Today in London’s penal history: breakout attempt at New Gaol, Southwark, 1775.

Various sites around Southwark’s Borough High Street had served as County Gaol for Surrey over the centuries; jostling with a number of other prisons built in a relatively small area of what was for years London’s southern lawless edge… (Some erected here because Southwark was unruly and famed for crime, prostitution and dodgy characters… others just because land was cheaper and available.)

From 1580 onward the county gaol was kept in the house called the White Lion, a coaching Inn, just north of St. George’s Church, in Borough High Street, Southwark’s main drag. Stow, in 1598, speaks of “the white Lyon a Gaole so called, for that the same was a common hosterie for the receit of travellers … This house was first used as a Gaole within these fortie yeares last, since the which time the prisoners were once removed thence to a house in Newtowne, where they remained for a short time, and were returned backe again to the foresaid White Lyon, there to remaine as in the appointed Gaole for the Countie of Surrey.” 

The Gaol had long been a target for rebels and rioters: in 1640, in the run-up to the outbreak of the English Civil War,” the rabble apprentices released the whole of the prisoners in the “White Lion.”

In the 1650s the inadequate state of the Gaol led the magistrates to try to negotiate taking over the old Clink Prison near the river, but this fell through… The Gaol fell into disrepair as the keeper neglected its upkeep. By 1666 the White Lion, at least the part of it as was still available for use as a prison, was in such a bad condition that the sheriff was obliged to commit his prisoners to the Marshalsea. This state of affairs continued, in spite of numerous complaints, for over 50 years. In 1718 the Court of Sessions decided to levy a penny rate to cover the cost of building a new Bridewell and County Gaol, but 2 years later it was reported that no money had been paid in to the Treasurer.

Eventually, “after 70 years of delay and vacillation” the magistrates were threatened with being indicted “for having no county gaol”, and in the early 1720s a new County Gaol was built, on the same site off Borough High Street, next to the Southwark House of Correction (the authorities did love to cluster their lock-ups, prisons, workhouses and other repressive institutions together in them days… Now the fashion is to shove them out in the country where its awkward for relatives to visit.)

Like most of Southwark’s prisons, the New Gaol was to become a venue for resistance and rebellion. In March 1775, several prisoners attempted a collective breakout:

“Robert Rous, one of the turnkeys of the New Gaol, Southwark, seeing a prisoner, who was committed there for different highway robberies, with rags tied round his fetters, ordered him to take them off; and on his refusing to do it, he immediately cut them off; when finding both his irons sawed through, he secured him, and then sent up tow of his assistants to overlook a great number of prisoners who were in the strong room, and all [bound] him with their irons, which they had knocked off. Rous hearing of it, went up with a… pistol, and extricated his fellow-turnkey from their fury, and then locked the door. All the turnkeys as well as constables, now surrounding the door and the yard; and the prisoners fired several pistols loaded with powder and ball at two of the constables; when, the balls going through their hats, and the outrages continuing, one of the constables, who had a blunderbuss loaded with shot, fired through the iron grates at the window, and dangerously wounded one fellow committed for a burglary in the Mint. At length a party of soldiers, which had been sent for from the Tower, being arrived, and having loaded their muskets, the room was opened, and the prisoners were all secured and yoked, and 21 of them chained down to the floor in the condemned room. Some of the people belonging to the prison were wounded.” (Annual Register, 1775.)

By the time of this escape attempt, the ‘New’ Gaol was already in decline, and new fashions both in prison reform and surveillance rendered it out of date. Between 1791 and 1799 a new County gaol was built at Horsemonger Lane, next to County Sessions house (court). At this time it was the largest prison in the country. It remained Southwark’s principal prison until 1878.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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