London’s Most notorious prisons

tower_of_london

London has had many prisons, the most famous of which is the Tower of London.

Victorian London was renowned for its prisons and places of correction – Dickens vividly portrayed the harsh conditions and inhuman treatment of prisoners in London’s most notorious prisons.

While there are no more Victorian buildings, it is possible to visit the sites where they once stood, which will also take you to London’s fascinating areas. 

Tower of London

tower-of-london
Tower of London

The Tower of London is the most popular tourist attraction in London and one of the greatest examples of Norman architecture anywhere in the world.

William I started it around 1066. It was deliberately built just outside the City boundary as a warning to potential troublemakers. It was then extended by various monarchs till Edward I, and has been a palace, prison, menagerie, place of execution and fortress for the crown jewels.

Famous occupants have included Sir Francis Drake, Anne Boleyn (executed by the sword), Sir Walter Raleigh and Rudolph Hess during the second world war.

Nearest underground station: Tower Hill

Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison

Newgate prison, for seven hundred years, was at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey. 

The prison has been demolished and restored several times in its history, including during London’s Great Fire and prison riots. 

In 1783 it was the largest prison in London, and the gallows of the city were moved from Tyburn to Newgate Street. 

Public executions ended in 1868 and carried inside the prison instead. 

In 1904, the prison was demolished. 

Nearest underground station: St Pauls

Marshalsea Prison

Remnants of Marshalsea Prison walls today.

Mostly known as a debtors prison, Marshalsea prison existed in Borough High Street for over five hundred years. It was closed in 1842.

The Marshalsea Prison stood off Borough High Street for 40 years in the 1800s, but before then it was on a nearby site from the 14th century until moved locations in 1811.

The second building was demolished in 1842, so now all that’s left is a sturdy-looking brick wall.

It was a national prison, second only to the Tower in importance, and became famous worldwide thanks to Dickens, who wrote about life in a debtors prison in his novels such as Little Dorritt.

Dickens’ father was sent to Marshalsea in 1824 for forty pounds debt.

 You can still see one of its walls and two original gate arches in the yard next to St George the Martyr church.

Nearest underground station: Borough

Bridewell House of Correction

The Prospect of Bridewell from John Strype’s, An Accurate Edition of Stow’s Survey of London (1720). © Tim Hitchcock.

Established in a former royal palace (Bridewell) as a correction house in 1556, this prison was built for housing vagrants and homeless children, and punishing minor offenders and unruly women. 

The prison also included workrooms and a hospital. 

It was partially destroyed in London’s Great Fire, and shortly after rebuilt, before entirely demolished in 1863.

All that remains of the prison buildings is the gateway on New Bridge Street at number 14. The Unilever Building on the corner now occupies the rest of the old site.

Nearest railway station: Blackfriars

Clerkenwell House of Detention

Clerkenwell-House-of-Detention
Clerkenwell House of Detention

There has been a prison on this site since 1616. Its tunnels, the only remaining part of it, were built in 1844.

It was largely used as a detention prison and an estimated 10,000 people a year passed through its gates.

The prison was demolished in 1890, but an entire underground section survived and lay undisturbed until the bombs of the Blitz saw it reopened as an air-raid shelter.

The site of the prison is now occupied by the Hugh Myddleton School building (and partially converted into residential flats).

However, it is possible to access the tunnels from Clerkenwell Close, behind St James Church.

Nearest underground stations: Farringdon, Angel

Gatehouse Prison

Built in 1370, it was initially part of a prison which existed in Westminster Abbey’s gatehouse. Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in it on the eve of his execution at the Tower of London in 1618.

It is believed that the saying, “stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage” was written here by the poet, Lovelace, in 1642. In 1689, Samuel Pepys was imprisoned in it.

Demolished in 1776, the site is now occupied by Westminster School’s Crimean War Memorial (the tall column) which stands in front of Westminster Abbey, in Broad Sanctuary.

Nearest underground station: Westminster

King’s Bench Prison

King’s Bench prison

This prison initially stood on the east side of Borough High Street, and in 1755 it moved to a larger area at St George’s Fields.

The majority of prisoners were debtors, and their families often joined them. Dickens wrote about it in David Copperfield, with Mr Micawber being imprisoned in it for debt.

In 1828, the prison was “the most desirable place of incarceration in London” – the yard was full of traders, and there were a large number of gin shops on site. Wealthy prisoners even had a regular cook to prepare their meals. By the 1870s the prison had closed.

Nearest underground station: Borough

Clink Prison

Clink prison museum

It was a small prison connected to Winchester Palace on Bankside. The first mention of it is in 1509, and it was destroyed in 1780.

It was for who committed offences on Bankside and nearby brothels, which were controlled by the Bishop of Winchester.

Prisoners included both Protestant and Catholic prisoners of conscience, and before closing, it was also a debtor’s prison.

The Clink Prison Museum, in Clink Street, occupies the site of the original prison.

Nearest underground station: London Bridge

Horsemonger Lane Jail

Horsemonger-Lane-Jail
Horsemonger Lane Jail

Built as a model prison in 1791, and renamed Southwark County Gaol in 1859.

The gatehouse had gallows on the roof, and it was here that Charles Dickens saw a double hanging in 1849. That led him to write to The Times condemning public execution and helped its abolition in the country.

One hundred thirty-one men and four women were executed between 1800 and 1877.

The jail itself closed in 1878 and was demolished in 1880. Newington Gardens now occupies the area of the prison.

Nearest underground station: Borough