Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Streets of Old Southwark: Of "Liberties" and Prisons

A visitor to London, following the south bank of the River Thames from London Bridge towards Westminster Bridge, on passing the Medieval ruins of Winchester Palace, finds himself or herself in Clink Street, so-called after the prison that stood here from the 1140s until it was burned during the Gordon Riots of 1780. When King Stephen granted the Manor of Southwark to the Bishops of Winchester, it came with a substantial estate, designated a "Liberty," since it fell outside the jurisdiction of City or Shire authorities. Successive bishops took advantage of this freedom in several ways, most famously to license brothels, which were forbidden to operate on the other side of the river, within the City of London (I try to avoid duplicating the work of others, and will thus refer the reader to Jessica Cale's excellent blog-post on Medieval prostitution in Southwark).

The bishops also had the freedom to deprive others of their liberty, both in their capacity as ministers of the Crown (Bishops of Winchester served variously as Lord Chancellor and Lord Treasurer of England); and, as prelates, presiding over ecclesiastical courts, to imprison people for heresy, and other crimes against the Church. Notable inmates of The Clink included Anne Askew (a Protestant martyr under Henry VIII, burned at the stake at Smithfield in 1546); John Hooper and John Bradford (Protestant martyrs under Mary I, burned at the stake in 1555 - both prosecuted by Bishop Stephen Gardiner); and John Gerard and George Blackwell (Catholic martyrs executed under Elizabeth I and James I).

John Bradford, with fellow Protestant prisoners, from John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 1563 (image is in the Public Domain).

The Clink was not the only prison in the vicinity: on emerging from a tunnel at the western end of Clink Street, our visitor may turn left into Park Street, and then right into Redcross Way, leading into a district whose street names evoke, in Charles Dickens's phrase, " ... the crowding ghosts of many miserable years:" Marshalsea Road (the Marshalsea Prison stood here from 1373 until the Nineteenth Century); Little Dorrit Court (Dickens's character, Amy Dorrit, like the author himself, had a father imprisoned there for debt - throughout much of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, half of England's prison population were incarcerated as debtors).

The Marshalsea Prison in the Eighteenth Century (image is in the Public Domain).
The Marshalsea Prison in 1773 (image is in the Public Domain).

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century prisons were run as private enterprises, and the treatment of individual prisoners depended upon their means, and upon the generosity of relatives (the young Charles Dickens worked in a shoe-polish factory to earn money to alleviate his father's position). The Marshalsea had two distinct wings: the "Master's Side," where those prisoners who could afford to could rent superior rooms; and the "Common Side," in which three hundred poor prisoners were crammed into nine small wards.

Facilities on the "Master's Side" included a coffee shop, run by a prisoner named Sarah Bradshaw; a steak-house called Titty Doll's, run by a prisoner, Richard McDonnell, and his wife; a tailor's shop; a barber's shop; and a tap-room serving beer. Debtors could even purchase "The Liberty of the Rules," allowing them to rent private accommodation in the streets surrounding the prison.

The more fortunate prisoners on the "Common Side" were hired as servants by those on the "Master's Side," but a Parliamentary Committee in 1729 found that others, perhaps especially those unfit for work, were routinely starved to death. The situation may have improved somewhat by 1774, when the Marshalsea was visited by the penal reformer, John Howard, but he nonetheless lamented the lack of healthcare facilities, and the prevalence of bullying, both by prison staff, and by prisoners on other prisoners.

The Sick Mens' Ward of the Marshalsea Prison in 1729 (image is in the Public Domain). 

The prison reformer, John Howard, portrait by Mather Brown, 1789, National Portrait Gallery (image is in the Public Domain).

By the late Nineteenth Century, thanks to the efforts of writers such as Dickens, and of reformers, including the Quaker, Elizabeth Fry, public opinion had turned decisively against the worst abuses of the prison system. The Clink never reopened after its destruction by the Gordon rioters; the Marshalsea closed in 1843; imprisonment for debt was outlawed in England in 1869. Nothing of The Clink can be seen today, apart from a blue plaque and a small private "museum;" whilst, of the Marshalsea, only a few walls remain.

Plan of the Marshalsea in 1843, J. Shuttleworth (image is in the Public Domain).

The Clink Prison "Museum." Photo: Sir James (licensed under GNU).

The courtyard of the former Marshalsea Prison in 1897. Photo: John Lawson Stoddart (image is in the Public Domain).
A surviving wall of the Marshalsea Prison. Photo: Russell Kenny (licensed under CCA).

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for the kind mention! This is an excellent post as well. Great reference -- very helpful! All the best x