King’s Bench Prison
King’s Bench Prison has a long and notorious history stretching back to medieval London. First constructed in the 13th century, it took its name from the King’s Bench court which heard cases like bankruptcy and defamation. In its early days, the prison was repeatedly damaged during peasant uprisings and protests.
Rebuilding in the 18th Century
After centuries of use, the prison buildings were in a state of disrepair. In 1758 a new King’s Bench Prison was constructed at a cost of £7,800. While larger than before, the prison developed an infamous reputation for overcrowding, frequent outbreaks of disease, and overall poor living conditions.
Notoriety as a Debtor’s Prison
King’s Bench Prison was well known as a debtor’s jail, imprisoning upper class men unable to pay off their debts. Wealthy inmates could pay the prison for special privileges and liberties. Despite reforms, it operated as a debtor’s prison until the practice was finally abolished in the 1860s.
Reforms and Closure
In the early 19th century, calls began mounting for prison reform. King’s Bench saw some improvements in living standards, but remained overcrowded. After a long decline, the prison was closed in 1880 and demolished soon after.
Daily Life Inside King’s Bench
King’s Bench Prison held a mix of petty criminals, political and religious dissenters, and, above all, debtors. Though debtors ranged from working class citizens to aristocrats, most were wealthy gentlemen who had fallen into bankruptcy.
Food, Sanitation and Living Conditions
Prisoners had to provide their own food and bedding, and conditions were generally poor inside King’s Bench. Diseases like typhus were common. Wealthier inmates could pay the prison governor for larger, cleaner rooms and other privileges.
Privileges for Wealthier Inmates
Wealthy prisoners who paid for special treatment could acquire private rooms, better food and drink, permission for visitors, and even the right to wander outside the prison walls for a few hours each day. But the poorest inmates lived in squalor.
Notable Events and Prisoners
John Wilkes and the 1768 Riot
In 1768, the imprisonment of the radical John Wilkes prompted a violent riot at King’s Bench Prison that left seven dead. Demonstrators demanded Wilkes’ release in what became known as the Massacre of St George’s Fields.
Imprisonment of Writers and Artists
Many prominent authors ended up at King’s Bench Prison for debt, including Daniel Defoe. The prison also held the painter Benjamin Haydon, who chronicled his time inside King’s Bench in his diaries and autobiography.
While most prisoners were men, some women were also incarcerated for debt like the writer Charlotte Turner Smith. The notorious poisoner Elizabeth Brownrigg spent time at King’s Bench in the 18th century.
Legacy and Impact on London
Influence on Literature and Art
As an infamous London institution, King’s Bench Prison appeared in many literary works, including those of Charles Dickens. Paintings by artists like Augustus Pugin captured scenes of daily life inside its walls.
Push for Prison Reform
The harsh conditions at King’s Bench Prison became a symbol of the need for broad prison reform in England. Investigative reporting exposed its poor management, helping lead to its closure.
Enduring Reputation and Symbolism
Even today, King’s Bench Prison remains a notorious symbol of Victorian England’s practice of imprisoning debtors. As one of London’s most historic and infamous institutions, its impact can still be felt.
For centuries, King’s Bench Prison embodied the living hell for debtors in London. As a disease-ridden and overcrowded debtor’s jail, it ruined fortunes and lives. Yet its presence fueled impassioned calls for change that still echo through the justice system today. King’s Bench remains an essential chapter in the history of London and prison reform.
Where was King’s Bench Prison located?
King’s Bench Prison was located in Southwark, London, near what is now Borough High Street. The first prison was built in the 13th century, with a larger prison constructed in 1758.
Who was imprisoned at King’s Bench?
It mainly held debtors, ranging from aristocrats who had gone bankrupt to petty criminals and smugglers. Religious dissenters, political radicals like John Wilkes, and even some women were also imprisoned there.
What were conditions like inside King’s Bench Prison?
Conditions were generally poor and overcrowded, with outbreaks of diseases like typhus. But wealthier inmates could pay for private rooms, better food, and other privileges. Poorer prisoners often lived in squalor.
How long did King’s Bench Prison operate?
King’s Bench Prison operated from the medieval period until it was closed in 1880. For most of its history it acted as a debtor’s prison. It was renamed Queen’s Bench Prison in 1842.
Why is King’s Bench Prison historically significant?
It provides insight into the practice of imprisoning debtors in Victorian England. As a notorious London institution, it also inspired famous authors like Charles Dickens and catalyzed prison reform.