Clerkenwell Bridewell was a prison and correctional institute for prostitutes and vagrants located in the Clerkenwell area, immediately north of the City of London, between c.1615 and 1794, when it was superseded by the nearby Coldbath Fields Prison in Mount Pleasant. It was named ‘Bridewell’ after the Bridewell Palace, which during the 16th century had become one of the City of London’s most important punishment institutions, aimed at disciplining the increasing unruliness of London’s lower classes through hard work, moral lessons and brutal physical abuse. The Clerkenwell institution served a similar purpose.
If the original Bridewell served the City of London, Clerkenwell was opened to cope with the large numbers who lived just over the City’s northern border, in the county of Middlesex, in the growing and disorderly suburbs outside the City’s control.
Both men and women were imprisoned here, in separate wings, (though married couples could get a joint cell!)
Next-door to the Bridewell was another prison, the New Prison (open 1617-1877). With the House of Detention, the Bridewell, the Clerkenwell Workhouse, the Quaker Workhouse (just north of the Bridewell), the madhouse & the charity school, this small area was a close network of institutions for coercion & repression in the late 18th century.
Prison escaper supreme Jack Sheppard famously broke out of the New Prison with his squeeze Edgeworth Bess in 1724, descending down the wall by rope, only to find they had landed in the yard of the neighbouring Bridewell, and had to promptly improvise an escape from there as well… In June 1780: the Clerkenwell Bridewell was broken into & all the prisoners released, during the Gordon Riots.
On 1st August 1784, a ‘riot’ broke out at about six in the evening, in the women’s section of the Clerkenwell Bridewell prison. During the disturbance, William Stevenson, a member of the London Watch, shot a prisoner, Sarah Scott, dead.
“There was some disturbance in the prison of Clerkenwell by the prisoners, concerning the distribution of their provisions, which were either detained longer, or not given at the usual place…”
According to witness John Woodward, at Stevenson’s later trial:
“I was a turnkey at this prison, there was a disturbance, I think it was on Friday; on Friday night I let the women down as usual to serve them their fines, but there was a great disturbance, and I thought proper on the Saturday to serve them through the hole, as well as the men, and that would keep them from the men, and so I did, it was very quiet; on the Saturday, the men had broke a hole through their wall into the women’s wall; we were obliged to set up all night, and have workmen all night to mend that hole up again: on Sunday evening, about six o’clock, I went to serve the women as usual, and thought they would take it quietly again; when I came to bring in the basket, Ann Charnock, one of the women, began to blaspheme and swear that they would have it down as usual, I expostulated with them that it was the Governor’s orders, which I must obey; I thought within myself, if I let her down the rest will be quiet, and take their fines as usual; she slew at me and drove me from the gate, the rest began to swear they would have the gate down: Forsyth, another servant of our’s, came to my assistance, and she began to sly at him, however between us we got her into the lodge, we told her we must punish her for her impudence, and we put her on a small pair of irons, to cool her and calm her; she caught me by my coat; and I did not see them take the arms.
– Whilst you was in the lodge was there a great noise and disturbance in the gaol? – Undoubtedly.
– Did you hear any thing particular? – I heard nothing particular, I cannot say what kind of noise it was.
– Was there any stones, or any thing else thrown? – There were stones thrown whilst I was in the yard, undoubtedly, plenty, a great many.
– Where did they get them from? – Pulling the wall down, and pulling up the pavement, here are some of the stones.
(A quantity of stones almost as big as a man’s head produced.)”
A prisoner later gave evidence at the same trial, which makes it sound like not so much of a threat:
“- You say the women were very riotous at this time? – Yes, they did make a great noise.
– In consequence of this Charnock was ironed? – Yes.
– That did not appease them, I take it for granted, that made them still more riotous? – Yes.
– In consequence of which they abused the turnkeys, and used them extremely ill? – They did call them very bad names.
– Did you see any stones thrown? – I never saw but one piece of stone or brickbat, but whether from the men’s side or women’s side I cannot tell, that fell just by the water tub, which is almost before the governor’s window.
– Did it fall near the turnkeys? – No, not near them.
– What was the purpose of throwing it? – I cannot tell.
Did they throw it at one another? – That I cannot tell, I was not on their side.
– You do not know whether it was thrown at the turnkeys or not? – I do not know, the order that was given, was to arm and to go down the yard and quell the riot, and after the soldiers had been desired to fire, the prisoner said, he would fire if they forced him to it, he said, he would fire, I heard one woman say, if you will fire you must.
– During the minute, from the time he said he would fire to the time he fired, they were perfectly peaceable? – Yes.
– There was no riot in the gaol at the time? – No.
– When was it they first broke through the wall? – That I believe was on the Saturday.
– That had furnished them a tolerable quantity of materials to batter with? – I cannot tell.
– Was all the materials and rubbish moved? – I cannot tell.”
William Stevenson, a member of the London night watch outside the prison, was called inside in response to the riot. Three soldiers arrived, coincidentally, to visit a woman prisoner, but instead, they were taken to the keeper’s lodge and given a blunderbuss each by Brown, a screw. As they were being led into an internal courtyard William Stevenson snatched a blunderbuss out of the hands of one of the soldiers, William Rickwater. Once in the courtyard the soldiers were ordered, by a Mr. Forsyth, possibly in charge of the prisoners at hard labour, to fire into the women’s section, but they refused. Stevenson announced that he would do it and he fired through a wicket gate, despite efforts by Rickwater to stop him. His shot killed Sarah Scott, “a prisoner, committed… for six months, about half of which was expired, and was standing at a wicket gate within a partition wall of the prison”. Scott had two children, and was also seven months pregnant.
This quelled the rioting, but this was not the end of the matter. William Stevenson was charged with murder, of “Sarah the wife of Samuel Scott , in the peace of God and our Lord the King, then being, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault, and with a certain blunderbuss, value 5 s. which he the said William Stevenson then had and held in both his hands, charged with gunpowder and two leaden bullets, against the said Sarah Scott , feloniously and wilfully did shoot and discharge, and with the said leaden bullets so discharged and shot off, by force of the gunpowder aforesaid, from the blunderbuss aforesaid, in and upon the face, near the left eye of the said Sarah, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did strike, penetrate, and wound, giving her, the said Sarah, in and upon her face, near her left eye, one mortal wound of the width of three inches, and of the breadth of two inches, of which the said Sarah instantly died.”
William Rickwater, the soldier who had refused to fire on the rioters and whose blunderbuss Stevenson had used, gave evidence against Stevenson, at the trial at the Old Bailey, in September 1784:
“I am a bricklayer and a soldier, I was at Clerkenwell Bridewell on the 1st of August, at six in the evening.
What happened then in your presence? – I went up to the gate, and knocked at the gate, one of the turnkeys opened the gate and said, soldier, come in.
Court: How many were there of you? – Me and two more, when I got in I went to the lodge, there was one Ann Charnock at the lodge, very much disguised in liquor, they were ironing her, Brown was assisting them; the woman was used very ill, they were pushing her down.
Court: What business had the soldiers there? – I went to see a comrade’s wife there, one Mrs. Harding.
Then you was not sent for as a party of soldiers? – No, my Lord, not at all; then Brown, the turnkey, unlocked the place where the fire arms lay, and gave me and my two comrades a blunderbuss each; he says, soldier, go backwards, in the mean time, as I was going out of the lodge, the prisoner Stevenson catched the blunderbuss out of my hand, and immediately I took my bayonet up and went backwards with them, I went first, and Stevenson the prisoner followed me, and my two comrades followed him, we went to the women’s gate.
Mr. Peatt. Where is the women’s gate situated? – At the upper part of the yard, beyond the men’s.
How far is that from the outward gate? – As nigh as I can guess it is four or five roods, but to say the truth, I cannot resolve the question.
Is it the length of this Court? – About the length of the boards before the bench to the door of this Court.
Is that gate in a partitioned wall? – Yes, it divides the partition wall between the gate and the passage that goes to and fro to the prisoners, the women’s gate is at one part of the yard, and the men’s at the other, there is a free passage between them.
Court: Then the women’s gate is on one side the passage, and the men’s on the other? – It is a common yard, the same as you may go up any other yard, the doors are both on one side: we went up to the gate, there was some women knocking with their hands at the wicket of the women’s gate, the wicket was shut.
Court: Do you mean a woman prisoner that was knocking? – I believe there was nobody but the women prisoners there, but I cannot resolve the question for certain.
What happened then? – Some person opened the wicket, I cannot say who it was.
Some persons within? – No, my Lord, without-side, it was some person belonging to the party that was with us; when the wicket was open, some person said, soldier, why do not you fire; I cannot say who said so.
Mr. Peatt. Did it appear to you that there was any danger of the walls being beat down, or any thing of that sort? – No, only women talking together, like a couple of companies talking in a tap-room, gathered together, not as any ways riotous at that time, in the mean time the person, after he had said, soldier, why do not you fire, made an uncommon expression to mention before the Court, he said, if we would not fire he would; he repeated them words twice, and I said, for God sake do not fire on them; he made the expression, with the same oath, that be would fire immediately up the women’s yard, and immediately turned it round, and presented it right at the body of Sarah Scott , she stood by herself; when I saw his intent, I caught hold of the blunderbuss, to draw it from the wall as far as I could, to prevent his firing and doing any mischief.
Did you succeed? – I did not, he immediately at the same time pulled the trigger; I had the blunderbuss in my hand at the same time, and after he pulled the trigger, the body of the deceased stood but a very trifling time, and fell, and a couple of girls caught her, she was all over a gore of blood, as if you had poured water; she leaned her head on two women near her, I said to him you have killed the woman; he said, I do not care; immediately he returned to the lodge, and the other two soldiers; I gave the bayonet to the turnkey at the women’s gate, and asked him to let me go in among the women, he let me in, and I went and saw the body lay all over a gore of blood on the ground, she was soon after moved up the yard; I saw as much blood and brains lay after they had removed her, as would fill the crown of my hat, it lay in such quantities.
Did any thing material happen after that? – Nothing at all that I saw, the prisoners were very quiet at the time, and as far as ever I saw afterwards: the woman was with child, I saw her the day before.
Mr. Silvester, one of the Prisoner’s Council. Now you have told us the whole? – Yes, Sir, as far as I know.
Exactly as it was from the beginning to the end? – Yes.
You had been there the day before? – Yes, Sir.
You was not acquainted with this Sarah Scott ? – No.
When you came there the gaol was perfectly quiet? – All but this woman that was drunk at the lodge.
Then did not you think it very odd that they should put arms into your hands? – Yes, Sir, I supposed there was some riot, but I found none; I had the arms from the lodge.
Did not they tell you why they gave you the arms? – No.
Nor you did not ask any reasons why? – No.
Nor they never told you? – No.
And every thing appeared to you perfectly quiet? – Yes, I saw no other.
What is this man? – I do not know, they said he was one of the watchmen of the street.
Was not he one of the turnkeys? – Not that I know of.
Was he called in to assist? – I do not know, he was there when I came in.
What did they say when they came in? – Nothing at all; Mr. Brown, said, soldier, come in, this is Ann Charnock . I never saw any stones thrown, nor did not perceive any thrown at the time; what was done before or after I cannot resolve.
Nor the men upon the wall endeavouring to make their escape? – I never saw any thing of the kind, as God is my Judge.
Nor none of the men had got into the women’s apartments? – I never saw any thing of the kind.
Then your business was merely to see Mrs. Harding? – Yes, Sir, I went from her husband, he was in New Prison gaol, for having some words with a man.
Then you mean to say there was no riot or disturbance or any remarkable noise in the gaol? – Not in my presence, no further than this, Ann Charnock .
How came you not to ask some of these turnkeys? – I supposed it to be such, by giving us arms, but I found none.
You say Stevenson ordered you to fire? – No, Sir, I beg your pardon, I said somebody ordered me to fire, somebody said soldier, why do not you fire? we made answer, we will not fire.
What did they say fire at? – They did not mention at any thing at all, they said, soldier, why do not you fire; the door was shut, but the wicket was open.
How came it open? – Some person on the outside belonging to the party we were with opened it.
Did you see them open it? – I saw some person open it, who it was I do not know.
Did he open the gate? – No, Sir.
Will you upon your oath say it was not forced open by the prisoners on the inside? – Yes, if required I would at that time, what happened before we came in I do not know, and as to asking me questions I cannot answer, is of no use, for I think I have a just God to answer to when I go into another world.
You know many of the gentlemen that reside in that prison? – No, Sir, only by sight.
You did not see them that day? – Yes, I did.
Were they in the women’s apartments? – I believe Mr. Hopkins was, but who else was I cannot say; I do not say clearly that there was not, or that there was; I saw some man, but whether he was a prisoner or not, I cannot say.
Was he in irons? – No, Sir, there was no man in irons as I saw.
Can you tell us how many men were there? – I cannot; there were people to see their acquaintance as well as me; I saw the men prisoners walking to and fro in their yard, their wicket was open.
Then this blunderbuss did not go off till you had got hold of it? – I had hold of it up to the muzzle, in order to prevent it.
Not to list it up? – No.
How could you see him pulling up the trigger so easily? – Because the man had it in his hand.
Do you mean to swear that he pulled the trigger? – No, Sir, I swear that he had the blunderbuss in his hand; I tried to pull it back, but I could not, at that instant it went off.
You never saw any thing of a stick poked through the wicket? – No.
Was you the man that washed your hands in the blood; or who did? – Upon my soul, I cannot resolve the question; I never saw any thing of the kind acted.
Gently, gently, soldier, was you there when the justice came? – That is the gentleman that came in and looked at the body.
Aye, was Hopkins or any of the witnesses there then? – I cannot say.
Did you see any man run his hands into the blood of this poor woman, and say, this is delightful work, I will sleep in these hands? – I did not.
Will you say it never did happen? – I never saw it happen, and more than that, that gentleman said it was too partial to fire on them as soon as they did, he said, they need not be so hasty as they were.
How came you not to knock it up in the air? – I know the nature of a blunderbuss and firelock too well, I tried as far as my endeavours lay to prevent it, I tried to pull it back but I could not; those fire arms will not go off with a shake.”
Despite all the evidence given against him, Stevenson was, however, acquitted. When was the last time a screw or copper was convicted over any one of the many deaths in custody?
Not so much changes over 200 years.
In 1847 the new Clerkenwell House of Detention, also known simply as Clerkenwell Prison, was built on the site of the two former prisons.
Later, the site was occupied by the former Hugh Myddelton School (1893-c.1960), in Bowling Green Lane, – which has itself now been converted into flats. The Victorian vaults of the House of Detention can still be accessed from Clerkenwell Close.