Southwark Prisons

Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1955.

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'Southwark Prisons', Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), (London, 1955), pp. 9-21. British History Online [accessed 25 June 2024].

. "Southwark Prisons", in Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), (London, 1955) 9-21. British History Online, accessed June 25, 2024,

. "Southwark Prisons", Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington), (London, 1955). 9-21. British History Online. Web. 25 June 2024,

In this section


In the 17th and 18th centuries there were four prisons in the small space between Newcomen Street and St. George's Church on the east side of Borough High Street, the King's Bench and the Marshalsea, both dating back to the 14th century and perhaps earlier, the County Gaol, dating from the beginning of the 16th century, and the House of Correction. Their relative positions are shown on the plan on the next page. In addition there were two other prisons in the immediate neighbourhood, the Borough Compter, kept first on the island site in Borough High Street, where the old parish church of St. Margaret had stood, and subsequently moved to Tooley Street, and the Clink Prison belonging to the Bishop of Winchester.

The evil and cruelty revealed in 18th century descriptions of these prisons are appalling, and there is little reason to think from the records that have come down to us that conditions at earlier periods were any better, though probably there was less congestion. (fn. n1) In terms of sheer human misery it is doubtful if even the horrors of the concentration camps of recent years were worse than the long, slow agony of close confinement, starvation, sickness, and torture which went on for centuries in the Marshalsea and King's Bench prisons.

The King's Bench Prison

(i) First Site in Borough High Street

Under the Norman kings, when the King's Court in both its general and its judicial character was itinerant, prisoners arraigned before it were detained in any convenient place near the court. During the course of the 13th century the court of King's Bench was, in practice if not in theory, separated from the King's person, offences committed within the verge of the royal court being tried in what later became the Marshalsea Court by the King's Knight Marshal, but several centuries elapsed before the prisons which served the two courts were finally differentiated from each other or settled in one place. The term Marshalsea Prison occurs from 1294 (fn. 21) onward, but throughout the mediaeval period it was often used indiscriminately for the prison of the Knight Marshal and for the prison kept by the Marshal of the Court of King's Bench, e.g., in 1324 there is a reference to John de Castello, a rebel, who was in the prison of the Marshalsea at York; (fn. 21) and in 1339 John Gerard, "chaplain," was pardoned for robberies and for escaping from the Marshalsea prison of the King's Bench at Canterbury. (fn. 21) There are several references on the Close and Patent Rolls to a royal prison in Southwark in the 13th century, but no indication that there was a definite house allocated for the purpose until 1373, when "the good men of the town of Suthwerk" were given a licence "to build in the high street leading from the church of St. Margaret towards the south, a house, 40 feet long and 30 feet wide, in which to hold the pleas of the Marshalsea of the king's household and to keep the prisoners of the Marshalsea while in the said town, and to hold all other the king's courts." (fn. 21)

Figure 6:

Plan of Borough High Street showing sites of prisons

From this time onward there seem to have been two prisons in Southwark, one for the Court of Marshalsea and one for the Court of King's Bench. In 1384 Thomas atte Raven was pardoned for razing the houses and tenements of Richard Imworth, keeper of the Marshalsea of the King's Bench, in Southwark and for releasing the prisoners from the prisons of the King's Bench and Marshalsea there. (fn. 21) In 1393 there is an entry on the Patent Rolls concerning a felon, John Flemmyng, who escaped from the King's Bench prison in Southwark. (fn. 21) Prisoners cited before the Court of King's Bench were, however, still carried round the countryside in carts in the train of the itinerant justices. (fn. 21)

The chroniclers relate that Henry V, when Prince of Wales, was imprisoned in the King's Bench for striking or insulting Judge Gascoigne on the bench, (fn. 22) and that Jack Cade, during his short-lived occupation of Southwark, freed the prisoners of both prisons. (fn. 23)

Some victims of the religious persecutions of the Tudor period, among them John Bradford, who was burnt at Smithfield in 1555, (fn. 24) and John Penry, one of the writers of the Martin Marprelate Tracts, who was hanged at St. Thomas à Waterings in 1593, (fn. 25) were imprisoned in the King's Bench, but the earliest list of prisoners that has been found, compiled in 1561, (fn. 26) includes 13 debtors, 3 recusants, 1 priest, and 2 persons accused of "inconjuracion" out of a total of 71, the remainder of whom were charged with felonies or misdemeanours.

The debtors in the King's Bench petitioned the King in 1624 against imprisonment for debt, saying that it was against the fundamental laws and well-being of the state, and that 80 had died of starvation in that prison during the year, and asking that if the whole estate of a debtor had been seized by his creditors he might be freed from confinement. (fn. 27)

In 1653, Sir John Lenthall, then Marshal, in obedience to an order of the Council of State, sent in a list of the 393 prisoners in his charge. (fn. 28) Of these, 2 were on a plea of murder, 10 of trespass, and 2 by the "command of the Court"; most of the rest were detained for debt; several had been in prison for over 20 years. The total sum involved was £976,122. Seventeen of the prisoners were women.

In 1576 a commission which included the Bishop of London and the Dean of St. Paul's, was appointed to relieve "poor prisoners confined for debt in the Queen's Bench." (fn. 27) The commission met with considerable opposition from the Marshal and his officers, but it continued in existence until the end of Elizabeth's reign, and it was perhaps due to its efforts that a clause was inserted into the Act for the relief of the poor of 1601 (fn. 29) providing for money to be collected by counties and corporate bodies throughout the kingdom for the relief of poor prisoners in the King's Bench and Marshalsea. There were a number of private charities for the relief of prisoners, but it is doubtful if at any time more than a small proportion of the proceeds reached them. The income of the keeper was derived from what he could exact from those in his charge, (fn. n2) and though there may have been keepers who contented themselves with their legitimate fees, the majority extorted all they could get by fair means or foul. In addition to the sufferings inflicted by the Marshal and his underlings, new prisoners were often fleeced by old-established inmates who tyrannized over their fellows. (fn. 31) In the 18th century they set up a Mock Court with steward and other officers, which dispensed the charities and even let out the rooms at a profit.

An illuminating account of the descent of the office of Marshal of the King's Bench is given in the Act of 1754 (fn. 32) which authorized the rebuilding of the prison. James I, in 1616, granted the office to Sir William Smith, from whom it passed to Sir John Lenthall and then to William Lenthall. The latter mortgaged it in February, 1684, to Sir John Cutler and, as the mortgage was not cleared, the office was afterwards assigned to Ebenezer Blackwell, goldsmith, in trust for Lenthall's heirs. The Act set aside £10,500 to pay off the mortgagees so that the office might revert to the Crown.

For many years the prisoners were kept in two houses known as the Angel and the Crane, the former giving its name to Angel Place, which bounded it on the south (see the plan on p. 10). In the reign of Henry VIII the owner of these houses, Richard Fulmerston, added a new building with a brick wall round it "for ye more safe Custody of the Prisoners." Edward VI acquired the freehold of the buildings, and thenceforward they were let on lease, with the Marshal as tenant or sub-tenant. In 1696, William III leased (fn. 33) the whole property to Charles Bertie and others in trust for the Duke of Leeds, a grant which was renewed until 1761, when the old buildings were demolished and a building lease of the site was granted to Benjamin Powell and Edward Layton (fn. 34) who formed the alley known as Layton's Buildings. Part of Layton's house there, with its bowed projection into the court (Plate 4a), is still standing. Layton was a back or vat maker, as was his successor in the house, Florance Young (fn. 35), who died in 1835, and was buried in St. George's churchyard.

Nos. 201 to 205, Borough High Street now occupy the site of the frontage of the old King's Bench.

(ii) Second Site in Borough Road

By the middle of the 18th century the old King's Bench Prison had, in the words of the Act of 1754, become "unsafe for the custody, and dangerous to the health of the prisoners," and the sum of £7,800 was provided for a new building. About 2½ acres of ground in St. George's Fields was bought from Catherine West (fn. 36) for the new prison, which was completed by 1758. In 1761 it was said to be "situated in a fine air; but all prospect of the fields, even from the uppermost windows, is excluded by the height of the walls with which it is surrounded. It has a neat chapel… and only one bed in each room; but these rooms are extremely small… none above nine feet in length." (fn. 37)

There were wild scenes outside the prison in 1768 when Wilkes was imprisoned there, and several civilians, including William Allen, the son of the host of the Horseshoe Inn in Blackman Street, were shot by the military. (fn. 38) During the Gordon Riots part of the King's Bench was burnt down (fn. 39) (Plate 6a), but it was subsequently repaired. (fn. 40) An attempt to blow up the prison in 1792 failed. (fn. 38) The fire which consumed the north-west block in 1799 seems to have been accidental. (fn. 38)

Debtors imprisoned in the Bench were, on payment of a fee, allowed out on parole in an area known as the "Rules" of the King's Bench Prison (see the plan on Plate 24), much of which was, in the 18th century, open ground in St. George's Fields. The privilege was much abused, and William Smith reported in 1776 (fn. 41) that "Many prisoners, whose actions are supersedable … occupy rooms, keep shops, enjoy places of profit, or live on the rent of their rooms a life of idleness; and being indulged with the use of the key, go out when they please, and thereby convert a prison … into an alms-house for their support." He was told that about 120 gallons of gin and 8 butts of beer were drunk a week. In the summer of that year John Howard found (fn. 42) the prison so crowded that "many lay in the Chapel"; with women and children, there were 1,399 on the lists of whom more than two-thirds slept inside and one-third in the Rules.

In 1823 an anonymous writer published (fn. 43) an enthusiastic account of the King's Bench describing its amenities, the fives courts, reading rooms, public kitchen, bakehouse, etc., and the state house, "A good and substantial brick building, containing eight spacious and excellent apartments, let at one shilling per week, to the oldest prisoners, or those who, by their good conduct and gentlemanly behaviour, have entitled themselves to this indulgence." William Combe, the author of the three Tours of Dr. Syntax, and Benjamin Haydon and William Hone were among the many famous people confined in the King's Bench before the heavy hand of Victorian reform clamped down upon it. Charles Dickens' memories of his father's confinement in the Marshalsea prison were recalled in David Copperfield in the adventures of the volatile Mr. Micawber, but the scene was transferred to the King's Bench.

In 1842 the Fleet Prison and Marshalsea were abolished by Act of Parliament, (fn. 44) and the Queen's Bench, renamed the Queen's Prison, became the sole prison for debtors and bankrupts. All fees were abolished, but so were most of the privileges which the prisoners had previously enjoyed. Imprisonment for debt was finally abolished in 1869 (fn. 45) and the Queen's Prison was closed. It was for a time used as a place of temporary reception for convicts on discharge (fn. 46) but was found unsuitable, and in 1879 the materials were sold by auction and the site cleared. Scovell Road was formed and Collinson Street widened, and the majority of the site was used for the blocks of tenements known as Queen's Buildings. (fn. 47)

The Marshalsea

The early history of the Marshalsea prison is inextricably mixed with that of the King's Bench. As has already been shown (p. 9), the Marshal often kept prisoners in Southwark in the 13th century and had a permanent building there in the 14th century. The Court and Prison were at first used only for offences committed within the verge of the King's Court, but from 1430 onward there are references to the Admiralty Court in Southwark (fn. n3) and to sailors imprisoned for piracy, etc. (fn. 26) The references to imprisonment in the Marshalsea for debt begin about the same time.

Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea from 1550 to 1553 and again from 1560 until his death there in 1569. (fn. 25) In January, 1550, we are told that the Knight Marshal removed his bed, leaving him only straw and a coverlet to lie in, because he would not pay a fee of £10. (fn. 23) A list of 34 prisoners there in 1561 (fn. 26) includes, in addition to Bonner, only 3 prisoners for religion, 1 for debt, 1 "for Ronnynge away from the Gallys," and several mariners sent in by the Lord Admiral "for Suspecyons of peracye." Like the King's Bench and the White Lion, the Marshalsea was used for the confinement of recusants in the 1580's and of followers of the Earl of Essex in 1601, (fn. 27) but thereafter the majority of prisoners in the Marshalsea were debtors, though it continued to serve as a prison for the Court of Admiralty until its closure in 1842.

Although conditions in all the Southwark prisons were bad there are indications that they were worse in the Marshalsea, perhaps because the prisoners were entirely at the mercy of the Knight Marshal or his deputy. The complaint of a Frenchman, M. La Touche, in 1629, that he was detained in "hunger and nakedness" because he could not pay the prison charges, although an order had been issued for his release, is typical of many. (fn. 27) In 1639 the prisoners revolted, pulled down the palings about the house and attacked the watch with stones, brickbats, and firebrands. One of their accusations against Hall, the undermarshal, was that 23 women were lodged in one room where there was no space for them even to lie down. (fn. 27) In 1718 an anonymous rhymester called the Marshalsea an "earthly Hell," (fn. 48) a description which was more than justified by the findings of the Committee, appointed by Parliament in 1729, to inquire into conditions in the gaols. (fn. 49) The prisoners were tortured with irons, beating, and by being locked up with human carcases. They were confined in so small a space that many were stifled to death in the heat of summer, and those who survived ill-treatment often died of starvation, since the keepers took most of what was given in charity. The report states that in the warmer weather 8 or 10 died every 24 hours. Some slight improvements were made as a result of the inquiry but the root cause of the trouble was not removed, the prison continued to be run for private profit.

In 1635 William Way, whose uncle, Thomas Way, had been keeper of the Marshalsea as early as 1559, (fn. 21) sold the property to George Tucker under the description of "All that great Messuage called the Marshalsey used for the prison of His Maties Houshold now in the Tenure … of Sr Edward Varney" together with a number of tenements, 9 of them in Mermaid Yard, and a garden. (fn. 50) Thirty-three years later, when the premises were leased by Tucker's successor, Eleanor Rowe, to John Lowman, they consisted of some newly-erected brick buildings with a yard in front and a garden lying on the east side of the yard, and an old building called the lodge on the south side of the yard, and a number of small houses which were not considered to be part of the prison (fn. 51). Lowman built a new court house which continued in use until the removal of the prison. After the fire in Borough High Street of 1676 the Assizes and Sessions Courts were also held there for a time. Lowman's nephew, who was keeper early in the 18th century, specialized in thumb screws, iron hoods, and other forms of torture to extract the last halfpenny out of his unfortunate captives (fn. 52) (see Plate 5b). As late as 1811 a prisoner is reported as dying of want. (fn. 38) In 1729 there were 401 prisoners in the Marshalsea of whom 82 were housed on the Master's side. They paid during the year for their lodging £555 2s. on the Master's side and £41 12s. on the Common side.

John Howard in 1776 described the Marshalsea as "an old irregular building (rather several buildings) in a spacious yard. There are, in the whole, near sixty rooms; and yet only six of them now left for common-side Debtors. Of the other rooms,—Five are let to a man who is not a prisoner … Four rooms, the Oaks, are for women … There are above forty rooms for men on the Master's-side, in which are about sixty beds; yet many prisoners have no … place to sleep in but the chapel, and the tap-room." (fn. 42) Prisoners on the Master's side had the use of rackets courts and of a little back court for skittles, though there can have been little room for them within the narrow confines of the prison.

From 1666 to 1724, when the White Lion had become ruinous, the sheriff's prisoners were lodged in the Marshalsea (fn. 53) and became an additional source of profit to the Keeper, but by 1799, when Horsemonger Lane Gaol was opened, the Marshalsea buildings had in their turn become too bad for further use and the County Gaol was purchased and altered to serve as a prison for the Marshal and the Admiralty. It is this building which is described by Dickens in Little Dorrit as "an oblong pile of barrack building partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top." (fn. n4)

The old site was sold to Samuel Davis, cooper, in 1802, but the prisoners were not removed until 1811. No. 119 (now 163) Borough High Street, and the building over the entrance to Mermaid Court were acquired about 1824 by a firm of wholesale drapers, Gainsford and Wicking, who erected a five-storey building with a double-fronted shop there. (fn. n5) In 1952, when extensive alterations were being made to these premises, a bricked-up arch, 18 feet high and 9 feet wide, was found in the rear wall on the north side of and at right angles to Mermaid Court. It is 168 feet 4 inches from the frontage line of Borough High Street and is 18 inches thick. Theories were rife that this was part of the old Marshalsea and perhaps of the court-house there, but as the engraving reproduced on Plate 5a shows, the court-house formed a projection on the south front of the north side of the court-yard of the prison at some distance from the wall in question, and accounts of the prison buildings in 1800–11 describe them as so dilapidated and ruinous that it is difficult to believe that anything so substantial as this arch could have formed part of them. In general the brickwork appears to date from the early 19th century, though some of the bricks used are probably earlier. The evidence available suggests that the wall and arch formed part of the cooper's workshop built by Samuel Davis circa 1812, who perhaps used some of the bricks from the old prison for the purpose.

The ground and buildings of the second Marshalsea were put up for auction in July, 1843, and sold for £5,100 to W. G. Hicks, ironmonger. (fn. 55) They then comprised the Keeper's house, a substantial three-storey brick building and eight separate dwelling houses of brick and slate, the suttling house, the Admiralty Prison, and a chapel and some paved yards. These are shown on the plan on p. 10. (fn. n6) The premises were enclosed from Borough High Street by iron gates. Parts of the Keeper's house, kitchen, suttling house, and the eight dwelling houses have been incorporated into the premises of George Harding & Sons, Ltd., hardware merchants, at the rear of No. 207 Borough High Street, though they cannot be seen from the road.

The County Gaol and House of Correction in Borough High Street

There is very little information available about the work of the Surrey Quarter Sessions or Justices in the mediaeval period and no evidence has been found that there was a County Gaol in Southwark prior to 1513, when a commission of gaol delivery was issued for "Surrey Gaol, Southwark." (fn. 27) In 1557 a pardon was granted to John Harper, who had been attainted of high treason and ordered by the sheriff to be taken to Southwark gaol and thence to the gallows of St. Thomas a Waterings to be hung, drawn, and quartered. (fn. 21) From 1580 onward we know that the county gaol was kept in the house called the White Lion just north of St. George's Church. (fn. 27) Stow, in 1598, speaks of "the white Lyon a Gaole so called, for that the same was a common hosterie for the receit of travellers … This house was first used as a Gaole within these fortie yeares last, since the which time the prisoners were once removed thence to a house in Newtowne, where they remained for a short time, and were returned backe again to the foresaid White Lyon, there to remaine as in the appointed Gaole for the Countie of Surrey." (fn. 57)

Neither the White Lion nor the County Gaol are marked on the map of Southwark circa 1542, the lower part of which is reproduced on Plate 1, but in a sale of 1535 the White Lion is described as a great tenement or inn with a tenement and a shop on either side and a barn, stables, etc., in the tenure of Robert Faireman, barber, and an acre of pasture ground lying in common in St. George's Field. (fn. 58)

The county did not own the premises and the gaol was run as a profit-making concern by the various Keepers. During the reign of Elizabeth 1 recusants swelled the numbers of prisoners, (fn. 27) but it seems that the supply of prisoners, and with it the profits of the Keeper, fell off during the early Stuart period, for in 1635 Robert Bellin, the then Keeper, petitioned the Court of High Commission at Lambeth for leave to attend at Court so that "as occasion should serve he might have now and then prisoners committed thither," a petition which was granted. (fn. 27) Conditions in the White Lion were by this time bad even by contemporary standards. In 1638 George Coks, a Benedictine monk, who was imprisoned there, complained that he was in danger of his life by reason of the closeness of the prison (fn. 27) and asked to be removed to the Clink, a prison which was by no means salubrious. Twelve years later the County Justices themselves decided that more suitable accommodation was needed for the County Gaol and they negotiated with Thomas Walker, who had acquired a grant of Winchester House (see Bankside), (fn. 7) for the transfer of the Clink prison for the purpose. (fn. 58) This proposal fell through.

In 1654 trustees for the county purchased the White Lion with the House of Correction (fn. n7) and garden adjoining and the White Lion Acre in St. George's Fields from the owner, Anne Rich, for just over £600. (fn. n8) Instead of rebuilding, the trustees lost all immediate benefit from the transaction by granting 41 year leases of most of the property for which they received only a small sum in consideration money. (fn. 58) Samuel Hall and William Arthur acquired a lease of the lodge, a four-storey building with a cellar, 36 foot in depth and with a frontage of 11 foot to the street, while Edward Bruce was granted the garden and part of the main building containing 5 rooms and a kitchen.

In 1661 it was reported that "There needes a more Convenient workehowse for the howse of Correction especially in Somertyme this beinge to close for Ayre for such as are to bee held in hard Labour, And there is not light enough for the whole roome if there were twentie blocks [for the beating of hemp] there beinge but eight And to this there wants a vault for an howse of office." (fn. 60) The accommodation in the House of Correction or Bridewell then consisted of one little chamber, two large chambers, which had been reserved to William Arthur, two garrets, two "low large Cellars one of them used for a workehowse" and a little yard. In the White Lion the debtors had a buttery, four chambers, and "two great Chambers" which were in need of repairs to the roof, a parlour "lockt upp by Arthur," and a very small chapel "beinge a throughfaire to the buttery but otherwise conveniently scituate for the severall Prisoners to come to and the Criminal Prisoners to come to the window to heare."

The Common Gaol consisted of one large and one small room and a small yard for both men and women; the kitchen to the Common Gaol had been taken by Arthur. The rest of the ground and buildings, including a "longe yard," was leased out.

For several years Arthur was paid £50 a year to keep the House of Correction, but he failed to carry out repairs or even to pay for the bread supplied to prisoners and was accused of being a "Receptor, hospitator et comfortator" of robbers and other evil-disposed persons. The yearly allowance was stopped, but Arthur continued as Keeper for several years longer. (fn. 60) By 1666 the White Lion, or such part of it as was still available for use as a prison, was in such a bad condition that the sheriff was obliged to commit his prisoners to the Marshalsea. This state of affairs continued, in spite of numerous complaints, for over 50 years. In 1718 the Court of Sessions decided to levy a penny rate to cover the cost of building a new Bridewell and County Gaol, but 2 years later it was reported that no money had been paid in to the Treasurer. Finally in 1721 when "itt appeared to the Court that an Indictment was depending against the Inhabitants of [the] … County for haveing no County Gaole" the Justices decided to get down in earnest to the work of rebuilding. In March, 1723, John Lade reported that Edward Olliver of Newington, carpenter, had almost completed the County Gaol and it was ordered that 2 wells were to be sunk in the yards.

Both buildings were finished by February, 1724, when the fees to be taken by the Keeper were fixed at 4s. 4d. for each person discharged from the House of Correction and 13s. 4d. for each felon, 6s. 8d. for each debtor and 10s. 10d. for each person guilty of a misdemeanour who was discharged from the County Gaol.

In November, 1725, the Court, of Sessions ordered that an old building standing on "County Land between the new Gaol and the publick Street" and formerly in the possession of Captain Bateman, coachmaker, part of which extended over the gateway to the gaol, should be pulled down and the old timbers used to make a fence in the yard next to the lodge with "a large Window Frame in the Wall for the prisoners to begg through (if hereafter it shall be thought fit)." (fn. 61) The County Gaol, built after 70 years of delay and vacillation, was known throughout the 18th century as the "New Gaol."

A glance at the map on p. 10 will show how narrow was the site to accommodate both the Gaol and the House of Correction, and in 1772, when the House of Correction was in need of repair, it was decided to move it to a new site rather than rebuild in so confined a space (see below). (fn. 9) Two years later, largely owing to the work of John Howard, an Act was passed "for preserving the health of prisoners in gaol, and preventing the gaol distemper." (fn. 62) The preamble stated that it had been found that gaol fever was due to lack of cleanliness and fresh air and it authorized justices to make some minimum provisions for cleaning and airing the wards and cells, and for sick rooms and baths. The Court of Quarter Sessions for Surrey appointed a committee to carry out the Act. (fn. 63) They ordered, among other things, that some windows should be made in the wards of the County Gaol, 2 rooms should be set aside as sick rooms and "three Dozen of Canvass Frocks of the cheapest Sort" should be provided for the use of prisoners.

During the 18th century the majority of prisoners in the County Gaol were felons though there was still a small percentage of debtors. Some of the Scots concerned in the 1745 rebellion were confined there prior to their execution on Kennington Common (fn. 64) as were some of the rioters concerned in the destruction of property in Southwark during the Gordon Riots in 1780. (fn. 65) Seven of the latter were executed on a gallows in St. George's Fields near the King's Bench Prison.

In 1791 the County Justices obtained an Act empowering them to build a new County Gaol on a site in Horsemonger Lane (see p. 20). (fn. 66) The old building, though delapidated, was yet in better condition than the Marshalsea, and in 1799 the former was purchased from the County for £4,214 12s. and converted into a prison for the Marshalsea. It continued in use as such from 1811 until the abolition of the Marshalsea in 1842 (see p. 14).

The House of Correction in St. George's Fields

In 1772 authority was obtained from Parliament (fn. 67) to extinguish the rights of common on the White Lion or Hangman's Acre in St. George's Fields, which had belonged to the County since 1654, in order to erect a new House of Correction thereon. John Millner was responsible for the building which was completed early in 1773. (fn. 68)

William Smith, who wrote on the State of the Gaols in 1776, and who had served as an apothecary to St. George's House of Correction, approved the arrangement of the new building which, unlike the old premises, contained separate wards for men, women, and apprentices, and two bathing tubs and a sick room in accordance with the Act of 1772. On the other hand, he found that the prisoners suffered much from cold and hunger, since they were allowed only a 1½d. loaf a day and received no charities, and, apart from a little desultory beating of hemp, they had nothing to do.

The House of Correction remained in use until 1798, when its inmates were removed to Horsemonger Lane Gaol. The building, which is marked on the 1791–99 edition of Horwood's map between Providence Row (now Glasshill Street) and Great Suffolk Street, is shown on the 1813 edition as in use as a soap manufactory. The original building, with additions and alterations, survived until well on into the 19th century. It is shown on the left of the engraving reproduced on Plate 6a.

The Surrey County or Horsemonger Lane Gaol

In 1791 the Surrey Justices purchased 3½ acres of market garden ground in Newington on which to build a new County Gaol and Sessions House. (fn. n9) (fn. 69) The ground abutted on Horsemonger Lane (afterwards renamed Union Road and now known as Harper Road). The prison, which was designed by George Gwilt the elder, consisted of a quadrangle of three storeys, three sides being used for criminals and the fourth for debtors (see p. 106). Provision was made for over 400 prisoners.

Some alterations to the prison were carried out by John Willson, builder, of Great Suffolk Street in 1856. (fn. 70) In 1862 Henry Mayhew printed the following description of the gaol—

"It is inclosed within a dingy brick wall, which almost screens it from the public eye. We enter the gateway of the flatroofed building at the entrance of the prison, on one side of which is the governor's office, and an apartment occupied by the gatewarder, and on the other is a staircase leading up to a gloomy chamber, containing the scaffold on which many a wretched criminal has been consigned to public execution. Emerging from the gateway, the governor's house, a three-storied building, stands right in front of us, on the other side of the courtyard, having a wing of the debtors' prison on each side, all of them built of brick … The right wing of the prison contains sheriffs' debtors, who maintain themselves … the left wing is set apart for county court debtors and those sheriffs' debtors who are unable to do so …

The court yard is flanked on the left hand by the infirmary, a detached building, containing wards for debtors and criminals … on the right by the sessions' house, the front of which faces Newington Causeway." (fn. 71)

Leigh Hunt passed a part of his 2 year sentence for libel in Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1813–15 and was visited there by Lord Byron and Tom Moore. (fn. 25) Charles Dickens witnessed the public execution of the Mannings there in 1849 and expressed his disgust in a letter to The Times, (fn. 72) thus beginning the agitation against public executions which culminated in their abolition in 1868. (fn. n10) (fn. 73)

The prison was closed in August, 1878, under the provisions of the Prisons Act, 1877, which transferred the responsibility for all prisons to the Prison Commissioners. Two years later the inner area was cleared, and in January, 1884, Part of it, containing just over an acre, was opened by Mrs. Gladstone as a children's playground. (fn. 74) For some years the gatehouse of the gaol was used by the London County Council as a weights and measures office, but a new building for that purpose, designed by T. Blashill, was erected on part of the prison site in 1892 when the remainder of the prison buildings were demolished.

The Sessions House was built on the north-west side of the prison with an approach road from Newington Causeway. The original building, with repairs and alterations, lasted until 1912, when, it having been decided to concentrate all Sessions' business at Newington instead of having two places of meeting north and south of the river, it was decided to rebuild in order to secure more accommodation. As a temporary measure the Sessions were transferred to Clerkenwell Sessions House. Work on the new building at Newington was delayed by the outbreak of war, but the main part was finished in 1917 for use as government offices. It was completed and opened as the Sessions House for the County of London on 11th January, 1921. (fn. 75) It contains an old chimney piece removed from Clerkenwell Sessions House (Plate 9), but otherwise is of little architectural interest. It was seriously damaged by enemy action during the 1939–45 war, and is now (1954) undergoing a complete repair.


  • n1. Capter I of English Prisons Under Local Government, by S. & B. Webb, gives an excellent brief survey of prison conditions in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
  • n2. The House of Lords, in 1701, refused to pass a Bill for "regulating" the overcrowded King's Bench and Fleet Prisons, expressly on the ground that if the number of prisoners was reduced "the Profits thereby accruing will not be a proportionable Recompence to the Officers to attend the Courts; so that the King's Four Courts at Westminster will be without Prisons, and without Officers to assist them."
  • n3. E.g., in July, 1430, John Kelke, being sued, could not find a counsel in Norfolk or Suffolk, and the Admiral, John, Duke of Bedford, "revoked the case to his principal court at Southwerk."
  • n4. Entries in the prison register show that John Dickens was imprisoned there from Febrauary to May, 1824, for a debt of £10.
  • n5. Samuel Davis bought only the part of the prison near Borough High Street which was built on land owned by the Crown. He already owned six tenements and a cooperage on the south side of Mermaid Court, and it is significant that the rateable value of the cooperage was substantially increased in 1813 when he got possession of the Marshalsea property. Gainsford and Wicking later acquired most or all of the property owned by Davis, but the two firms subsisted side by side for a few years and the deeds which would show the exact date and nature of the transfer seem to have been destroyed. The ground on which the back part of the Marshalsea stood was owned by the Gosling family and leased to the Deputy Marshal of the prison. The Gosling property, which adjoined Tennis Court, was acquired by the London County Council between 1950 and 1951, and this together with other land running parallel with Borough High Street and extending from Newcomen Street down to Long Lane, has been used for the extension of the Tabard Garden Housing Estate.
  • n6. The new site being too small for the inclusion of a court house, a new Marshalsea Court House was built in Scotland Yard.
  • n7. An inquisition of 1650 quoted in the course of this transaction contains the first definite mention of a House of Correction in Southwark, but it had probably been in existence for some years. There is an entry in the vestry minutes of St. Saviour's parish of a collection for the erection of such a house as early as 1601.
  • n8. The Journal of the House of Commons for 1654, records that under an Act of 1651 money was collected for the Commissioners for the Monthly Assessments for the Army towards the purchase, building, and repair of the gaol, but the sheriff" refused to release it.
  • n9. The ground is described as being part of Mill Field.
  • n10. Dickens wrote: "The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators." Two stones with the inscriptions "M. M." and "F. G. M", "EXD 13th NOV.R 1849" are now in the Cuming Museum.
  • 7. L.C.C. Survey of London, Vol. XXII, Bankside, 1950.
  • 9. C.R.O., Journal of Bridge House Committee.
  • 21. Cal. of Pat. Rolls.
  • 22. J. Stow, The Annales, 1615, p. 342.
  • 23. Camden Society, Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London, ed. J. G. Nichols, 1852.
  • 24. J. Foxe, Ecclesiasticall Historie … and Monuments of Martyrs, 1641, Vol. III, P. 307.
  • 25. Dict. of Nat. Biog.
  • 26. P.R.O., SP 12/18.
  • 27. Cal., of State Papers (Dom.).
  • 28. A List of all Prisoners in the Upper Bench Prison, … the Third of May, 1653 … by Sir John Lenthall
  • 29. Public Act 43 Eliz. I cap. 2.
  • 30. The Journals of the House of Commons.
  • 31. Guildhall Library, MS. 659/1.
  • 32. Public Act 27 Geo. II cap. 17.
  • 33. P.R.O., LR 1/121, f. 124b.
  • 34. Ibid., LR 1/122, f. 98.
  • 35. Messrs. Jacobs, Young and Westbury, Deeds.
  • 36. P.R.O., C 54/5997.
  • 37. R. and J. Dodsley, London and its Environs Described, 1761, Vol. III, pp. 278, 279.
  • 38. Annual Register.
  • 39. The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 9th June, 1780.
  • 40. P.R.O., AO 1/2494/411.
  • 41. W. Smith, State of the Gaols in London …, 1776.
  • 42. J. Howard, The State of the Prisons…, 1777.
  • 43. A Description of the King's Bench Prison (c. 1823).
  • 44. Public Act 5 & 6 Vic. cap. 22.
  • 45. Public Act 32 & 33 Vic. cap. 62.
  • 46. S. and B. Webb, English Prisons under Local Government, 1922, p. 1.
  • 47. L.C.C., M.B.W. Building Act Case 28165.
  • 48. Hell in Epitome or, a Description of the M . . SH . . SEA, 1718.
  • 49. Report from the Committee appointed to enquire into the State of the gaols …, 1729.
  • 50. Minet Library, Deed E 38.
  • 51. Ibid., Deed D 89.
  • 52. L.C.C., Members' Library, John Burns' Coll., Prisoners Last Appeal to the Commons of England.
  • 53. S.C.R.O., QS 2/1/7–12.
  • 54. P.R.O., PRIS 11/7.
  • 55. Commissioners of Crown Lands, Sale Book 15.
  • 56. Ibid., Marshalsea Prison Papers.
  • 57. J. Stow, Survey of London, 1598.
  • 58. S.C.R.O., QS 5/4/4 (1–29).
  • 59. L.C.C.R.O., Vestry Min. of St. Saviour's, Southwark.
  • 60. S.C.C., Surrey Quarter Sessions Records, Vols. VI-VIII.
  • 61. S.C.R.O., QS 2/1/12.
  • 62. Public Act 14 Geo. III cap. 59.
  • 63. S.C.C., Surrey Quarter Sessions Records, Vol. V.
  • 64. A Complete Collection of State Trials …, ed. T.B. Howell, Vol. XVIII, pp. 350, 351.
  • 65. London Mag., August, 1780.
  • 66. Public Act 31 Geo. III cap. 22.
  • 67. Public Act 12 Geo. III cap. 65.
  • 68. S.C.R.O., Sess. Bdle., 1772.
  • 69. Newington Sessions House. Horsemonger Lane Gaol, abstract of title.
  • 70. Ibid. Papers relating to Horsemonger Lane Gaol.
  • 71. H. Mayhew and J. Binney, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862.
  • 72. The Times, 14th Nov., 1849.
  • 73. Public Act 31 & 32 Vic. cap. 24.
  • 74. South London Press, 12th March, 1892.
  • 75. L.C.C., Minutes, 1st Feb., 1921.