Thursday 20 June 2024

In search of Tothill Fields Bridewell

Up in London today I thought I’d have a look at what remains of Tothill Fields Bridewell - the Westminster prison where the Chartist leader Ernest Jones was imprisoned in 1848 for sedition.

Here, just a five-minute walk from what is now Victoria Station, he and other Chartist prisoners refused to pick oakum and were put in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water. Amid unsanitary conditions, and an outbreak of cholera in London, Jones was lucky not to share the fate of Joseph Williams and Alexander Sharp, two imprisoned Chartists who did not live to complete their sentences.

Westminster Cathedral.
The old bridewell is long since gone. At the time it was fairly new, having opened in 1834 to replace the former house of correction, which combined the functions of both prison and poor house. It was on Francis Street, which runs along the back of what is now the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, and there is some suggestion that its foundations were incorporated into the current building.

I had a wander down the surrounding streets, and they are all very solidly late Victorian or Edwardian: expensive mansion block flats, including one where Winston Churchill lived in the late 1930s. Very little sign of the old slums, and nothing at all of the prison. That, however, is not quite the end of the story.

The old gate to the bridewell, the stonework of which was part of the seventeenth century original, survived the demolition and was re-sited in Little Sanctuary by the Greater London Council in 1969 - at the rear of what was then the Middlesex Guildhall and now houses the UK Supreme Court.

Bridewell stone gate.

The gate is a curious addition to the perimeter fence, because if you look behind it there is nothing but a gap for the door to open onto. It is purely for show, but in a place where few will ever see it.

And I have to say, the Little Sanctuary gate is distinctly less imposing in scale than that shown in the 1850 illustration apparently of the bridewell’s front elevation. It is, however, similar in design. Maybe this was the back door!

I have added three more photos below showing the explanatory plaque to be found in Little Sanctuary, a now rather faded stone inscription from above the gate, and the view from behind the scenes.

Clicking any of the images on this page should give you  a larger version if you want to see more detail or decipher the stone inscription.

  • Credit where it is due. I cannot claim to have done the research identifying the location of the old bridewell and its gate. Rather, I followed the lead of Ian Visits, the always-excellent guide to London and its cultural events. 

No comments: