The Clink Prison Museum, Clink Street, London Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Clink Prison Museum, Clink Street, London

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A ball and chain

The Clink Prison Museum in London is built on the foundations of one of the original prisons owned by the Bishop of Winchester. It is thought it got its name from the clinking of the manacles, fetters, chains and bolts that were used there. It was also the origin of the phrase 'In the Clink', to mean 'in prison'.

A Short History

There has been a prison owned by the Bishop of Winchester in one form or another since the year 860, although at that time it would only have been one cell in a priest's college. By 1076 an Archbishop had listed the type of punishments allowed, scourging with rods, solitary confinement, and bread and water in silence.

The building of a chapel and mansion at Southwark was begun in 1107 by the then Bishop of Winchester, but was not completed until 1144, by his successor. There were two prisons: one for men and one for women. It would have been a good source of income for the Bishop, as it was about this time that the whorehouses1 were regulated, bringing in plenty of fines and customers. The whorehouses were closed, reopened, moved and used throughout the life of the Clink, bringing in prisoners at a fairly steady rate. By 1180 the land was owned outright by the Clink prison.

Life in the Clink

The prisoners were treated very badly, but those with money and friends on the outside were able to pay the jailers to make their time better. As the jailers were very poorly paid they came up with lots of ways to make money. They hired out rooms, beds, bedding, candles and fuel to those who could afford it, food and drink were charged at twice the correct price. They accepted payments for fitting lighter irons, and for removing them completely. For a fee, prisoners would be allowed outside to beg, or even to work. Madames were allowed to keep a brothel going, with payments going to the jailers. Poorer prisoners had to beg at the grates that led up to street level and sell anything they had with them, including their clothes, to pay for food.

Life was very harsh inside the prison, and brutality was a part of life there. Beatings and kickings were common, irons and fetters were fitted to prevent sleeping or cause paralysis, and prisoners were forced to stand in water until their feet rotted. Murder and fighting were not unusual. Authorised torture included the rack, breaking on the wheel, or crushing under very heavy weights.

When the law changed in 1352, creditors were able to send their debtors to prison. Not only did the debtors have to pay their creditors, but they also had to pay the jailers' fees, so incarceration was drawn out so that as much money as possible could be extorted.

In 1450, rioters protesting the Statute of Labourers raided Winchester House. Classing clerics as tax collectors, they murdered them, and released prisoners from the Clink before burning it down. The rebellion was put down and Winchester House was rebuilt and extended, including a new prison.

The new ducking stool on the bank outside the Clink was used for punishing scolds, erring ale sellers, and bakers who sold underweight or bad bread. Often the offenders were also made to sit outside their own front door in a commode-like armchair, for their humiliation.

Royal Justice

In 1485 Bishops were under orders from Henry VII to incarcerate priests for adultery, incest and fornication, so that yet more money poured into the prison.

In 1530, Henry VIII legalised boiling in oil for women who had murdered their husbands. They were usually strapped to a pole before being dropped into the oil, although the jailer could decide to put them into cold oil and boil them slowly. The Kings's Act Against Vagabonds meant that men, women and children were subjected to severe flogging until they left town. This carried on into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary I came to the throne in 1553 and used the Clink to incarcerate Protestants. Food was withheld, they were kept in stocks and pillories, and the prisoners that didn't starve to death were executed later.

When Elizabeth I took over, she continued to use the prison for religious persecution, but this time the Catholics were on the receiving end, along with Protestant Puritans. In 1584, Puritans planned to overthrow the church. Elizabeth found out and ordered that the harshest treatments of the prison be given, and scores of Puritans were starved to death. Some of those that survived later travelled in The Mayflower to America in 1620.

The Downfall

In 1649, Winchester House was sold to a property developer and was divided into shops, tenements and dye houses. An alley was built to serve the Clink which was now a debtors prison only. The Cage was removed temporarily as ratepayers had complained about the cost of upkeep, but the whipping post was still busy. By 1707, both these and the stocks were all unused because of the cost of upkeep, and by 1732 there were only two registered inmates. In 1745, a temporary prison was set up as the Clink was too decayed to use, although by 1776 the prison was again taking in debtors. It was burnt down in 1780 by Gordon rioters, and was never rebuilt.

The Museum

The museum tries to recreate the conditions of the prison; lit by candles, and covered in sawdust, some of the rooms are gloomier than others. With the moans and groans coming from the waxworks it can be a spooky place. Younger children might be scared to go in, as a waxwork man hanging in a cage welcomes you down the stairs with groans at the entrance.

Arranged into a series of cells, it has such exhibits as a whipping post, torture chair, foot crusher, and other torture implements. Some of the items can even be tried on; for instance there is a scolds bridal, and ball and chains are around the museum in various places. There are lots of pictures and articles around the rooms, and waxworks of the types of people that would have been held there.

1The Bishop of Winchester secured the right to regulate the brothels from Henry II.

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