gatehouse prison

Gatehouse Prison

For over 400 years, Gatehouse Prison stood in Westminster as one of London’s most notorious jails. From its early days under the harsh authority of Abbey officials to its later use as a holding place for religious and political prisoners, Gatehouse was feared and loathed by all held within its walls. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating chapter in London’s dark history.

The Origins of Gatehouse Prison

Gatehouse started life in 1370 as the entrance gatehouse to Westminster Abbey. However, it soon came to serve a second purpose under the command of the Abbot. As a powerful churchman who controlled much of Westminster, the Abbot used Gatehouse as a prison for anyone who defied his authority. It provided useful information about prisoners, like prior records, to the Old Bailey court too.

Built as the Gatehouse of Westminster Abbey in 1370

Constructed in 1370 from stone and timber, Gatehouse served as the main mapped entrance to the Abbey precinct. Visitors would pass under its central archway, by the Porter’s Lodge, and into the sanctuary grounds. The graceful Savoy Chapel was later added to the Gatehouse in the early 1500s.

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Used as a Prison by the Powerful Abbot

As head of Westminster Abbey, the Abbot held huge influence over the area known as the ‘Liberty of Westminster’. He used Gatehouse Prison to detain anyone who threatened this authority – from petty thieves to religious dissenters.

Provided Information on Prisoners to the Old Bailey

While not an official court prison, Gatehouse supplied useful details about its inmates to the Old Bailey. This helped indict criminals and sentence them accordingly, based on their identity and prior records.

Notable Prisoners at Gatehouse over the Centuries

Given its prime Westminster location, Gatehouse Prison held its fair share of famous inmates over the centuries. From Elizabethan playwrights to doomed noblemen, its cells secured a wide range of prisoners.

16th Century – Puritan Clerics

Early religious prisoners included Puritan clergymen like John Greenwood. He was imprisoned for several months in 1586 for his conformist preaching.

17th Century – Walter Raleigh and Dissenters

In the 1600s, doomed explorer Sir Walter Raleigh spent his final night at Gatehouse before his execution. Protestants like Richard Lovelace were locked up there too for their dissenting views.

18th Century – Political and Religious Prisoners

As England endured much turmoil, Gatehouse continued to hold significant prisoners. Jacobite rebels and Catholic priests mixed with forgers and smugglers within its walls.

Life Inside Gatehouse Prison

Gatehouse was a miserable place for the convicts, detainees, and debtors who ended up there over the centuries. Cramped, unsanitary conditions were made worse by the draconian rules and punishments.

Crowded and Unhygienic Conditions

At its peak, Gatehouse held over 300 prisoners who were crammed inside small, shared cells. With no sewer or sanitation system, the stench was overpowering. Disease spread quickly in such filthy, close quarters.

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Strict Rules and Harsh Punishments

Prisoners had to abide by the Abbot’s stern regulations. Serious rule-breakers faced brutal physical punishments, from whippings and brandings to amputations of limbs. Even minor infractions resulted in beatings or starvation.

Prisoners from all Walks of Life

Everyone from peasants to politicians passed through Gatehouse’s gates. For the poorer inmates, it meant surviving on meager rations and gaining a dreaded criminal record.

The Demise and Legacy of Gatehouse

After surviving plague, fire, and riots, Gatehouse Prison finally closed its doors for good in 1776. Though gone, its dark legacy remains today.

Demolished in 1776

Having fallen into serious decline, Gatehouse was demolished 250 years after its founding. Parts of the materials and fittings were sold off and dispersed.

Site now the Crimean War Memorial

A fine memorial to those lost in the Crimean War was erected outside Westminster Abbey on the old Gatehouse grounds. It continues to honor the dead to this day.

Remembered for its Infamous History

Though long gone, Gatehouse still has a legendary status. The suffering within its walls left a symbolic mark on London’s history as a place of fear and torment for inmates.

Gatehouse Prison certainly left an indelible mark on Westminster, having guarded its ancient gates whilst casting misery on so many lives locked inside over the centuries. Though its ominous walls are gone, they still cast a shadow on London’s darker past.


Q: When was Gatehouse Prison built?

A: Gatehouse Prison was constructed in 1370 as the entrance gatehouse to Westminster Abbey in London.

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Q: Who controlled Gatehouse Prison?

A: It was controlled by the Abbot of Westminster Abbey who used it to imprison those who defied his authority in Westminster.

Q: What conditions were like at Gatehouse Prison?

A: Conditions were extremely poor, with overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and rampant disease. Prisoners endured harsh punishments and minimal food rations.

Q: Who were some famous inmates held at Gatehouse Prison?

A: Some notable prisoners included Sir Walter Raleigh, who spent his last night there in 1618, as well as many Protestant dissenters and Catholic priests in the 17th-18th centuries.

Q: When did Gatehouse Prison meet its end?

A: After four centuries of use, Gatehouse Prison was finally demolished in 1776 due to its severely dilapidated state.

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