Today in London’s penal history: the Fleet Prison finally closes, 1844.

The Fleet Prison, the first purpose-built gaol in London, stood for around 700 years on the banks of London’s the Fleet River. It went through several incarnations. The first Fleet prison was built in early Norman times, on a tiny island in the River Fleet, just outside the walls of the city of London, the river providing a protective moat for a square tower. It was, like the Tower of London and the many castles that dominated the English landscape, a visible symbol of the power of an aristocracy and monarchy which had dispossessed the existing population and ruled by force and by threat of force.

Later, when this first Fleet Prison fell into disrepair, in the 14th century, it was rebuilt where Old Seacoal Lane (a short alley off Farringdon Street) now runs.

This immediate neighbourhood was famed for centuries for a concentration of prisons: Ludgate, the Fleet, Newgate, the bridewell, Giltspur St Compter, were all in a relatively small area inside the City wall, and outside. In fact some of them had begun life in the wall, as two of the City Gates, Ludgate, and Newgate) already strong fortified points, so ideal for holding offenders… Some of them were outside the City walls, because building land was less of a problem, and people didn’t want prisons next door to them. Also to cope with fact that cons used to leg it out of City to escape jurisdiction… Near to liberties and rookeries too? But the clustering of communities of the excluded: foreigners denied entry to the city, the poor and outcast, workers I dirty and anti-social trades, which lined the Fleet river, in the dubious and debated authority between London and Westminster, may also have had its impact: prisons developed where they could directly overawe the people who they existed to control, where hauling someone off may have been a shorter journey. But the various prisons also housed offenders against the myriad different and often mutually hostile jurisdictions and courts which then judged offences ranging from debt, through heresy and political subversion, pissing off the powerful, to murder and robbery. However, imprisonment was in itself for many years not a punishment; prisons were often holding cells while waiting for court lists to get round to you, when you would be sentenced to either death, a fine, a visible period of public humiliation of abuse, banishment, and later on transportation to penal colonies. Or, occasionally, got off. If you were imprisoned for debt, however, locked up on the compliant of whoever you owed money to, you could languish there until your debt got paid. Which it might never be.

Once a City of London Prison, by the late fourteenth century the Fleet held prisoners from Westminster courts such as Common Pleas, the Exchequer and the Kings Council and Chancery. It also held people who owed money to the king, or had crossed him.

The Prison’s Keepers were royal appointees. It was often a hereditary position, very profitable, with lots of money to be extorted from inmates, so was much sought after (generally obtained by payment of a large bribe). Warders below the Keeper also bought their positions from the ranks above them (a low-ranking position cost £20, then a fortune, in 1558), as they could also make a mint by selling every conceivable service or commodity to prisoners. The screws received no wages, so had to extort every penny they could from those they guarded. Inmates with cash could obtain reasonably comfortable quarters, have good food and drink brought in; those convicts who couldn’t pay found themselves in the coldest, dampest cells, supplied with the roughest food etc.

Like all prisons, the Fleet was hated by the London poor. On 13th June 1381 the prison was burned to the ground by revolting Kent peasants and London rebels, after they’d released all the prisoners. After the rebellion the Fleet had to be rebuilt.

While the vast majority of its guests were poor and mostly forgotten, the Fleet did house some notables. In the era of dissent leading up to and through the English Civil war, the Fleet held inmates locked up for their political beliefs. From 1638 to 1640, John Lilburne, radical Puritan activist and later Leveller leader, was held here, having been arrested for helping to publish and distribute puritan books attacking the state-sponsored Anglican Church. His then mentor William Prynne was also a guest here. While held in irons Lilburne sent a challenge to Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud to debate with him the issues that had got him nicked. At Whitsun 1639, Lilburne sent out an appeal to his fellow apprentices, in the form of a pamphlet thrown among holidaying apprentices in Moorfields, asking them to a campaign for a public trial for him… As a result they marched to riot outside Lambeth Palace in support of him, attacking Archbishop Laud.

The Fleet later held Leveller leaders and other political prisoners during the English revolution. The poet John Donne was also imprisoned there, on the petition of his father-in-law, who he had neglected to ask permission from before marrying his daughter.

In 1666, like most City prisons it burned down in the Great Fire.

Most prisons were hothouses for disease and ill-health, being overcrowded, cold, damp and neglected. Those on the banks of the Fleet River were, like many of the buildings on its banks, heavily affected by the river’s dank and polluted flow. The only viable local sewer, a dumping ground for the animal carcasses of Smithfield and the foul chemicals of tanneries and dyers vats, the Fleet was not a healthy neighbour. (The ‘moat’ around the first prison building became so clogged with carcasses you could allegedly walk across it).

Filth, disease, torture and daily extortion in the Fleet Prison led to a petition to parliament for relief of debtors held there. In 1691 Moses Pitt published The Cry of the Oppressed during his incarceration here (the authorities tried to suppress the publication). One abuse he complained of was the unique right of creditors to apply to have prisoners transferred to the Fleet from other prisons. The Fleet was the most expensive debtors prison to be held in; Fleet screws would routinely bribe creditors to provide fresh pickings for them in this way.
Pitt’s pleas changed nothing, for thirty years later things were running much the same. At least one Keeper, Thomas Bambridge in the 1720s, was so blatantly corrupt and sadistic that he was officially accused of extortion, and that he had “arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt”. The authorities may have been more worried that he had taken money to allow escapes and even provided a special door for the purpose! Also that a couple of his victims weren’t poor nobodies: Sir William Rich, unable to pay for better conditions in the jail, was threatened with a poker, then shackled and thrown into a freezing hole above an open sewer. Robert Castell, scholarly author of The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated, was forced to sleep in a sponging-house where smallpox was rife, even though he begged the Warden for mercy, and died as a result.

In the ensuing outcry, a parliamentary Committee was appointed in 1729 to investigate what was going on in the Fleet. The Committee laid before the House a catalogue of brutality, incompetence and corruption. It was admitted by Bambridge’s predecessor ‘that so many prisoners had escaped, during the time he was warden, that it was impossible to enumerate them.’ Healthy women had been forced into smallpox wards; casual cruelty was an everyday occurrence. When the Committee moved on to look at the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, they found things to be much the same. Investigating the overall management of London’s prisons, they uncovered a Byzantine web of lets and sublets, transfers of ownership and corrupt charities.

The Prisons Committee had been painted at the Fleet by a rising young artist called William. Hogarth. Hogarth’s sketch caught the moment when Bambridge was brought face to face with his accusers.

Bambridge was tried but acquitted, leading to such strong anger that parliament framed an act to sack him. But despite the horrific descriptions of torture and brutality they took no action. Not even the Prisons Committee could break the inertia of the House of Commons. The hours of evidence and cross examination, the long reports to Parliament and stories in the press, still didn’t result in a Prison Reform Act. (Bambridge, incidentally, cut his throat in his Chambers at Paper Buildings on Fleet Street in 1741. So something good came out of it.)

As with all London prisons, inmates continued to struggle against its conditions, via escapes, rebellions and protests. In June 1731 “the prisoners in the Fleet Prison caused a riot and insulted the keepers… they alleged they were ill-us’d and stood up for their rights and privileges.”

On 6 June 1780, the Fleet was stormed by the Gordon Rioters, and all the inmates freed – bar some who asked politely for time to get their stuff together and find somewhere to go, having been inside for years. To give them time, the crowd decided not to burn the prison that day, but came back the next day instead! A fire engine that arrived to put out the flames was also set on fire. A witness, George Sussex, imprisoned for debt, said later that he observed a man in the gallery of the prison pouring a flammable liquid onto the floor and another man in a sailors jacket setting it alight; in about two minutes the gallery was aflame from end to end. However a company of Light Dragoons arrived and opened fire, (killing up to a hundred rioters according to one source, but only one, according to another?!). Passing rich folk in coaches were stopped and money demanded from them – in the Fleet Market, the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s brother, was held up and robbed as the Prison burned.

Though it was rebuilt after 1780, conditions didn’t substantially improve… Reformer John Howard condemned it as crowded and dirty;

he was surprised by the scandalous neglect of all discipline, and the shameful violation of all morality.   ” They also play in the court,” he says, “at skittles, mississippi, fives, tennis, and other games ; and not only the prisoners : I saw among them several butchers and others from the market, who are admitted here, as at any other public house. The same may be seen in many other prisons where the jailer keeps or lets the tap!  …Besides the inconvenience of this to prisoners, the frequenting a prison lessens the dread of being confined in one. On Monday night there was a wine club; on Thursday night, a beer club—each lasting usually till one or two in the morning. I need not say how much riot these occasion, and how the sober prisoners, and those that are sick, are annoyed by them. “Seeing the prison crowded with women and children, I procured an accurate list of them, and found that when there were 243 prisoners, their wives and children were 475.”

The Liberty of the Fleet arose from the late fourteenth century, when prisoners could get the day out if they posted bail or were accompanied by a warder (obviously for a fee…) This grew into a custom that instead of residing in the cells, prisoners could take lodgings in neighbouring houses, on a kind of semi-parole, so long as they paid the Keeper. This Liberty grew to be a mile and a half across; both in and around the prison, many people sheltered from creditors, who were legally barred from pursuing them there; if you had some cash you could live it up, with sports, games, drink etc. In 1820, inmate Robert Mackay became world rackets champion.

For a while the Fleet also gave its name to marriages. People could get married in the Fleet – the advantages being they were cheap, and could be performed at any time, without banns or licenses, and without a clergyman. This was especially useful for women friends of sailors; a wife could receive his wages if he vanished or died, where an unofficial companion couldn’t. Women also married insolvent debtors here, to clear their own debts. The only feasible kind of wedding for much of the London poor, with useful economic advantages, the institution was hated and denounced by the authorities, and was abolished in 1753.

As all London prison held radicals and rebels, especially in the in first half of the 19th century, radical ideas also spread within them. So on occasion in the Fleet – (probable) spy and promiser of money (that usually never materialised) to radical causes, Pierre Baume, wrote to Robert Owen in 1827, telling him he was preaching Owen’s socialist ideas in the Fleet Prison (where Baume was temporarily detained for debt…).

Pressure for reform of the grim and corrupt prison system in the late 18th and early 19th century gradually led to more critical views of jail regimes. Reform was proposed to both improve prisoner’s lives, but also to try to institute a more rigid and sobering ethos that would reduce re-offending by upgrading the morals of inmates, and separating people, under tighter and surveillance and control. New pentitentiaries and prisons were planned and built, along these lines, in London’s then outer suburbs (slightly further from the public gaze) – Brixton, Pentonville, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs (three of which remain in use today) and at Millbank.

Gradually the older prisons were closed down; the fact that they stood in areas of the city now becoming prime real estate may have also been an impetus. The Fleet Prison was ordered to be closed in 1842 during prison reforms, including the ending of imprisonment for debt, and the building was finally demolished in 1846.

On the site of the old prison, the Congregational Memorial Hall was built, which was to become an important venue for London’s left and trade union movements…


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

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