Coldbath Fields Prison
Nestled in the heart of Clerkenwell in London stood the notorious Coldbath Fields Prison, also known as the Middlesex House of Correction or simply “The Steel.” First built in the 17th century, this prison would become one of the most infamous in London’s history, known for its harsh conditions, strict regimes, and famous inmates. For over 90 years, Coldbath Fields held thieves, radicals, and debtors behind its imposing walls. Though gone today, its legacy lives on as a reminder of London’s not-so-distant, darker past.
Location and Architecture
Coldbath Fields Prison was located in the Clerkenwell area of London, not far from the more affluent West End. The address was 53-55 Bagnigge Wells Road. The prison’s name came from the Cold Bath Spring discovered on the site in 1697, which was thought to have medicinal properties.
The original buildings were constructed in 1617. In 1794, the prison underwent a major redesign and reconstruction based on the ideas of prominent prison reformer John Howard. The new prison had a rectangular design surrounding an open courtyard, with four separate blocks for different classes of prisoners. The blocks were four-stories high and spanned seven bays each.
Origins and Early Years
Coldbath Fields was originally established in the early 1600s as a local prison run by magistrates where short-sentence offenders were held. In addition to holding criminal prisoners, Coldbath Fields also served as a debtor’s prison.
For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Coldbath Fields was relatively small. After the rebuild in 1794, its capacity grew to around 300 prisoners. Men, women, and children were all incarcerated here until separate facilities were built in 1850. Prisoners as young as 12 were held at Coldbath Fields in its early decades.
The prison initially aimed to be enlightened, with a focus on reform rather than just punishment. But it soon gained a reputation for imposing incredibly strict, miserable conditions on those confined within its walls.
Coldbath Fields became notorious for its harsh, even cruel treatment of prisoners. Strict rules of silence were imposed at all times, with severe punishments for any infractions. The “silent system” was maddening for many prisoners who were forbidden from communicating in any way.
One of the most infamous features was the prison’s use of the treadmill. This brutal punishment device forced prisoners to march like hamsters for hours, grinding grain. The treadmill embodied the prison’s emphasis on reform through hard labor. Prisoners worked long days picking oakum as well under equally grim conditions.
The layout of Coldbath Fields kept different classes of prisoners segregated from each other in the various cell blocks. These included felons, misdemeanants, vagrants, and debtors. This strict separation of inhabitants reflected the prison’s impose and enforce clear social order.
The Prison Population
When first built, Coldbath Fields housed men, women, and even young children in adjacent wards. The children were eventually moved to the nearby Bridewell prison in 1850, followed by the women in 1852. After this Coldbath Fields housed only adult males, primarily first-time offenders convicted of minor property crimes.
At its peak in 1877, the prison contained around 1,700 prisoners, vastly exceeding its original planned capacity. Most served sentences of a few months up to 2 years. The rapid influx of inmates put a strain on the prison’s increasingly outdated facilities.
In addition to criminal offenders, Coldbath Fields also continued to hold people imprisoned for unpaid debts. These debtors were kept in the most inferior conditions and treated harshly.
Scandals and Critics
In 1798 a scandal erupted over conditions at Coldbath Fields and the holding of radical prisoners without trial. Parliament member Sir Francis Burdett led the criticism over the prison’s flagrant human rights violations. This controversy helped spur prison reform efforts.
Critics like Burdett attacked the London magistrates and police involved in running Coldbath Fields. They accused officials of corruption and profiting off the labor of inmates. The radical prisoners held there helped galvanize public support for shutting down the decrepit prison.
Coldbath Fields held its share of famous and influential prisoners over the decades. One was Colonel Edward Despard, an Irish soldier and colonial administrator. Despard was imprisoned in 1798 for his radical political views and later executed for an attempted armed uprising.
Robert Wedderburn, an anti-slavery activist, served time at Coldbath Fields for seditious libel in 1817. Radical leader Arthur Thistlewood was jailed there too before being executed for the Cato Street Conspiracy against the government. Prison reformer John Howard documented the dismal conditions he witnessed at Coldbath Fields.
Decline and Closure
By the mid-1800s, Coldbath Fields was struggling to contain its growing inmate population. Antiquated facilities like its baking ovens led to accidents like the fire of 1877 which destroyed the treadmill house. Though no prisoners died, the days of the dilapidated prison seemed numbered.
After 90 years of operation, Coldbath Fields Prison finally closed in 1885. The Stadt Post Office took over the site in 1889. The last remaining buildings were demolished in 1929 to make way for postal service facilities that still operate there today.
For nearly a century, Coldbath Fields Prison embodied the darkest, most deprived aspects of London’s legal system and prisons. Harsh punishments, bleak living conditions, and forced labor characterized theColdbath Fields experience. Yet the abuses and scandals at Coldbath Fields ultimately helped bring about critical reforms to the prison system, sparing future generations from the same miserable fate. Though long gone, the ominous fortress lives on as a cautionary tale of London’s haunting past.
What years was Coldbath Fields Prison open?
Coldbath Fields was open from 1794 until 1885. It operated for around 90 years.
Where was Coldbath Fields Prison located?
Coldbath Fields Prison was located in the Clerkenwell area of London. The address was 53-55 Bagnigge Wells Road.
Who was imprisoned at Coldbath Fields?
The prison held men, women and children until the 1850s, including thieves, vagrants, debtors, and political radicals. Famous inmates included Edward Despard and Robert Wedderburn.
What was the treadmill at Coldbath Fields?
The treadmill was a device used to punish prisoners by forcing them to step continuously like hamsters, often for hours. It was a form of hard labor.
Why did Coldbath Fields Prison close?
After scandals over conditions and critics like John Howard exposed abuses, the prison closed in 1885 due to outdated facilities. The Post Office took over the site.