It is to be expected that a city with centuries of history and a large population will have also built a great many prisons with a rich penal history. The title may imply that the book just covers the buildings, but author has provided a lively and engaging history of the prisons and some of the notable prisoners who have been held there.
NAME: A History of London’s Prisons
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Geoffrey Howse
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Gaol, prison, compter, gallows, execution shed, cage, gatehouse, gate, castle, Tower, cell, grate, Great Fire, Gordon Riots, lock-up
DESCRIPTION: It is to be expected that a city with centuries of history and a large population will have also built a great many prisons with a rich penal history. The title may imply that the book just covers the buildings, but author has provided a lively and engaging history of the prisons and some of the notable prisoners who have been held there.
The history extends from the Medieval period to modern times and therefore includes a very diverse range of structures included lost and forgotten prisons. At the beginning of the period reviewed, prisons were built for general criminals, debtors, political prisoners and ecclesiastical prisoners. Convenient prisons were built into the city gates, palaces and castles. For much of the period reviewed, prisons were commercial undertakings that had to pay their way. Prisoners were forced to pay for every aspect of their incarceration and punished harshly when they failed to paid their dues or had not family who could be coerced into paying for them.
The author has devoted whole chapters to some prisons, but grouped others into shared chapters. The reader may wonder why prisons have been treated in this way but the story unfolds, it is all logical and understandable. The author has also avoided a simple chronological order based on the completion of building. This also makes sense as the story unfolds.
Some of the prisons are internationally famous names even though many will know little beyond the name, or their descriptions in fictional works. History tends not to look closely into a prison beyond its place in the history of someone held there. There is therefore much in this book that will come as a surprise. For much of London’s history, its prisons were not intended as places of punishment or places of rehabilitation, just places where the unfortunates were held pending some other event or to remove them from society. Before the establishment of distant colonies to which offenders could be exiled, prisoners were either held until they could pay for their release, or they were held pending an execution date. Even after transportation became an option, most common criminals were hanged, and usually very rapidly, so that most London prisons either contained a pace of execution or were close to places of public execution.
As most prisons held prisoners who were in some way political prisoners, it was not unusual for the prisons to be stormed by protestors and set on fire. As a result several prisons were built destroyed and rebuilt several times in their careers.
The Tower and Newgate Prison are amongst the best known and contained some of the most famous or infamous prisoners. They were also the sites of execution of large numbers of people over an extended period. Other prisons, such as The Marshalsea and The Gatehouse are almost unknown today. Several were built to serve hamlets that eventually became parts of London and their function was taken over by a larger prison.
The use of some prisons varied over the years. During the 1914 -1918 War Wormwood prison was used to accommodate RNAS recruits who were being trained at Crystal Palace. Some London prisons were used to hold spies during the First and Second World Wars either until they had been turned and debriefed, or until they were executed.
This is a really absorbing book that includes some surprising facts about London prisons. It will obviously be eagerly read by those interested in criminal and penal history, but it should be read by a very much wider audience because it provides many insights into London life through almost a thousand years.