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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Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.


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Today in radical history, 1972: Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners launched, North London.

Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.

The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.

In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.

PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.

PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.

In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’

The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:

‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:

  • Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
    • Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
  • Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
  • Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
  • Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
  • Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
  • Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
  • Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
  • Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’

The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:

‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:

The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;

The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;

The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;

The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;

The Right to vote in national and local government elections;

The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;

The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;

The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;

The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;

The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;

The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;

The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;

The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;

The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;

The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;

The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;

The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;

The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;

The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;

The Right to enter into marriage;

The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;

The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;

The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;

The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:

  • Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
  • The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
  • The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
  • The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
  • An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.

The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”

PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.

Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.

A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:

“Dear Mr Pooley,

Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.

Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.

A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…

We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)

A lot of chaps want to be in touch.

Sincerely ….

PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).

But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…

(This story will be continued on May 13th)

A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s penal past: guns smuggled into Newgate, inside ‘Smoaking hot pyes’, 1735.

Newgate Prison, for 100s of years the most potent symbol of state repression in London, hated and feared by the London poor whose lives it loomed over… Inevitably its story is also one of resistance… As it was routinely used to hold those who had been condemned to death, those awaiting transportation, or court appearances which would very likely end in one or the other, many prisoners had little to lose by trying to escape.

Sometimes these were individual feats, Houdini-style, like Jack Sheppard or Daniel Malden. On occasion outsiders launched raids to rescue inmates, as a crowd of Irishmen did to free their mates in 1749, or the Gordon Rioters successfully achieved en masse in June 1780. Others were collective attempts to fight their way free. The first such mass jailbreak attempt we can find evidence of was in 1275; another riot ten years later was aimed at a breakout, which failed.

In 1735 four highwaymen staged yet another attempted jailbreak. Thomas Gray, alias Macray, Joseph Emmerson, John James alias Black Jack, and Henry Sellon, were all imprisoned in Newgate in August of 1735. They had all been sentenced to death at Kingston Assizes on August 9th, “Sellon, for robbing Mr Collins on the Highway… Macray, for robbing Mr Hammerson of his Watch and Money on Barns Common… Emmerson and James… for entering the House of Jasper Hale Esq of Peckham, and wounding him and his Servant maid…”

Macray had already escaped from the Old Bailey once… he also had a few mates rooting for him, having arranged for “14 well-dress’d persons to appear for him here, most of who, swore he was sick in bed the whole Week in which the Fact was committed, but finding they were suspected, all slipp’d out of Court. [Several of them are since apprehended by the Direction of Baron Thomson, in order to be prosecuted for perjury.]”

So it shouldn’t have been very surprising that outside help was clearly involved when Macray and the other three, attempted to escape the prison on August 18th:

“They were all wounded in an Attempt to break out of Gaol, two Nights before, which Mr Taylor, the Keeper, being inform’d of, and that they were filing off their Irons, got his Assistants arm’d with Blunderbusses, Pistols, and Cutlasses, went to the Door, and desir’d Macray to make no desperate Attempt, for there was so Possibility of his Escape. Macray replied, In their present desperate Circumstances they no body, and desir’d him to retire, for the first that entered was a dead Man. Upon this Mr Taylor order’d the Door to be unbolted and open’d a little Way; which they no sooner heard but they discharg’d 8 Pistols and one of the Keepers as Blunderbuss, but without Execution, the Door between them being very strong. Then Mr Taylor and his Guard rush’d in, attack’d them with their Cutlasses, and overpower’d them immediately. Macray was wounded in his Head, and his Arm disabled; Sellon desperately cut in several Places; Emmerson had one Side of his Face cut away; James was but slightly hurt. On Mr Taylor’s Part very little Damage was done. The Pistols were brought to the Prisoners in Smoaking hot Pyes, by the Assistance of a Man at a house in St George’s Fields, whom Emmerson, upon the Keepers threatening to dispatch him, dicover’d. One of the Keepers jingling his Keys at the Door of the said House, the Fellow took him for Macray broke out of prison, and open’d the Door to let him in, but was himself apprehended.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, 1735)

Concealing a gun inside a ‘Smoaking hot pye’  – eat your heart, out shoe bomber… Smuggling in weapons to help friends locked in Newgate stage escapes was also a long London tradition.

Macray, Emmerton, James and Sellon were all hanged at Kennington Gallows two days later, on 20th August.

But collective breakouts continued; there were further attempts in 1758, 1763, 1771 and 1777…


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

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Today in London rebel history: Marion Wallace Dunlop begins first suffragette hunger strike, 1909

On 5 July 1909, the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike; pretty much inventing the tactic as a modern political weapon.

A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women, she had been sent to Holloway prison for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the House of Commons. In her second division cell, Wallace Dunlop refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognise her as a political prisoner, and thus entitled to be placed in the first division where inmates enjoyed certain privileges. Her hunger strike, she claimed, was “a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me … refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction”. After three and a half days of fasting, she was released.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop, the daughter of Robert Henry Wallace-Dunlop, of the Bengal civil service, was born at Leys Castle, Inverness, on 22nd December 1864. She later claimed that she was a direct descendant of the mother of William Wallace.

She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and in 1899 illustrated in art nouveau style two books, Fairies, Elves, and Flower Babies and The Magic Fruit Garden. She also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1903, 1905 and 1906.

Wallace-Dunlop was a supporter of women’s suffrage and in 1900 she joined the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was also a socialist and from 1906 she was an active member of the Fabian Women’s Group. By 1905 the media had lost interest in the struggle for women’s rights. Newspapers rarely reported meetings and usually refused to publish articles and letters written by supporters of women’s suffrage. Emily Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), advocated a new strategy to obtain the publicity that she thought would be needed in order to obtain the vote.

During the summer of 1908 the WSPU introduced the tactic of breaking the windows of government buildings. On 30th June suffragettes marched into Downing Street and began throwing small stones through the windows of the Prime Minister’s house. As a result of this demonstration, twenty-seven women were arrested and sent to Holloway Prison. The following month Wallace-Dunlop was arrested and charged with “obstruction” and was briefly imprisoned.

While in prison she came into contact with two women who had been found guilty of killing children. She wrote in her diary: “It made me feel frantic to realise how terrible is a social system where life is so hard for the girls that they have to sell themselves or starve. Then when they become mothers the child is not only a terrible added burden, but their very motherhood bids them to kill it and save it from a life of starvation, neglect. I begin to feel I must be dreaming that this prison life can’t be real. That it is impossible that it is true and I am in the midst of it. I know now the meaning of the screened galley in the Chapel, the poor condemned girl sits there with a wardress.”

On 25th June 1909 Wallace-Dunlop was charged “with wilfully damaging the stone work of St. Stephen’s Hall, House of Commons, by stamping it with an indelible rubber stamp, doing damage to the value of 10s.” According to a report in The Times Wallace-Dunlop printed a notice that read: “Women’s Deputation. June 29. Bill of Rights. It is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitionings are illegal.”

Wallace-Dunlop was found guilty of wilful damage and when she refused to pay a fine she was sent to prison for a month. On 5th July, 1909 she petitioned the governor of Holloway Prison: “I claim the right recognised by all civilised nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction.”

In her book, Unshackled (1959) Christabel Pankhurst claimed: “Miss Wallace Dunlop, taking counsel with no one and acting entirely on her own initiative, sent to the Home Secretary, Mr. Gladstone, as soon as she entered Holloway Prison, an application to be placed in the first division as befitted one charged with a political offence. She announced that she would eat no food until this right was conceded.”

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence wrote to Wallace-Dunlop: “Nothing has moved me so much – stirred me to the depths of my being – as your heroic action. The power of the human spirit is to me the most sublime thing in life – that compared with which all ordinary things sink into insignificance.” He also congratulated her for “finding a new way of insisting upon the proper status of political prisoners, and of the resourcefulness and energy in the face of difficulties that marked the true Suffragette.”

Wallace-Dunlop refused to eat for several days. Afraid that she might die and become a martyr, the authorities decided to release her after fasting for 91 hours. As Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999), has pointed out: “As with all the weapons employed by the WSPU, its first use sprang directly from the decision of a sole protagonist; there was never any suggestion that the hunger strike was used on this first occasion by direction from Clement’s Inn.”

Soon afterwards other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy. Unwilling to release all the imprisoned suffragettes, the prison authorities force-fed these women on hunger strike. In one eighteen month period, Emily Pankhurst, who was now in her fifties, endured ten of these hunger-strikes.

Wallace-Dunlop later joined forces with Edith Downing to organise a series of spectacular WSPU processions. The most impressive of these was the Woman’s Coronation Procession on 17th June 1911. Flora Drummond led off on horseback with Charlotte Marsh as colour-bearer on foot behind her. She was followed by Marjorie Annan Bryce in armour as Joan of Arc.

The art historian, Lisa Tickner, described the event in her book The Spectacle of Women (1987): “The whole procession gathered itself up and swung along Northumberland Avenue to the strains of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women… The mobilisation of 700 prisoners (or their proxies) dressed in white, with pennons fluttering from their glittering lances, was, as the Daily Mail observed, “a stroke of genius”. As The Daily News reported: “Those who dominate the movement have a sense of the dramatic. They know that whereas the sight of one woman struggling with policemen is either comic or miserably pathetic, the imprisonment of dozens is a splendid advertisement.”

Wallace-Dunlop ceased to be active in the WSPU after 1911. During the First World War she was visited by Mary Sheepshanks at her home at Peaslake, Surrey. Sheepshanks later commented: “We found her in a delicious cottage with a little chicken and goat farm, an adopted baby of 18 months, and a perfectly lovely young girl who did some bare foot dancing for us in the barn; we finished up with home made honey.”

In 1928 Wallace-Dunlop was a pallbearer at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst. Over the next few years she took care of Mrs Pankhurst’s adopted daughter, Mary.

Marion Wallace-Dunlop died on 12th September 1942 at the Mount Alvernia Nursing Home, Guildford.

This post was shamelessly nicked from spartacus educational.


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

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Today in London’s rebel history: Riot in Newgate Prison, 1648.

As we have previously related, for 100s of years Newgate Prison was the most potent symbol and reality of state repression in London, the ultimate representation of terror for the poor.

… and of resistance. Escape attempts were common, some failing, but many succeeding… As many of the prisoners awaiting death at Tyburn were held there, some cons had nothing to lose by trying to break out; desperate measures were sometimes called for…

According to a tract published 26th December 1648: – “Terrible News From Newgate.- On Wednesday, December 20th the Honourable Bench at the Sessions House in the Old Bayley, having given sentences against the convicted prisoners, being 17 in number; on Thursday night last they had their funeral Sermon at Newgate as accustomary, where divers had admittance in to heare the same; and amongst the rest many of the prisoners’ wives who were condemned to die, brought swords and rapiers under their coats (being a designed plot for an escape) and so soon as the Sermon was ended, delivered the said Weapons to the 15 condemned prisoners, who taking their opportunity, about 7 of the clock at night, ran violently at the Turnkey and the rest of the Keepers, wounding them, and forced their passage down the stairs, all of them making a clear escape away.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Cons at Pentonville, Brixton, Scrubs & Wandsworth join in prisoners strike, 1972.

Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was founded as a union for cons in May 1972, during a wave of protest by inmates on British gaols. Conditions for prisoners had long been dire, and had worsened in recent years. Prisoners faced chronic overcrowding, hours of lockup in their cells, given inedible food, with little opportunity for real education, brutal treatment from screws, lack of any right to challenge their treatment. Many prisons were old, cold, dirty and run down, with Victorian facilities. Work was soul-destroying and paid inmates pennies while making private firms or government departments serious money. Visits and letters were subject to censorship and surveillance; medical care was a mix of incompetence and mistreatment.

Screws were trained to enforce violence against inmates, but many also saw it as their place to punish, humiliate and brutalise them constantly. Partly this reflects the class position which see themselves as coming from, a respectable working class, on a higher level than the cons… But violence was also institutionalised: any prisoner stepping out of line could face violence, brutality and isolation, but little had chance of redress within the system.

The immediate spark for the launch of PROP was a series of sit-down protests in Brixton Prison by remand prisoners awaiting trial or sentence, who generally faced a harsher situation than convicted inmates. Remand prisoners were demanding more association, better food, radios and basic ways of passing time, less lockup time in their cells.

PROP was mainly founded by ex-prisoners, men and women who had served various stretches inside. Their founding statement asserted that PROP had been founded in response to the degrading and dehumanising conditions inside, and to “preserve, protect, and to extend the rights of prisoners and prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society…”

PROP’s launch and the quick spread of this news among prisoners encouraged protests inside. Further sit-down took place in Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton, Gartree (twice) and Strangeways nicks in the next week, and this was to escalate. Over 15 prisons had experienced demos by the end of May, and 20 more protests took place in the first two weeks of June. PROP committees were elected in several prisons.

The early wave of anger in remand prisons pushed the Home Office into making concessions. These were very limited (individual razors where 300 men had shared 7, radios, longer exercises, a movie a week), but left prisoners generally with the (correct) conclusion that collective organization could win changes. The Home Office officially tried to play down the role of PROP and minimalise news of the demos getting out, or to belittle them if it did. However they were rattled, and agreed not to punish any cons for taking part.

The mass peaceful nature of the sit-downs baffled the screws, who found it hard to respond. Picking out individuals from a large crowd only heightening tension and escalating trouble. ‘Ghosting’ troublemakers (immediately shipping them out to another prison) only served to spread the protests. The screws, as usual regarding the official decision not to punish protestors as liberal waffle which failed to back up the ‘hardworking officers on the ground’, resorted to provoking violence as a way of justifying intervention by the ‘Heavy Mob’ to shut down protests. Individual prisoners were marked out and beaten up. This was to lead to serious rioting in Gartree and Albany Prisons later in the year.

But as the Home Office refused to negotiate or even discuss PROP’s or the prisoners’ demands, PROP announced plans for a national prisoners’ strike on 4th August 1972. Complaints about conditions had been ignored; protestors had been brutalized, isolated and denied access to solicitors. PROP called for a 24-hour refusal to co-operate with prison authorities, until the following demands were met or given urgent consideration:

• The Right to membership of PROP and official recognition of PROP by the Home Office, and Prison Department as the true representatives of all prisoners;

• The setting up of PROP committees elected by prisoners in all penal establishments;

• The right to parole, providing certain well-established and widely known criteria are met;

• An end to the kangaroo court nature of internal disciplinary proceedings where prisoners are denied the right to legal representation and the effective right to call witnesses;

• The right to Trade Union membership and to have pay and conditions determined by negotiation;

• The right of all prisoners to withhold labour as a protest against unjust and inhuman conditions;

• An end to disciplinary proceedings against prisoners who have participated in peaceful demonstrations and the restoration of all remission and privileges which have been forfeited by the participants in previous demonstrations on charges arising from them;

• An early meeting between representatives of the Home Office and the National Executive Committee of PROP to discuss the restoration of prisoners’ rights and the ways in which they might be enabled to meet their responsibilities to their families and to society.

PROP had announced the strike with two weeks notice; this served to allow time for word to spread around the prison system. In fact, the press did much of this job. Even the prison authorities did their bit; so anxious were they to find out how much support there was for the strike they ended up asking inmates who had not even yet heard of the plan if they were going to take part, effectively recruiting cons into the plan!

In the end some 10,000 prisoners in 34 gaols (Albany, Birmingham, Blunderston, Bristol, Brixton, Camp Hill, Canterbury, Chelmsford, Coldingley, Dartmoor, Durham, Gartree, Gloucester, Haverigg, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Long Lartin, Maidstone, Strangeways, Northeye, Nottingham, Oxford, Parkhurst, Pentonville, Preston, Stafford, Wakefield, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs) took part, a massive show of strength: perhaps 25 % of the prison population at the time.

The Home Office and individual Prison governors repeatedly denied the strike had any support, until direct evidence contradicted them.

Those who took part in the Brixton protest claimed the prisoners had in effect taken over the running of the prison for a day.

However, the Prison Officers Association (POA) responded with a hardline – a demand for further repression and a work to rule, spreading alarm about prison violence, and on the ground, provoking violence to justify repression. The immediate result was two riots, in Gartree and Albany. With a sympathetic rightwing press behind them, the POA effectively won the case for repression, and although protests continued sporadically, the impetus was lost as no further concession seemed likely.

Meanwhile PROP soon collapsed in internal bickering, and lost confidence among prisoners as they were unable to win any of the prisoners’ demands, or even to manifest the outside support for the prison protests that they had promised. Although PROP continued to exist, it worked thereafter on a much smaller and local scale or on educational projects.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in penal history: Kings Bench Prisoners hold mock election, 1827.

“Nothing during the last year excited more curiosity than the Mock Election, which took place in the King’s Bench Prison; as much from the circumstances attending its conclusion, as from the astonishment expressed that men, unfortunate and confined, could invent any amusement at which they had a right to be happy.”

In July 1827, the inmates of the King’s Bench Prison, in Borough, South London, organised a fantastical mock hustings, to elect an MP to represent ‘Tenterden’ (a slang name for the prison) in Parliament. Three candidates were put up, one of whom was Lieutenant Meredith, an eccentric naval officer. “…As I approached the unfortunate, but merry, crowd, to the last day of my life I shall ever remember the impression… baronets and bankers, authors and merchants, painters and poets… dandies of no rank in rap and tatters… all mingled in indiscriminate merriment, with a spiked wall, twenty feet high, above their heads…”

All the characteristics of a regular election were parodied. Addresses from the candidates to the ‘worthy and independent electors’ were printed and posted up around the prison; contending parties wrote broadsheets & sang songs attacking their opponents; there were processions with flags and music, to take the several candidates to visit the several ‘Collegians’ (i. e., prisoners) in their rooms; speeches were made in the courtyards, full of grotesque humour; a pseudo-“high-sheriff” and other “election officers” were chosen to oversee the proceedings “properly”; and the electors were invited to ‘rush to the poll’ early on Monday morning, the 16th of July.

“Hitherto it had been a mere revel; but on the latter day the frolic assumed a serious aspect, from the interference of the marshal of the prison.”

Worried about the disorder that might arise (and that the inmates might be enjoying life in a manner non-profitable to him and other warders?!), Mr. Jones, marshal of the prison, put a stop to the whole proceedings on the morning of the 16th. Apparently the proceedings were halted violently, exasperating the prisoners. They resented the language used towards them, and opposed the treatment to which they were subjected; until a squad of Foot-guards, with fixed bayonets, forcibly drove some of the leaders into a filthy ‘black-hole’ or place of confinement.

“The three candidates, and other persons who were active in the election, were for some time kept in close confinement, and a sergeant’s guard was introduced, and remained in the prison all night. The result was pacific; but the conduct of the marshal has been much censured and threatened with a parliamentary investigation.”

Quotes from an account of the Mock Election by Benjamin Haydon, imprisoned in the Kings Bench for debt, July 1827.

Mock elections were all the rage at one time… for many years the Mayor of Garratt elections in South London were the highpoint of the social calendar…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel history: Marshalsea Prison & Lambeth Palace stormed by peasant rebels, 1381.

On the night of the 12th June 1381, the main body of the Kentish peasant rebels, inflamed against poll taxes, serfdom and oppressive laws of all kinds, camped on Blackheath. But a sizable minority too angry and inspired to rest even after a long day’s march, pushed on, as far as Southwark and Lambeth. “There they were met by a mob of malcontents belonging to the suburbs and even by numerous sympathisers from the city itself, who had been obliged to take boat across the river to join them, for the drawbridge in the midst of London Bridge had been raised on the news of their approach.”

This advanced guard of the rebellion broke open the two prisons in Southwark, those of the Marshalsea and King’s Bench, and let loose the captives:
“And before the hour of Vespers the commons of Kent came, to the number of 60,000, to South-wark, where was the Marshalsea. And they broke and threw down all the houses in the Marshalsea, and took out of prison all the prisoners who were imprisoned for debt or for felony.”

The Marshalsea Prison was built to hold prisoners brought before that court and the Court of the King’s Bench, to which Marshalsea rulings could be appealed. Also called the Court of the Verge, and the Court of the Marshalsea of the Household of the Kings of England, the Marshalsea court was a jurisdiction of the royal household that, from around 1290, governed household members who lived within the verge, defined as within 12 miles (19 km) of the king. Thought to have been built some time in the fourteenth century (though there are records of an earlier prison of this name), the prison was at one time second in importance only to the Tower of London. Though most of the prisoners held in the Marshalsea throughout its history were debtors, from the 14th century onwards, minor political figures were held there instead of in the Tower, mostly for sedition. William Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1885 that it was full of “poets, pirates, parsons, plotters; coiners, libellers, defaulters, Jesuits; vagabonds of every class who vexed the souls of men in power …”

Having trashed the prison, the peasant rebels “levelled to the ground a fine house belonging to John Imworth, then Marshal of the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench, and warden of the prisoners of the said place, and all the dwellings of the jurors and questmongers belonging to the Marshalsea during that night.”

As Imworth’s house burned, flames flared up all night in the sight of the King and his councillors in the Tower, and of the citizens of London, who watched from their wharves and windows the signs of approaching trouble.

Around the same hour that day, “the commons of Essex came to Lambeth near London, a manor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entered into the buildings and destroyed many of the goods of the said Archbishop, and burnt all the books of register, and rules of remembrances belonging to the Chancellor, which they found there.”

Lambeth Palace was (and still is) the official London residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury. In 1381 the Archbishop was Simon of Sudbury, former Bishop of London. As the Peasants Revolt gathered pace, Sudbury became one of the main targets of the people’s rage, as he was also the Lord Chancellor of England, the ultimate authority for tax-gathering and raising revenue, blamed for the latest poll tax bearing heavily on the poor. That he was a close ally and crony of John of gaunt, the king’s uncle, long a hate figure for the populace and Londoners in particular, only increased the price on his head. Having released John Ball from his prison at Maidstone, the Kentish insurgents attacked and damaged the archbishop’s property at Canterbury.

On the 14th, the commons flocked to the Tower of London; the most heavily guarded fortress in the land. However, so unpopular was Sudbury with the rebellious peasants that guards simply allowed the rebels through the gates, rushing into the Tower, they seized the archbishop himself, and dragged him to nearby Tower Hill, a traditional execution ground. The peasants consciously satirised and ritualised their instant justice on Sudbury by using the physical spaces of repression – beheading the Archbishop, they stuck his head on a spike on the gate of London Bridge, where authority usually impaled the heads of rebels and traitors.

And on Saturday morning (June 15th), the poor’s vengeance on the Marshalsea prison was completed: John Imworth, “a tormentor without pity”, the Marshal of the Marshalsea, had taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. A body of rioters entered the church, “passed the altar rails, and tore the unhappy man away from the very shrine of Edward the Confessor, one of whose marble pillars he was embracing in the vain hope that the sanctity of the spot would protect him.

He was dragged along to Cheapside, and there decapitated.”

All of London’s other prisons, and lockups in other towns, were opened and their inmates freed by the rebellious armies.

Even after the defeat of the Revolt, the Marshalsea remained an object of fear and loathing. Prisoners were sprung in 1450 during Cade’s rebellion; the prison was rocked by riots in 1504; at Xmas 1505, in 1539, in 1592 there was a riot outside the Marshalsea (see yesterday’s blog entry)… more riots broke out in 1639 over the terrible conditions – some prisoners were standing 23 to a cell, unable to sit down…

Lambeth Palace meanwhile, has also been regularly attacked by London rebels: in 1639, 1640, 1780; bombed by the Angry Brigade in 1970. Unlike the Marshalsea, however, it still stands… One for next time eh?


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel past: a plot to blow up the King’s Bench Prison, 1793

In the eighteenth century, imprisonment for debt was a regular part of London life. If you owed anyone any money, and they had enough to go to court, they could have you locked up until you could pay off what you owed. Since being inside isn’t necessarily a recipe for scraping cash together, such internments could last for years… The system was kind of loaded against you… This built up a lot of anger and resentment. While some went to court to try and argue that imprisonment for debt should be outlawed, others decided on more radical measures…

From the Newgate Journal, comes a tale of four men who plotted to free debtors banged up in the Kings Bench Prison:


Convicted of a Conspiracy to set fire to the King’s Bench Prison, February, 1793

ON the trial of these conspirators the Attorney-General said he flattered himself it would be found that he had done no more than his duty in bringing the several defendants before the Court. The offence with which they were charged was of the utmost importance to the peace and safety of the capital, for it not only had for its object the demolition of the King’s Bench Prison, but involved the burning of other houses, bloodshed and murder.

He lamented that five persons, all of education and respectable families, should, by their folly and imprudence, to call it by the softest name, bring themselves into such an unfortunate situation. One was a reverend divine, another an officer in the army, another had been in the profession of the law, and the others were of respectable parents, and with fair prospects of being honourable and useful members of the community.

The Attorney-General further said that this case was pregnant with the most alarming circumstances, which would be better detailed by the witnesses than described by him.

The prisoner Burgh was private chaplain to the Duke of Leinster, and a relation to a Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

The first witness was Mr Justice Buller’s clerk, who produced a record to prove that the prisoner Burgh was lawfully confined in the King’s Bench Prison for debt.

Evidence was produced to prove that the other prisoners were also confined in the same prison for debt.

Edward Webb said he knew all the prisoners. About the beginning of May he was introduced into a society called “The Convivials” held in a room in the King’s Bench Prison, of which the prisoners were members.

M’Can expressed himself very freely upon the subject of Lord Rawdon’s Bill, then pending, respecting insolvent debtors, and said if that Bill did not pass into a law he and others were determined to do something to liberate themselves; that there was a scheme in agitation for that purpose, but that the parties were sworn to secrecy, and therefore he could not divulge it. The witness said he might safely communicate the business to him. The prisoners Cummings and Davis were present at the time.

M’Can afterwards opened the business to the witness. He said the plan in which he and the other prisoners were concerned was to effect their own enlargement by demolishing the walls of the prison, as they were determined not to be confined within those walls for debt. The execution of this plan would, however, depend upon the rejection of Lord Rawdon’s Bill. After they had effected their escape, by setting fire to the prison, they would then go to the Fleet Prison and liberate the prisoners; after which they would proceed to the houses of Lords Thurlow and Kenyon, which they would destroy.

Davis said he would not hesitate to blow out the brains of those noble Lords. The witness saw the other defendants, who conversed upon the subject, and it was proposed to procure some sailors to assist them. This scheme was, however, defeated by the vigilance of the marshal, who sent for the guards, and had the prison searched throughout.

Shortly afterwards the witness saw M’Can, Cummings and Davis again, who said that, though they were defeated in the former scheme, they were determined to put some other plot into execution. The next day Cummings (who was called the Captain) said to the witness: ” I have discovered the best plan that could be conceived for blowing up these d–d walls. I’ll show you the place.” He then took the witness to the end of the bakehouse and pointed out to him a place where the drain had been opened. Then he described the force necessary to blow up the walls, and said he had studied the scheme upon his pillow, and that it would be necessary to have a box about ten inches wide and as many deep, and described the tubes that were to convey the fire to the box, which he said must contain about fifty pounds’ weight of gunpowder, and requested the witness would get it made. In the evening of the same day the witness saw M’Can and Davis come out of the coffee-room, and, alluding to the plot, they said it was a glorious plan, and they would support it to the loss of their lives. They said no other person should be privy to it, excepting Mr Bourne, who was concerned in the former scheme, and who had got a large quantity of gunpowder ready. The witness observed to them that the neighbouring bakehouse and coffee-room would be in danger, and that poor Martin, who had a large family, would be killed. They replied that it did not matter if they or a dozen more were killed, provided it procured the prisoners’ freedom.

A day or two afterwards, when the witness was walking on the parade with Cummings, M’Can and Bourne, he asked if Mr Bourne knew of the plot; they said he did. Bourne said they should have the powder, and that Mrs Bourne should bring it to the witness’s house in small quantities. M’Can then proposed that, in order to raise money to purchase the gunpowder, a motion should be made in the club of Convivials for a subscription of five shillings each, under pretence of feeing counsel to know whether the marshal had a right to enter his prisoners’ apartments when he pleased. This proposal was agreed to, and the motion was accordingly made.

After several other consultations, at which all the prisoners were present, it was agreed that the gunpowder should be deposited in a hole in the floor of Burgh’s room — where it was afterwards found.

It was also agreed that, on the day the plot was to be carried into execution, M’Can and Bourne were to have a sham fencing-match for a great deal of money. This was so as to collect together all the prisoners at the time the gunpowder was set fire to, and thereby afford them a chance of making their escape.

At length the day was fixed for a Sunday, about seven o’clock in the evening, being a time at which a number of strangers were likely to be in the prison.

Cummings had the sole management of this plot. Burgh said that the noise and confusion it would create would, he hoped, bring about a revolution in this country.

T. Hendacre confirmed the substance of the evidence of the last witness, as did Mr Battersley. These witnesses stated, by way of addition, that Davis gave half-a-guinea to purchase some gunpowder; that the prisoners carried on a correspondence with a society in the borough of Southwark; that Mr Dundas’s house was one that was fixed on for destruction; that the prisoners had two schemes in contemplation to effect their escape — the one was to tie down all the turnkeys, the other the gunpowder plot in question, of which Cummings had the sole conduct, he being considered the engineer.

Lord Kenyon summed up the whole of the evidence in the most able and impartial manner; after which the jury found all the prisoners guilty.

On Tuesday, 12th of February, 1793, the prisoners were brought to receive judgment of the Court.

The prisoner Cummings produced a petition, in which he stated that he had been for several years an officer in his Majesty’s service, and had then two sons in the army, who, in consequence of the calamitous situation of the prisoner, were deprived of the education and support necessary to their station and rank. He stated several other circumstances in mitigation of punishment.

The prisoner Townley M’Can produced an affidavit, in which he stated that he was a student of law, and had formed an opinion from several writers that imprisonment for debt was illegal; he disclaimed any criminal intention, and positively denied that he or his fellow-prisoners had carried on a correspondence with the Revolution Society in the Borough, or ever had a design to kill the two great law lords — as alleged by a witness at the trial. The prisoners were severally sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but in different prisons.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online