If you commit crime (in some cases even just being near a crime or maybe a wrongful conviction/false allegation) there's a good chance that you'll, one day, end up in gaol/jail/prison as a result. I know I did (guilty as charged your honour). But when were prisons first introduced, and how did our capitals prisons influence and change the landscape of London over the years? So, join us at London Crime as we take a closer look at London’s prisons: past and present.

LondonCrime's Guide to London Prisons:


Past & Present

By David Breakspear

One of the earliest set of laws can be traced back to Mesopotamia, during the reign of the sixth Babylonian king Hammurabi. However, two other ancient codes of conduct are said to have existed before these. The earliest, by the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu of the city of Ur, can be dated to the 21st century B.C.
Evidence also suggests that the ‘Lipit-Ishtar of Isin’ Sumerian Code was created nearly two hundred years before Hammurabi. The ‘Code of Hammurabi’ was written in approximately 1750 BC.

Hammurabi’s Code is an example of ‘lex talionis’ (the law of retribution).

The above, will give you an indication as to how old the criminal justice system actually is, some might say, myself included, not much has changed. We have had and have, many prisons within the City of London and the wider Greater London area. Although, the first state prison to be built and opened wasn’t until English philosopher Jeremy Bentham purchased land in 1799 for approximately £12,000 to build his infamous visionary ‘Panoptican’ style prison. The plan was abandoned in 1812 and was not the only problem to beset this new prison. A competition was set up for architects to submit designs of prisons. The winner was the drawing master, Mr William Williams at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. His winning design was adapted by architect Thomas Hardwick and construction began. Hardwick resigned the following year in 1813, and a John Harvey took over the role, he lasted until 1815. The architect responsible for the design of several of our public buildings, including the main block and facade of the British Museum, Sir Robert Smirke, saw it through to its completion. Millbank Prison admitted its first prisoners, all women, on 26 June 1816. Men arrived January 1817.

Millbank Prison
Public Domain,

Between 1822 – 1823 an epidemic comprising of many diseases; such as dysentery and scurvy, hit the prison and led to all the women prisoners being released with the men relocated, temporarily, to prison ‘hulk’ ships moored on the Thames at Woolwich. The Millbank design didn’t work as well as they hoped. It was also extremely expensive with annual running costs of over £15,000. Enter Pentonville, the new version of a ‘model prison’, at a cost of approximately £85,000 work began in April 1840 and Pentonville prison opened in 1842.

Pentonville prison 1842
Pentonville in 1842

Modern day Pentonville
Modern day Pentonville
By Glyn Baker, CC BY-SA 2.0,

However, although the first ‘state’ prison opened in 1816, the history of London’s prisons actually takes us even further back, all the way back, in fact, to 1166 and the reign of King Henry II. Not the last Henry to have residential links to prison.

One hundred years after the Battle of Hastings, King Henry II orders the building of prisons. One of the first prisons to be built in London was Newgate. A prison that once occupied the site where the Old Bailey now sits. Newgate opened in 1188 and was active until closing in 1902, with the prison being demolished in 1904. It was during Henry’s reign that the precursor to common law was created and in order to settle land disputes, the jury system was created.”

Newgate Prison

"Newgate was London’s largest prison, housing 40–50 prisoners. Dating from 1188, it was demolished in 1777 and rebuilt to this design – seen here in a copy from 1800 – by George Dance the Younger (1741–1825). The brutal, almost windowless appearance was an intentional part of punishment and deterrence. After the Prison was razed by protestors in the Gordon Riots of June 1780, the replacement was finished in 1782. The following year, the site of London’s public executions was moved there from Tyburn. Death was by hanging, in front of eager crowds, with little effort towards humane dispatch: victims usually took many minutes to die by strangulation. Between 1783 and 1799, 559 people – 17 of them women – were put to death at Newgate: 35 a year on average, though one day alone saw 20. The last public hanging was at Newgate in 1868."

(source: Accessed 10/06/2019.)

Over the years Newgate held some famous prisoners, among them were: author Daniel Defoe, founder of Pennsylvania, Quaker William Penn (of course Jonathon Wild and Jack Shepherd, both covered in my article on Jonathon Wild) and a man known as Ikey Solomon. It is said, that Ikey Solomon is the man on whom Charles Dickens based his character ‘Fagin’ on, in Oliver Twist. Ikey is also a main character in my favourite book: ‘The Potato Factory’ by Bryce Courtney.

Dicken's London

I have missed out the Tower of London (the earliest known prisoner of which, in approximately 1100, was Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham) due to it being an official residence of Her Majesty the queen and not a prison. - In a nod to other sections of this website, the Kray twins were held here in 1952 - Many other notable palaces and homes were used to house prisoners. One such palace gave its name to what was known as a ‘House of Correction’. The House of Correction was created to put to work those considered unwilling to work. The first of these such ‘prisons’ was a palace that once belonged to another King Henry, this time Henry VIII. A palace in which Henry resided during the early years of his reign. In 1553, a section of Bridewell Palace began to be used as a prison which became known as Bridewell Prison. The name Bridewell would later become the term used for a House of Correction.

Another palace linked to Henry VIII was also used as a prison, but for prisoners of war. The ‘Palace of Placentia’ - what must be the best name for a palace let alone a prison – was the principle royal palace for 200 years. Not only was Henry VIII born here (and subsequently Queen’s Mary I and Elizabeth I) but also, this is where he married Catherine of Aragon. It was the annulment of this marriage that led to the English reformation. The Royal Naval College in Greenwich now occupies the site of this once famous palace.

Palace of Placentia stone Greenwich
By Richard Croft, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Around the same time of the 16th century, prisons used to hold ‘civil prisoners’ such as debtors and dissenters known as Compter’s were in use. The following is an extract from ‘The Penny Cyclopaedia, Part Six - Police and Prisons, London in 1839’ which was published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, edited by George Long and published by Charles Knight alongside the Penny Magazine from 1833 to 1843.


There are nine prisons for the confinement of offenders within the metropolis. These are:
1. The Gaol of Newgate in the City of London
2. The Giltspur-Street Compter in the City of London
3. The Bridewell Prison in the City of London
4. The New Prison, Clerkenwell, Middlesex County Gaol
5. The Coldbath-fields, County House of Correction
6. The Westminster, County Bridewell
7. The Horsemonger Lane, Surrey County Gaol
8. The Borough Compter
9. The Penitentiary at Milbank.

The Gaol of Newgate is under the control of the Corporation of London, and is the principal prison appropriated to the reception of persons brought before the Central Criminal Court. This prison has at various times been stigmatised as one of the worst regulated in the kingdom, and although various reformations have been attempted, but little effectual good appears to have been thus accomplished. In the third Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, presented to Parliament in 1838, it is stated ' that this great metropolitan prison, while it continues in its present state, is a fruitful source of demoralization, and a standing reproach on the character of the Corporation of the City of London. ' The more heinous classes of offenders are placed in separate cells which are not warmed, have no privies, and are without stool or table, but in each of them is placed a Bible and a Prayer Book. The numbers of persons confined in this prison in the course of the year ending Michaelmas 1837, was 3,349, of whom 802 were females. The greatest number at any one time in that year was 342, of whom 123 females. The current expenses of the prison for the year amounted to £7,785, 15 shillings and 10 pence.

The Giltspur-Street Compter is under the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen. Prisoners of every denomination and character are crowded together in the wards, yards, and sleeping cells of this prison without any possibility of classification, and, as we find it stated in the last Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, ' The Giltspur-Street Compter continues a wretched prison, with no efficient means of affording a salutary discipline. The prisoners are left together in large numbers in idleness and unrestrained communication during the whole 24 hours. ' The number of prisoners confined there in the course of the year 1837 was 552 males and 130 females; the greatest number at any one time was 124 males and 48 females.

The Bridewell prison is under the jurisdiction of the governors of Bridewell and Bethlehem Hospitals, and is used for the reception of persons summarily convicted by the lord mayor or sitting aldermen. The prisoners are for the most part petty pilferers, misdemeanants, and vagrants: refractory apprentices brought before the aldermen or chamberlain of London are also sent here to solitary confinement for short periods. The prisoners were formerly employed, as a punishment, in beating hemp, which occupation has given place to the modern invention - the treadwheel. The inmates are classified, and the ' silent system ' has been adopted. There were confined in this prison in the year ending Michaelmas 1837, 770 males and 352 females; the greatest number at any one time was 90 males and 29 females. The current expenses in that year amounted to £1,9341, 15 shillings and 1 penny.

The new prison, Clerkenwell, is the general receiving prison of Middlesex for offenders committed, either for examination before the police magistrates, for trial at the sessions, for want of bail, and occasionally on summary conviction. Some degree of classification has latterly been attempted, but as the limits of the prison oblige 30, 40 or more prisoners to remain together in a small room, this division must he more nominal than real ; the attempt is indeed limited to marking divisions on floor, within which certain classes are desired to remain. The number confined in the year ending Michaelmas 1837, was 4,263 males and 2,054 females, but the greatest number at any one time was 205 males and 109 females; the expenses for the year amounted to £3,763, 10 shillings and 2 pence.

The Coldbath-fields County House of Correction is under the jurisdiction of 14 visiting magistrates appointed at each quarter-sessions: four go out of office quarterly by rotation. This prison contains felons, misdemeanants, and persons committed under the designation of rogue and vagabonds. It contains a treadwheel. The prisoners are kept separate in classes in the different wards, and the silent system is strictly enforced. The discipline is said by the prison inspectors to be extremely good. In the year ending Michaelmas 1837, there were confined 6,625 males and 3,125 females; the greatest number at any one time having been 929 males and 319 females; the expense to the county, exclusive of alterations and repairs, was £13,455, 14 shillings and 9 pence.

The Westminster County Bridewell in Tothill-fields is under the jurisdiction of the magistrates for the City of Westminster. It is a modern building, having been first occupied in 1834: it cost upwards of £200,000. The prison contains 42 dayrooms and 348 sleeping apartments in addition to 120 dark cells in the basement. The classification of prisoners is accomplished to a great extent. Prisoners who have been convicted are subjected to the silent system. There are two treadwheels in the prison, and two schools have been established, one for boys, the other for girls, under 17 years of age, who are committed to the prison. In the year ending at Michaelmas 1837, there were confined 3,085 males and 2,439 females; the greatest number at any one time was 438, of whom 159 were females. The current expenses of the prison were £5,578, 7 shillings and 4 pence.

The Surrey County Gaol, in Horsemonger Lane, Southwark is under the jurisdiction of the sheriff, court of quarter-sessions, and 12 visiting magistrates of the county of Surrey. This prison contains debtors as well as criminals of all degrees, which latter are not classified, nor kept separate to any useful extent. In the course of the year to Michaelmas 1837, there were in this prison 1,193 male and 107 female debtors. Of other prisoners the numbers were 1,901 males and 605 females; the greatest number of these at any one time was 233 males and 62 females, together 295. The expense in that year was £3,316, 0 shillings and 2 pence.

The Borough Compter, in Mill-lane, Tooley Street, is under the jurisdiction of the lord-mayor and court of aldermen of London, and the high-bailiff of Southwark. The prisoners consist of debtors, of persons committed for trial for felonies and misdemeanors, and others tried and sentenced to imprisonment, but not to hard labour; those prisoners who are sentenced to labour are sent to the County House of Correction at Brixton. The defects in the discipline and management of this prison were strongly animadverted on by a Committee of the House of Commons in 1829, and in their Report of 1838 the Inspectors of Prisons remark that ' its general state is as deplorable at this moment as it was then. ' In the year ending Michaelmas, 1837 there were confined 273 male and 32 female debtors; 688 males and 464 females accused of offences; the greatest number of these at any one time was 69, of whom 23 were females: the expenses of the prison were £878, 19 shillings and 8 pence.

The Penitentiary at Milbank was established in 1820 and placed under the direction of the Secretary of State for the Home Department. It is built upon the plan recommended by the late Mr. Jeremy Bentham, which admits of the most perfect classification and supervision: it cost nearly half a million of money and is capable of containing 1,100 prisoners. The whole establishment is managed by a committee appointed by the Secretary of State. The prisoners are in great part persons sentenced to transportation or to death, whose punishment has been commuted to imprisonment, and it has no peculiar connexion with the police of the metropolis.

Prison rules

Another type of prison environment was the London workhouse, created by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, who were active from 1690 and used the criminal justice system to punish the poor. ‘In addition to producing an extensive range of printed pamphlets, the Societies sought to prevent vice by using the courts aggressively to punish those who committed a range of offences, including profane swearing and cursing, sabbath breaking, drunkenness, "lewd and disorderly" conduct, brothel keeping, gaming and sodomy. Because ordinary people and even officers such as constables could not be counted on to prosecute such offenders, the reformers encouraged informers, some of whom were paid a salary, to take up the mantle.’ (source: Accessed 10/06/2019) I’ll finish this part of our ‘Guide to London prisons: past and present’ with a short YouTube video on ‘What life was like in prison for young Victorian offenders’.

Coming up next time, we’ll take a look at the Victorian prisons of London that are still in operation, along with the ones, such as Holloway and Latchmere House, that have now closed.,