“One Brown, a Prisoner, returning from Hick’s Hall to Bridewel, passing thro’ Clerkenwell Church Yard, desir’d his Keeper to let him speak with the Sexton, who was then making a deep Grave. He consenting, Brown took his Opportunity, threw the Keeper into it, and then made his Escape.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Friday 21 April 1732.)
Nuff said? A brief news item, and we will never know what happened next. No more is said about it in the magazine. What was his ‘crime’? Was he recaptured? Did the screw who lost him get into official trouble for his ‘grave mistake’ (groan).
Legging it from Clerkenwell Churchyard, Brown could have easily slipped into the sprawling rookeries and slums that lined the nearby river Fleet, where shelter for a fugitive from the law was second nature, whole systems of pulleys and planks were set up within buildings to enable crims being pursued by constables to escape, and where whole communities would gather to frustrate the law in solidarity. If he was wearing irons of any kind a friendly soul could be found to cut them off for him…
There exists a relatively contemporary image of a grave being dug in Clerkenwell Church yard, above.
The venues of law, judgement and control mentioned are more tangible.
Brown was very likely being returned from a court appearance to prison. ‘Hicks Hall’ was The Middlesex County court and house of correction, built in 1614, on what is now St John Street in Clerkenwell. It was known as Hicks Hall, after Sir Baptist Hickes, a Middlesex JP who mostly financed the building. Previous to this the neighbouring authorities in the City of London criticised Middlesex JPs for their disorganisation and lack of a local base to try and hold criminals, which was allowing troublemakers, beggars, the poor etc to commit all sorts of wrongdoing in the City but escape into Middlesex with impunity. Previously the Middlesex Sessions had been held in the Old Castle Tavern, also on St John Street. There was local opposition to the building of Hicks Hall: Gracie Watson, an apothecary’s wife, was hauled into court for “giving reviling speeches against Sir Baptist Hicks touching the building of the Sessions House”.
The Bridewell, where Brown was incarcerated and was being returned, was originally a palace, built in 1515 for Henry VIII, stretching all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street. A big sprawling complex, which gradually came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (through the monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint charitable project of the City and the king, the Bridewell soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”
The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices.
But it was not seen as a prison by the authorities, until much later, although ‘charitable’ inmates were joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and later local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: idle sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.
The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…
In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, stressed the association of landed offenders, such as Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants), with those of the sea, mariners and pirates. English, Latin, and Dutch were the languages of communication in prison. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.
In 1653 the Bridewell became a prison for petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654. Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.
Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, the Fleet Prison, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.