Today in London’s penal history: Gordon Rioters burn down the Kings Bench Prison, 1780.

“The Kings Bench Prison burnt, with the houses adjoining, after being previously evacuated by the prisoners, who were allowed to remove their effects..”
(A plain … narrative of the late riots in … London, Thomas Holcroft)

“I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”  Report of the words of Thomas Haycock, a tavern-waiter in St James, 1780.

The Gordon Riots of June 1780 began initially as a rabid protestant demonstration against the prospect of catholics being given a few civil rights. Although rioting at first targeted catholics, within hours this overflowed into a general insurrection of London’s poor against parliament, the rich, the prisons, and all authority. Six days and nights of disorder paralysed the city, driving the wealthy into flight, while their houses were looted. Crowds roamed the city; rather than one ‘mob’, there were many, some expressing bigotry and racism in their targets, others pure class hatred. Judges, ministers, MPs, Lords were made examples of, but also catholic chapels, irish and Italian communities… A rowdy potlach of festival and uprising, pogrom and party… Which fascinates and repels, as it did at the time.

Among the most positive aspects of the Riots was the wholesale sacking of pretty much every prison in London, Westminster and Southwark. Prisons were hated like almost no other institution by the London poor and labouring classes, who recognised what prison was – the big stick and holding cell, designed to keep them in fear, discipline them, direct them towards death or transportation…

Among the Southwark prisons attacked and trashed by the crowd during the first week of June was the Kings Bench,

Dates back to the early 14th century, this prison was originally intended to hold prisoners facing trials in the King’s Bench Court.  At first sited on the east side of todays Borough High Street, overcrowding and maltreatment led to a new prison being built in the 1750s, on the edge of St George’s Fields (on the west side of Borough High Street).

By this time the vast majority of its inmates were incarcerated for debt. In England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year. A creditor could have someone who owed them money jailed, and an inmate was typically required to repay the creditor in-full before being released. People often languished for years in a debtors prison – since they had to pay for the costs of their ‘stay’ first, then the debt second, they might never be released… Debtors prisons were feared and hated by many Londoners, and not only the very poor…

The new Kings Bench prison consisted of 224 rooms with eight large state-rooms and a chapel. Since prisoners who were solvent could pay a sum of money to the keeper, in exchange being allowed their liberty anywhere within the area the prison “rules” operated (even to take up a separate residence), the Kings Bench included amenities for the enjoyment of the better off.  Those with less money were able to purchase a “day pass”.  In 1776 one Mr Smith observed that “Many prisoners … occupy rooms, keep shops, enjoy places of profit, or live on the rent of their rooms a life of idleness, and being indulged with the use of a key go out where they please, and thereby convert a prison into an alms-house for their support.” A coffee-house, two pubs, shops selling meat and vegetables formed part of the grounds. 120 gallons of gin and eight butts of beer were said to be drunk in the Kings Bench per week.

For inmates with money, it was “the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England.”  But only a third of prisoners lived “in the rules”, the remaining two thirds lived within the prison walls.  By the early nineteenth century, the keeper received £3590 per year:  £872 from the sale of beer and £2,823 from income derived from “the rules”.

The old Kings Bench had been attacked & burned by the revolting peasants in 1381 & during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. In 1649, after a bill for the relief of prisoners committed for debt (an important demand of Levellers & other reformers of the time) was rumoured to have been defeated, a number of prisoners rioted & tried to break out. And only a few years before the Gordon Riots, radical darling John Wilkes had been held here after ‘libelling’ the king; his supporters attacked and set fire to the new Kings Bench in an attempt to rescue him. Daily riots took place around the jail for weeks till he was released; most seriously, the ‘massacre of St Georges Fields’ saw soldiers fire on pro-Wilkes rioters in May 176, killing several.

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On 7 June 1780, at the height of the Gordon Riots, the Kings Bench was stormed and burned out by a huge crowd. It seems they announced their intentions in advance; as with several of the attacks on prisons in this week, this was partly to give warning to allow inmates time to ready themselves and any possessions to escape once the attack started.

“It is impossible to give any adequate description of the events of Wednesday. Notice was sent round to the public prisons of the Kings Bench, Fleet, &c. by the mob, at what time they would come and burn them down… As soon as the day was drawing towards a close, one of the most dreadful spectacles this country ever beheld was exhibited. Let those, who were not spectators of it, judge what the inhabitants felt when they beheld at the same instant the flames ascending and rolling in clouds from the Kings Bench and Fleet Prisons…”

The attack became as much a rollicking, desperate, defiant party:

“5 persons smoking and drinking on top of the prison, while the lower part was alight, perforce jumped for their lives; they were all received on blankets held out by people below. The furniture of the prison offices was burnt before the doors.”

Southwark’s other penal institutions also fell to the mob that week: “Borough Clink was burnt to the ground and never rebuilt; the Southwark New Prison was emptied of prisoners, the Marshalsea attacked but saved by the military, the roundhouses in Borough High Street and Kent Street pulled down and fired. And on the last night of the riots, 8-9 June, it was said that twenty spunging houses, private prisons for debtors, were destroyed in Southwark.”

Thousands of prisoners legged it as the London prison system fell before the anger of those who mostly felt the touch of its withered hand… Though large numbers would be retaken over the following months; many easy to capture because they stayed in London, unwilling or unable to flee further.

In the days following the riots, recaptured prisoners and rioters were held in sheds in the Kings Bench grounds. All the London gaols still standing were filled, rammed with arrested rioters and recaptured escapees. All were heavily guarded by soldiers, as were the sheriffs’ offices in the City and those police offices that had escaped destruction.

The Kings Bench was swiftly rebuilt, and remained open for another 90 years, closing in 1869 when the imprisonment of debtors was mostly ended.

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

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