Bankside and Borough were home to some of London’s most notorious prisons, and in the case of the Clink Prison, the name still lives on as a word for prison. The prisons date back to medieval times when the function of a prison was different to how prisons are used today. Even more so, the way prisons were run was very different as they were privately run with no state regulation, leaving prisoners at the mercy of the marshals or keepers of the prisons who took every opportunity to extort money from prisoners, using violence if necessary, for their most basic needs. Prisoners were charged, sometimes at double the price, for fuel, lighting, food, drink, rooms, beds and bedding. For a price, the keeper would also remove the prisoners’ manacles and chains.

By and large, until the 16th century prisons were used for the confinement of those who had been arrested and were awaiting trial or for those who had been found guilty and were awaiting execution, payment of fines or other punishment. Whilst the death penalty was used for the most severe crimes, punishment took the form of a whipping, the stocks, the pillory, the ducking stool and, increasingly in later times, transportation. However those who owed money could be imprisoned at the will of their creditors until they had received payment, and debtors made up a large part of the prison population. After the Reformation, many were imprisoned, particularly in the Clink Prison, for heresy and religious beliefs.

Marshalsea Prison Wall

The last remaining wall of Marshalsea Prison. Photo taken from St George's Gardens, formerly St George the Martyr's Graveyard, Borough High Street

Punishment was based on shame and humiliation but by the end of the 17th century, more crimes carried the death penalty until by the end of the 18th century there were 220 offences that were a capital offence. This was unpopular with juries who often found a defendant not guilty to avoid execution or to down-value the value of property stolen so the accused would avoid the death penalty when found guilty. Neither was the death penalty popular with the public and the authorities had to tread a line between using the death penalty as a deterrent but safeguarding against riots that might result if it was used too frequently.

By the second half of the eighteenth century there was a growing movement for penal reform based on imprisonment and hard labour. At the same time there was a growing awareness of the dreadful conditions that prisoners had to live in. In 1776 prison reformer John Howard visited all gaols in England and Wales and subsequently his findings were published in 1777. Follow the links to his reports on The Marshalsea Prison and the King’s Bench Prison.

In 1698 the Gaol Act had stipulated that the accused should be housed in gaols maintained and built by the County rather than in private gaols. The Surrey Gaol was housed for a while in the former White Lion Inn in Borough High Street where those awaiting transportation and trials were housed. By 1770 it was condemned as too small and in too bad a state of repair for its purpose, and although it was enlarged, a new county gaol was built in Horsemonger Lane in Newington between 1791 and 1799 next to a session house.

Although county gaols also housed debtors, now criminals were confined in county gaols, this led to debtors as the main class of prisoner in the private gaols which included The Clink, Marshalsea Prison and the King’s Bench Prison. The keepers at these prisons were not paid a salary and made their money for what they could extract from the prisoners. This of course led to corruption. Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1850 “Money, powerful everywhere, was omnipotent in these prisons. Everything could be done with it, without it, nothing.” Without it life was utterly wretched and miserable and although charitable bequests were made for the destitute prisoners, in reality they saw very little of it as the keepers intercepted it and kept most for themselves, or it went to a group of prisoners at the top of the hierarchy within the prisoner community.

The Clink Prison.  When Winchester Palace was built in the early 12th century, it included some cells for the imprisonment of erring priests and monks who were outside the jurisdiction of the regular court. The Bishop of Winchester had manorial rights over the area that in time came to be known as The Clink. His feudal rights included the dispensing of justice for misdemeanours committed within his manor by lay people who would be confined in the prison whilst awaiting trial. This included prostitutes and stew-holders from the Stews who broke the regulations of 1161 and who were usually fined as punishment. The prison also housed those arrested for crimes associated with the stews such as drunkenness, brawling and petty crime.

Some time in the 13th century the prison was relocated to dungeons underneath Winchester Palace with just a small grille to the street above. Conditions were awful as it would have flooded frequently, often with sewage, and many prisoners were chained to the wall unless they had the means to pay the keeper to remove the chains. In 1381, followers of the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler freed the prisoners, as did followers of Jack Cade and his rebellion in 1450. Although the prison may have been called The Clink for a long time, the prison was described officially as The Clink for the first time in the reporting Jack Cade’s rebellion. It is not certain how the word originated: perhaps from the onomatopoeic sound of chains, perhaps from the Dutch word klinken meaning to lock or fasten. By now, creditors could imprison those who owed them money, so the Clink prison also confined debtors.

During the sixteenth century, the prison moved to three low-lying buildings, separate but very near to Winchester Palace. It became the principal prison for those arrested for religious offences during the reign of Mary (1553-1558) who restored Catholicism to the country. The arrested protestants were possibly treated more harshly than other prisoners whilst they were in The Clink awaiting execution, often by burning. The religious climate changed when Elizabeth I came to the throne when The Clink was used to imprison recusants, Catholics who maintained their faith. However, as ever in prison of those times, money was able to buy comfort and a greater freedom. In 1586 a Catholic priest named Gerard was transferred from another prison in London to the Clink which he described as:

“far better and more comfortable than the other for all persons … on account of the great number of Catholics I found there … instead of lewd songs and blasphemies, the prayers of neighbours met my ears … what with coaxing, bribing I got him [the keeper] not to look into our doings too nicely.”

In 1626 a visit by the Privy Council discovered two alters for celebrating mass and a library created by four priests imprisoned in The Clink. One of the priests had three servants and had brought into the prison a ?gentlewoman’ with her own chamber next to his and her own servant. Another priest was found to be fulfilling the role of the keeper’s accountant.

Extreme Protestants were also imprisoned in the Clink during Elizabeth’s reign. Called Brownists after the headmaster of St Olav’s Grammar Schook, or Independents, they were the forerunners of the Puritans. Henry Burrowe, John Greenwood and John Penry were imprisoned in the Clink in 1593 and subsequently executed. Members of the same church were to set sail on the Mayflower in 1620.

During the Civil War, Royalists were imprisoned in the Clink but not long after the entire Clink Liberty was sold in 1649 to Thomas Walker, after which time, the prison fell into decline and eventually disuse. A 1732 census shows there were only two inmates at that time and the Clink Prison is not included in John Howard’s Survey of Prisons of England and Wales on 1777, suggesting it was little used. The prison was not rebuilt when the Gordon Rioters burned it down in 1780.

The Marshalsea Prison and the King’s Bench Prison both probably date back to the early 14th century. The Marshalsea was under the jurisdiction of the Knight Marshall and initially held members of the King’s household arrested for misdemeanours. It also housed prisoners of the Admiralty who had committed piracy or smuggling and those accused of sedition or showing contempt to the Royal Court. The King’s Bench Prison was initially intended to hold prisoners who were going through the judicial process in the King’s Bench Court. Both prisons were originally sited on the east side of Borough High Street and both were attacked by rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt and Jack Cade’s rebellion.

The Marshalsea  received an early reputation for cruelty, the keeper in 1381 was described as a “tormentor without pity”. In 1561, the prison held 34 inmates, of which four were imprisoned for religious offences, several for marine offences and only one debtor. By the 17th century, the majority of prisoners were debtors though the Admiralty still sent prisoners. Conditions were brutal. In 1629 one prisoner had complained that even though an order had come through for his release, he was left naked and hungry as he was unable to pay the prison charges. Ten years later the prisoners rioted partly provoked by 23 women being lodged in a room so small they were unable to lie down.

There were two distinct sections where the prisoners were housed. The Master’s Side was for the wealthy with 50 rooms available which generally had to be shared with other prisoners. In this part of the prison there was a tap-room, a shop that sold food and candles, a coffee house, a tailor and a barber, some of these business operated by the prisoners. Those prisoners unable to pay for the comparative comfort of Master’s Side were housed in the Common Side which was totally separate from the Master’s Side. Indeed prisoners on the Master’s Side were unable to even see the misery of the Common Side prisoners who lived in abject poverty. There were nine small rooms which housed 300 people and prisoners were subjected to a regime of brutality, torture and cruelty.

In 1729 a commission was appointed to investigate conditions. At that time there were 401 prisoners in the Marshalsea. It was found that Marshalsea prisoners were regularly beaten, locked up with human carcasses and tortured with irons. Thumb screws and iron hoods were used. Many prisoners died of starvation. There were so many confined in such a small space that in warmer weather eight to ten prisoners were stifled to death every 24 hours. Though the prison was technically under the control of the Knight Marshal, he hired someone else to run the prison who in turn had leased the position out to William Acton. As a result of the revelations, Acton was tried for the murder of Thomas Bliss, one of the inmates. Bliss had received horrendous treatment (some details can be found on and the evidence compelling but nevertheless, as the government wished to protect the Knight Marshal, Acton was found not guilty after a string of good character witnesses.

John Howard visited Marshalsea in 1776 as part of his national survey of prisons and his full report can be found here.  Amongst other things, he found that there were so many prisoners many were forced to sleep in the tap room or chapel.

When the Surrey Gaol moved from their premises in Borough High Street to Horsemonger Lane, the Marshalsea moved onto the site which Dickens described in Little Dorritt as “an oblong pile of barrack building partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there was no back room; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top.” Charles Dickens had first hand experience of the Marshalsea as his father was imprisoned there for debt along with Charles Dickens’ mother and three of his siblings.

The Marshalsea Prison was closed by Act of Parliament in 1842 and the prisoners transferred to King’s Bench Prison, which was now called the Queen’s Prison, or to Bethlem Hospital if suffering from mental illness. Finally in 1869 an Act of Parliament ended the practice of imprisoning debtors.

King’s Bench Prison: the original King’s Bench Prison was situated on the east side of Borough High Street close to the Marshalsea. In 1561 there were 71 prisoners, 13 of these were debtors and the remainder there for misdemeanours. By 1653, the number of prisoners had risen to 393 and these were mostly debtors. Conditions were not good, in 1624 80 prisoners had died from starvation in the preceeding 12 months. Complaints of extortion and overcrowding led to a Parliamentary enquiry in 1754 which found evidence of over-crowding and mistreatment and a new prison was built on St George’s Fields in 1758 as a result. John Howard’s report of 1777 on the prison can be found here.

One of the new buildings was 120 yards long with a chapel. There were 224 rooms with eight large state-rooms and within the prison walls there were a coffee-house, two public houses, shops and stalls for meat and vegetables. It was estimated 120 gallons of gin and 8 butts of beer were drunk in a week. The “rules” or the extent of King’s Bench prison covered the whole of St George’s Fields, an area with a circumference of approximately 3 miles. Prisoners who were able paid a sum of money to the keeper and in exchange were allowed their liberty anywhere within the “rules”, even to take up a separate residence. Those with less money wer able to purchase a “day pass”. The system led to a Mr W Smith writing in 1776 that “Many prisoners … 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 a key go out where they please, and thereby convert a prison into an alms-house for their support.”

Although the prison was burnt down by the Gordon Rioters in 1780 it was quickly rebuilt. The apparent laxness of the prison led to it being described as “the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England.” But that was for those prisoners with money. Enforcement of the regulations could be lax but equally they could be enforced with violence. It is estimated that whilst perhaps one third of prisoners lived “in the rules”, the remaining two thirds lived within the prison walls. By the early nineteenth century, the keeper received £3590 per year: £872 from the sale of beer and £2,823 from income derived from “the rules”.

In 1842 the Marshalsea was closed and the running of the King’s Bench, now Queen’s Bench Prison, came under the jurisdiction of the Home Secretary. All payment of fees was banned and so too were all privileges. A prisoner had to support himself if he was able, those who were unable to do so were maintained by the state. An observer in 1850 wrote that the impression of prisoners “is that of pain and melancholy. Dirt and idleness, with all their attendant vices, meet the visitor at every turn.”

The prison closed in 1869 when the imprisonment of debtors was ended. The site was cleared in 1879, Scovell Road formed and Model Housing tenements called Queens Buildings built on the site.

Surrey Gaol
Kings  Bench 1830

King's Bench Prison 1830

Marshalsea Prison 1812-2

Marshalsea Prison 1820. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777) London (Google Books)

E J Burford, In the Clink (1977) London
Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London (1989) London
Ida Darlington, Survey of London, Vol 25, (1955), Accessed from British History Online ( accessed 12 September 2011
William Hepworth Dixon, The London Prisons with an account of the more distinguished pesons who have been confined in them (1850) London (Google Books)
Sir Howard Roberts and Walter H. Godfrey (eds), Survey of London, Vol 22 (1950), Accessed from British History Online ( accessed 12 September 2011
Edward Walford, Old and New London, Vol 6 (1878) Accessed from British History Online ( accessed 12 September 2011 (accessed 13 September 2011) (accessed 12 September 2011)
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