of their own homes.” So they simply moved from one prison to another. But gaol was the place, in Cockney idiom, “where the dogs don’t bite.”

There were also areas of “sanctuary rights” in London, apparent neighbourhoods of freedom over which the prisons failed to cast their shadows. These areas were once within the domains of great religious institutions, but their charm or power survived long after the monks and nuns had departed. Among them were St. Martin’s le Grand and Whitefriars; they had been respectively the home of secular canons and of the Carmelites, but as sanctuaries from pursuit and arrest became in turn havens “for the lowest sort of people, rogues and ruffians, thieves, felons and murderers.” One of the presumed murderers of the “Princes in the Tower,” Miles Forest, took refuge in St. Martin’s and stayed there “rotting away piecemeal.” “St. Martin’s beads” became a popular expression for counterfeit jewellery. The privileges of St. Martin’s le Grand were abolished at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but the sanctuary of Whitefriars lasted for a longer period. The area became popularly known as “Alsatia” (named after the unhappy frontier of Alsace) because no parish watch or city officials would dare to venture there; if they did so, there was a general cry of “Clubs!” and “Rescue!” before they were seized and beaten. It is the area now marked by Salisbury Square and Hanging-Sword Alley, between Dorset Street and Magpie Alley.

Two other sanctuaries were connected with the coining of money. They were located by the Mints at Wapping and in Southwark, as if the literal making of money were as sacred as any activity which took place in monastery or chapel. In the mid-1720s legal officers attempted to infiltrate and expel the “Minters” of Wapping but were fought back. One bailiff was “duck’d in a Place in which the Soil of Houses of Office [lavatories] had been empty’d” while another was force-marched before a crowd with “a turd in his mouth.” The connection between money and ordure is here flagrantly revealed.

Other sanctuaries still clung around the churches, as if the tradition of begging for alms had continued in a more dissipated form. The area which had once been dominated by Blackfriars was a notorious haunt of criminals and beggars. A sanctuary in the neighbourhood of Westminster Abbey was for centuries “low and disreputable,” and Shire Lane beside the church of St. Clement Danes was known as Rogues’ Lane. Here were houses known as “Cadgers’ Hall,” “The Retreat” and “Smashing Lumber,” the last being a manufactory for counterfeit coin, wherein according to Old and New London “every room had its secret trap or panel … the whole of the coining apparatus and the employés could be conveyed away as by a trick of magic.” In any alternative London topography, sanctuaries, like prisons, become highly specific sites of ill fame. Tread there who dares.

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