hm prison wormwood scrubs

HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs

HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, more commonly known as “The Scrubs”, is a high-profile men’s prison located in West London. It has a long history stretching back to the Victorian era, with its origins in the 1870s as a temporary iron jail hastily constructed on scrubland. Since then, the prison has undergone many changes and periods of reform and deterioration, becoming notorious at times for harsh conditions, inmate treatment, and flawed security. Yet “The Scrubs” endures as a stalwart icon of British prison culture, gaining fame through portrayals in literature, music and popular media. Today it continues operations as a local adult male prison holding inmates on remand and serving sentences.

History and Origins

Wormwood Scrubs was first built from 1874 to 1875 amid a flurry of prison construction to house London’s growing inmate population. The initial temporary iron prison was soon replaced by permanent brick cell blocks modeled on the latest Victorian penal ideals. Sitting on the ancient scrubland of Wormwood Scrubs, it was named after the hardy shrub common on English wastelands. Its road was named after the prison’s architect, Edmund Du Cane.

Location and Architecture

Geographically, HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs is located in the London Borough of Hammersmith, close to the Hammersmith Hospital and the White City urban area. Its street address is on Du Cane Road. Architecturally, it is built in the typical Victorian style with brick cell blocks surrounding exercise yards. The front gatehouse is an ornate historic landmark. Two oval plaster reliefs depicting pioneering prison reformers Elizabeth Fry and John Howard adorn the prison’s facade. Inside, it contains mostly cellular accommodation with modern amenities.

19th Century Beginnings

Temporary Iron Prison

The genesis of Wormwood Scrubs Prison began in 1874 as a temporary measure to address London’s shortage of inmate housing. With the city’s existing prisons overflowing, the Home Secretary approved emergency funds to rapidly build a temporary iron jail on open land at Wormwood Scrubs while larger brick cell blocks were constructed.

In the winter of 1874, nine select prisoners assembled wooden huts and corrugated iron structures to serve as barracks and a small prison. This temporary facility soon opened its doors to 50 more convict laborers who began work on the permanent structures.

See also  HM Prison Drake Hall

Permanent Brick Prison Construction

Starting in 1875, hundreds of thousands of bricks were manufactured on-site to build the first permanent cell block of Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Prisoners fired the bricks in an on-site kiln and completed the ground floor of the first block by winter. Additional wings were added through the late 1800s. By 1891, full construction was finished on the prison that stands today.

The prison was built based on designs of Edmund Du Cane, a leading prison architect and reformer who lent his name to the road Wormwood Scrubs sits on. Its design embodied the ideals of the “separate system” with no communal meals or chapels. The goal was to avoid corrupting influences among inmates.

World War I Era

Conscientious Objectors Imprisoned

During World War I, Wormwood Scrubs held numerous conscientious objectors who refused military service for religious, ethical or political reasons. Pacifists and anti-war activists were routinely court martialed and sentenced to hard labor.

One was Hubert Peet, a Quaker journalist who wrote of the terrible conditions at the Scrubs in his exposé “112 Days Hard Labour” published in 1917. He described meager rations, pointless physical toil, solitary confinement and staff brutality. His account brought public condemnation on the mistreatment of pacifists there.

Conditions Described by Journalist

Hubert Peet’s writings offered the wider British public a disturbing window into day-to-day life inside Wormwood Scrubs during his confinement from 1916 to 1917. He wrote of stale bread rations, thin potato gruel, casual brutality from guards, and the mental strain of isolation and sensory deprivation. His experiences fueled public outrage over the excessive punishment of nonviolent objectors.

World War II

Takeover By War Department

With Britain again at war in 1939, the Scrubs came under control of the War Department along with all prisons in the UK. Its inmates were evacuated and relocated to other facilities. For a brief window from 1939 to 1940, the Scrubs served as the headquarters for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI5). The prison’s empty cell blocks offered security for covert wartime operations gathering intelligence and running double agents.

Use By MI5

At the outset of WWII, Britain’s Security Service MI5 had outgrown its previous headquarters and needed room to expand rapidly. Seeking a secure location, it took over the recently vacated Wormwood Scrubs prison which offered isolated cell blocks encircled by walls. MI5 then used the Scrubs as its main station for running counterespionage operations until German bombing raids on London forced relocation in 1940. This intriguing interlude remains a little-known chapter of the prison’s diverse history.

Post-War Conditions and Changes

Security Flaws and Famous Escapes

Embarrassingly, the post-war period at Wormwood Scrubs saw two of the prison’s most infamous inmates slip free due to security flaws. In 1966, Soviet double agent George Blake successfully scaled the prison wall with a rope ladder crafted from knitting needles and wrote himself into legend with this daring escape. Similarly, spy Gordon Lonsdale also broke out in 1960 after guards left his cell door unlocked.

See also  HM Prison Bullwood Hall

These highly publicized breaches highlighted worrisome gaps in the prison’s ability to hold inmates securely. They led to tightened security measures and overflow crowding as the Scrubs struggled to contain its prisoners more strictly.

Protests and Inquiries Into Conditions

By the 1970s and 1980s, overcrowding, staff shortages and inmate idleness cultivated an environment prone to unrest at Wormwood Scrubs. Violent protests erupted, most dramatically a 1979 rooftop riot by IRA prisoners demanding political status and better visitation that injured scores of convicts and guards.

Repeated government inquiries blamed flawed administration, lack of activities and limited staff training for volatile conditions. Yet reform remained slow even as Chief Inspectors condemned the prison as a “penal dustbin.”

Reputation for Brutality and Calls for Reform

Investigations Into Staff Brutality

Shocking allegations of systematic staff brutality against prisoners led to major investigations of the Scrubs in the 1990s. Whistleblowers exposed a cruel “pervasive culture of physical and mental abuse” inflicted on inmates by guards and allowed by management.

Over twenty officers were suspended and six convicted for unlawful beatings and cruelty. The disclosures confirmed longstanding rumours of detainee mistreatment and forced overdue reforms.

Damning Reports From Chief Inspector

After the staff brutality scandals, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons conducted exhaustive reviews of conditions at the Scrubs. His damning reports depicted an institution riddled with flaws including ineffective security, poor healthcare, nonexistent rehabilitation programs, little inmate activity and high suicide risk.

Declaring the prison must improve or close, the Chief Inspector galvanized momentum for vital upgrades to equipment, staffing and infrastructure. Although reform was slow, his findings spurred gradual improvements in prison administration and modernization.

21st Century Operation and Issues

Overcrowding and Poor Conditions

In the 21st century, HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs continues to grapple with the challenges of overcrowding and maintaining acceptable living standards. Despite designed to house some 1,200 inmates, daily population often approaches 1,500 resulting in cramped, unsanitary conditions described as “filthy” by inspectors.

Cells meant for one hold two or three prisoners. With inadequate staff, inmates reportedly spend nearly all day confined alone in their cells, causing idleness and deteriorating mental health. Signs of progress are undermined by ongoing deficiencies requiring systemic reform.

Some Improvements, But Ongoing Problems

Recent years have seen attempts to implement reforms at Wormwood Scrubs including improving cleanliness, safety measures and inmate treatment. But progress remains inconsistent, stymied by chronic understaffing, budget constraints and rapidly shifting prison population.

Inspections indicate while some areas like violence reduction show signs of improvement, major problems resurface like access to basic amenities, education, time outdoors and mental healthcare. A cycle of reform and relapse continues as the prison attempts to modernize its dysfunctional legacy.

Notable Inmates Over the Years

As one of England’s most storied penitentiaries, Wormwood Scrubs has for over a century housed a rogue’s gallery of prominent prisoners from all walks of life. Infamous names who have done time within its walls include:

  • Notorious gangster Reggie Kray
  • “Great Train Robber” Bruce Reynolds
  • Serial killer Dennis Nilson
  • Spy George Blake
  • IRA rebel Bobby Sands
  • Renegade politician Oswald Mosley
  • Artist and occultist Alistair Crowley
  • Armed robber Charles Bronson
  • Rockstars Pete Doherty and Keith Richards
  • Double agent Kim Philby
See also  HM Prison Exeter

Beyond the celebrity criminals, tens of thousands of ordinary British convicts have passed through the Scrubs. All have left their mark on the prison’s complex legacy.

Pop Culture Depictions and Public Image

As an enduring symbol of British crime and punishment, Wormwood Scrubs Prison has been etched into pop culture through many colorful portrayals across different mediums:


The prison has featured prominently in books ranging from Oscar Wilde’s classic “Ballad of Reading Gaol” to modern novels like Sarah Water’s “The Night Watch”. Often it serves as an emblem of the hardship of prison life.


Many rock songs reference the Scrubs including The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” and The Clash’s “Jail Guitar Doors”. These allude to its reputation as destination for rabble-rousers and outcasts from society.

Television and Film

British television shows like “Porridge” and “Minder”, along with films like “The Italian Job”, frequently use the prison’s distinctive front gates as a backdrop conveying incarceration. The old walls now represent imprisonment itself.

Public Image

In the public imagination, “doing time in the Scrubs” carries associations of enduring grim hardship, being ostracized by society, and iron discipline upon unruly elements. For many British citizens, it embodies necessary state authority and consequences for defying the law’s order.


Current Status as Adult Male Prison

Today after many shifts in purpose, HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs houses over 1,000 adult males from London and surrounds. Its population consists of remand prisoners awaiting trial and convicted inmates serving sentences up to five years for non-violent crimes. As a local prison, most are from the community.

Continuing Challenges and Improvements

In its current incarnation, “The Scrubs” still faces endemic challenges including antiquated infrastructure, limited staff and resources, overcrowding, drone smuggling and inmate violence. Yet substantial improvements have been achieved in cleanliness, safety and stability. Progress remains slow but steady for this facility long notorious for dysfunction.

Enduring Place in British Culture

Regardless of its ongoing troubles and transformations, Wormwood Scrubs remains etched into the cultural landscape as a relic of Victorian ideals, wartime upheaval, 60s counterculture, and Britain’s ever-evolving approach to criminal rehabilitation and justice. For good or ill, it will likely maintain its unique role for generations to come.


What is the capacity of Wormwood Scrubs?

The official designed capacity of HMP Wormwood Scrubs is 1,279 inmates. However, due to chronic overcrowding, the population is often around 1,500 prisoners despite lack of adequate beds, sanitation and other facilities.

Has the prison had issues with violence and safety?

Yes, periodic issues with violence have been a recurring challenge, including riots, attacks on both prisoners and staff, and high levels of assaults. Authorities have made recent improvements to security and safety, but some concerns remain.

When did it open originally?

Wormwood Scrubs first opened in 1875 after a temporary initial facility was constructed in 1874. Full completion of the current prison structure was achieved by 1891. So it has now been operational for over 145 years.

What kind of inmates are housed there today?

As a Category B local adult male prison, today’s inmates are typically sentenced and on remand adult men from surrounding London communities serving relatively short sentences for non-violent, petty crimes.

Has the prison been improved or reformed recently?

After a long history of issues, some modest reforms and improvements have been made in the 21st century to inmate safety, living conditions, and staff training, but major problems persist around overcrowding, infrastructure, and persistent security threats.

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