Today in London penal history, 1800: protest in Coldbath Fields prison.

“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell.
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.

He saw a turnkey tie a thief’s hand
With a cordial try and jerk.
Nimbly, quoth he, a man’s fingers move

When his heart is in his work.
He saw the same turnkey unfettering a man
With little expedition.
And he chuckled to think of his dear slave trade

And the long debates and delays that were made.
Concerning its abolition.”
(From The Devils Walk, Coleridge and Southey.)

Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as Clerkenwell Gaol, was built in 1794 and closed in 1877, and stood at the junction of Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue, in Clerkenwell, on the site of what is now Mount Pleasant Post office.

Originally intended to be a new Bridewell, to hold vagrants and put them to work, this was a Middlesex House of Correction, (though the City of London did put up some cash so that it could also make use of the prison); run by local magistrates and where mostly petty offenders served short sentences. Until 1850, the prison housed men, women and children; thereafter it was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17. By the 1850s it held 1450 inmates; Mayhew, visiting around that time, noted that half the inmates were there for non-payment of petty fines. Despite being designed by prison reformer John Howard, and intended to be more humanitarian prison than its predecessors it became notorious for its ‘Silent System’ regime, which banned all communication by word, gesture or sign. Any resistance to these rules was punished with the wearing of leg-irons, bread and water diets, solitary confinement and floggings. But the inmates resisted nonetheless; “A prison semaphore of winks, hand signs and tapping through the pipes emerged, its secret alphabet becoming one of the cultural inheritances of the London underworld.” The prison administration “resigned themselves to policing a silence that actually hummed with a secret language.”

Work was considered entirely as punishment, with no educational or useful effects, and for this purpose the treadmill was provided; prisoners marched aimlessly round the six huge treadmills in silence, 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. “The treadmill was a huge revolving cylinder with steps on it like the slats of a paddle wheel. Prisoners mounted the steps of the wheel, making it turn with their feet while gripping a bar to keep themselves upright. While some wheels were geared to grind corn or raise water, most, including the one at Coldbath Fields did nothing more than ‘grind the air’.

Initially, there were severe miscalculations as to how far a con could trudge in a day; only after mass ill health was the distance reduced to a tenth of the original 12000 feet a day. Prisoners in Coldbath were prone to disease – it is thought the proximity to the foul Fleet sewer may have helped the Prison to have an abnormally high death rate… The gaol became known as the ‘English Bastille’, later the ‘Steel’.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century prison reformers combined genuine ‘reform’ with new forms of social control, including the rule of silence, separation of inmates, ‘improving’ work, increased religious observance and a growing professionalism for the prison workforce. The old prisons like the Fleet and Newgate had been too uncontrollable, and were clearly shown to be mere holding cells, with no attempt at moral improvement or rehabilitation… new prisons like Coldbath had a moral mission, to turn the dissolute and rebellious poor into individuals conditioned to capital’s aims… And to prevent bribery, fraternisation and corruption that had led to escapes, and an easy life for some…

Bentham’s panopticon may never have been built, but the penitentiaries of the 19th century aimed at total control total surveillance and moral bludgeoning.

Inevitably, though, resistance bloomed even in the new bastilles… Partly this was due to an influx of politicsed and rebellious inmates.

In August 1798, eleven mutineers from the great 1797 naval mutinies that had paralysed the Royal navy (and terrified the government for a while), including the rebel captain of the Sandwich, escaped from Coldbath Fields.

In 1798 16 men from the London Corresponding Society (LCS), including former military officer Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, were imprisoned in Coldbath Fields on charges of treason. They had been arrested for plotting to incite popular uprisings in Ireland and England in preparation for a French invasion. The harsh treatment meted out to the prisoners while awaiting trial attracted radical MP Francis Burdett’s support, and he demanded a House of Commons inquiry into their case. Burdett’s exposure of conditions there, became a cause celebre.

Many radicals were detained under repressive laws designed to keep down rising radical ideas at home, and sympathy to the French Revolution during the War… LCS leader Thomas Evans was held for nearly 3 years; another detainee was Colonel Despard, later hanged in 1803 for plotting a nationwide radical uprising. The LCS prisoners mounted a steady attack on the regime of solitary. An article in the society’s magazine described the regime as ‘an ingenious mode of intellectual torture.’ It asserted that ‘remorse is to the intellect what the rack is to the body.

“Burdett’s visits to the prison became highly publicized… He uncovered a litany of abuses and brought them to public notice through a speech in the House of Commons, subsequently printed as a pamphlet titled An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered! in the Coldbath Fields Prison.12 Although the motivation for the pamphlet was the alleged ill treatment of the state prisoners, none of the cases it exposed appeared more shocking than the plight of Mary Rich, a fourteen-year-old girl held in the prison for a month after accusing a lawyer of attempted rape. A grim feature of the late eighteenth-century legal system made provision for witnesses in trials to be held in custody, while those actually being prosecuted could remain free until trial if they had sufficient wealth to provide for it. Mary’s appearance in court a month after being committed to the prison caused a sensation: deathly pale and drawn, her emaciated frame appeared crippled from starvation. Despite being seated in a chair, she was ‘scarcely able to hold herself upright’.13 When questioned on her condition, she feebly advised the jury that she had been fed only bread and water for the month and had been left with only scanty bed coverings. Her sickly frame was exposed to a frigid cell without glazed windows or a fireplace. Further, the pamphlet relayed her claim in court that, despite being exceedingly ill for more than four days, she had been denied access to a doctor.

The Impartial Statement catalogued further abuses: prisoners being beaten by turnkeys; some prisoners being chained in irons for several months at a time without provocation; others confined to shattering spells of solitary confinement for only minor infractions; prisoners being fleeced of money for the most basic of necessities; and still others, along with Mary, starved ‘to the point of death’. With Burdett’s intervention, the plight of Colonel Despard also gained significant public attention. Along with Burdett, Despard’s West Indian-born wife, Catherine, commenced a campaign to elicit public sympathy, complaining to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, that Despard had been treated ‘more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’. One letter, read in the House of Commons and reported in the daily press, complained that he had been imprisoned ‘without either fire or candle, chair, table, knife, fork, a glazed window or even a book to read’. Despard was eventually moved to a room with a fire, though not before, Catherine claimed, ‘his feet were ulcerated by frost’. Burdett’s report on the prison conditions was presented to the House of Commons for recommendation, but failed by an overwhelming majority.

Nevertheless, Burdett’s and Catherine’s crusades against the prison quickly found a receptive public audience. Although the British populace had long been accustomed to allegations of abuse in old prisons such as Newgate, Coldbath Fields was one of the first prisons to arise in the outer London landscape as a testament to the aspirations of John Howard and other late eighteenth-century prison reformers. Here was a prison intended to embody Howard’s humanitarian convictions of protecting prisoners, not only from the squalor, disease and misery of old prisons such as Newgate, but also from the whims of governors and turnkeys and the ruthless prison economy. Instead, Burdett had exposed a site of neglect, barbarity and corruption.” (Christina Parolin)

In 1799, a Board of Visitors reported, having visited the prison, “the prisoners without fire, without candles, denied every kind of society, exposed to the cold and the rain, allowed to breathe the air out of their cells only for an hour, denied every comfort, every innocent amusement, excluded from all intercourse each other…”

In the following year, 1800, there were two rebellions inside the prison, in June and August, which were quelled by the Clerkenwell Volunteers (like most of the Volunteer Companies set up to defeat revolution in France and potential revolution at home). In the August mutiny, on the 14th, prisoners shouted “Murder” and that they were being starved. A crowd were said to have gathered outside in support of the rebels inside the prison (though we’re still looking for confirmation of this) – suggesting a planned revolt by radicals with outside connections…

The revolt, and the agitational effort of both Burdett and Catherine Despard in particular, did have an effect on the prison regime vis a vis political inmates.

“When Burdett took up the case of Despard—one of the first political prisoners to be housed in Coldbath Fields—he found that the former military officer was confined in one of the prison’s smallest cells, measuring a mere 7 ft (2 m) square, which, being set below ground level, flooded during rain. The window of the cell was unglazed so that he was obliged, during the rigours of a hard winter, to jump from his table to his bed, and from his bed to the ground, in order to produce such an increased circulation of his blood as should diffuse warmth through his half-frozen veins.

Despard’s wife, Catherine, reported that despite the desperate physical drill, his legs bore ulcers from the extreme cold of his cell. Combined with his ‘felon’s diet’ of bread and water, Coldbath Fields prison, she feared, had almost achieved prematurely what the hangman would later accomplish on the gallows.

Catherine’s unyielding pursuit of the government to intervene in Despard’s plight saw some eventual improvements in the conditions in which he was incarcerated. Despard’s allies were to be found across the political spectrum. Though Horatio Nelson attended his trial as a character witness, it did little to change the outcome of the final verdict. The intervention of John Reeves, former leader of a loyalist network centred on the Crown and Anchor tavern, and now a conservative magistrate, saw Despard’s prison conditions somewhat alleviated. Following Reeves’ intervention, Despard was moved to an upstairs room in the prison with a fire, was allowed books and papers, and Catherine was permitted to visit him in his cell. When Burdett presented Despard’s case to the House of Commons, the Attorney-General, John Scott, admitted that Despard had been moved to a better room because of his rank, along with other state prisoners from the LCS. Scott regretted the indulgence after it was reported that the men had made the room into a ‘Debating Society of the worst possible species’.68 He also maintained that Catherine was allowed to visit her husband and, with a thinly veiled threat, remarked that in ‘speaking of wives’, it was ‘no small degree of indulgence that the Government had not imprisoned some of them also’.

The relocation of Despard and the other LCS men to another area of the prison takes on greater significance when considering the spatial context of Coldbath Fields. Where Newgate’s architectural plans clearly allowed accommodation for state prisoners as a distinct category of prisoner, no such provision was made in the architectural design of Coldbath Fields. The absence of such specific accommodation could have prompted the Middlesex magistrates’ desperate defence in 1798 that the ‘prison was not fitly calculated to receive’ state prisoners. It is possible that in classifying state prisoners as ‘misdemeanours’, both the architects and the authorities no longer considered that such separate allocation of accommodation was necessary.

For radical prisoners, however, the repercussions were critical. As was the case with radical prisoners in Newgate throughout the period 1790–1820, separation from the remaining prison population was a crucial means of resisting the criminal identity inscribed by the prison space. Yet despite the omission of a dedicated ‘state side’ in the plans of Coldbath Fields, the historical record suggests that radical prisoners of the nineteenth century owed a great debt to the exertions of Catherine Despard; most reported being confined in larger, more comfortable cells and with access to their own yard.” (Parolin)

Future generations of radicals were locked up in Coldbath Fields: veteran of the LCS and 1798-1800 inmate Thomas Evans was again detained here with his son, Samuel Bamford and other reformers in the social and political crisis of the late 1810s (the Evans were interned under the Suspension Act); as were some of the lesser accused in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.

Carlile shopmen and other activists in the unstamped newspaper war were also jailed here; as were Chartists, during the movement’s most insurrectionary period, in 1839-40, some for “printing and publishing seditious or blasphemous libel, or for uttering seditious words, or for attending any seditious meetings, or for conspiring to cause such meetings to be held, or for any offence of a political nature”.

Later Chartists held here included Ernest Jones, an important late leader of the movement (and later a proto-socialist), arrested in the turbulent summer of 1848, as some Chartists plotted an insurrection, after the presenting of the petition in April had ended in anti-climax…

The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of the Letter Office.

Much of this post has been nicked from the really excellent Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London 1790 – C. 1845, by Christina Parolin.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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