I seem to have spent a lot of time in and around prisons lately - and I haven't done anything to deserve it, honestly officer!
Being thrown in prison was not, in itself, intended as the punishment in Georgian times. Instead it was a method of holding prisoners until they were brought to trial or until their punishment was carried out, whether it was flogging, the pillory, hanging or deportation.
The print on the right (Pyne, 1805) shows a pillory designed to hold several men. This could be a horrendous punishment - if the crowd turned against the helpless prisoner they would often stone them and deaths were not unheard of.
The Clink - the prison that gave us one of the slang names for a gaol - has long gone, destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780. It was one of the oldest, set up by the Bishops of Winchester in their enclave in Southwark and Clink Street is still there, close to the river.
In the City you can find the sites of three notorious prisons very close together - Bridewell, the Fleet and Newgate. Bridewell, whose footprint is preserved by Bridewell Place off New Bridge Street, began life as a Tudor palace but soon began its downward slide into a prison for vagrants, disorderly women and similar petty criminals and was finally closed in 1855. The name lived on as a generic term for a local prison for that type of criminal.
New Bridge Street leads to Ludgate Circus. From there, as you climb Ludgate Hill towards St Paul's it is worth glancing up Limeburner Lane, the first street on the left. This follows the south-eastern boundary of the Fleet Prison and the curving modern bronze-faced building you can see on the left hand side shows the exact shape of the Fleet Prison’s walls at this point. The prison dated back to the 12thc. The conditions were dreadful, even after it was rebuilt in the 1780s, and a succession of parliamentary committees called for reform to no avail. It was finally closed in 1842. “Fleet marriages” by clergymen imprisoned there for debt were performed until Hardwicke’s Marriage Act in 1753 made them illegal.
A little further up Ludgate Hill and you can turn into the Old Bailey. The Central Criminal Courts were built here in 1902 on the site of Newgate Prison. There was a prison here from at least the 12thc and a new one was built in 1770-8 but it was severely damaged when 300 prisoners escaped during the Gordon Riots. It was rebuilt in 1793 and a triangular area opened up in front of it that is still there today. This allowed for better accommodation for public hangings which were transferred here from Tyburn in 1783. The area was packed with spectators during executions, many of whom paid premium prices for views from windows overlooking the area. The print on the right, from Ackermann's Repository (1814) shows it looking imposing but not particularly terrible, with the bustling street scene outside. But Henry Fielding called Newgate “a prototype of hell” and the posies of flowers that the judges at the Central Criminal Courts still carry on occasion are a reminder of the appalling stench of the place.
All these prisons are long gone - although you can see a door from Newgate in the Museum of London - but old cells do survive all over the country.
The photograph on the left shows the Old Gaol House in King's Lynn, rather incongruously decorated for Open House Weekend. The design of the doorway, with its shackles, was copied in miniature from Newgate.
Down below is the old prison yard with cells still intact.
On the doors are carved pictures of ships, left there by prisoners who must have been sailors or worked on the busy quayside, dreaming perhaps of escape back to sea from the stench and terror of the cells.