For over 70 years, Millbank Prison stood as an imposing fortress on the banks of the River Thames in London. When it first opened its doors in 1816, it was intended to be Britain’s first ever national penitentiary based on Jeremy Bentham’s radical principles. However, within just a few years Millbank gained notoriety for rampant diseases, flawed design, and poor conditions. After several transitions in its role, Millbank finally closed in 1890. Today, only a few archaeological traces of this controversial prison survive. However, its impact on London’s social history and penal system was immense.
Construction of the National Penitentiary
The Millbank site was purchased by philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1799 on behalf of the Crown. Bentham planned for it to hold his proposed “Panopticon” prison. This revolutionary radial design allowed guards to observe all inmates from a central point without being seen. However, after years of delays, this scheme was dropped in 1812.
The drive for a National Penitentiary continued though. In 1812, an architectural competition was announced, which attracted 43 designs. William Williams, drawing master at Sandhurst, won the contest. His basic Panopticon concept was adapted by architect Thomas Hardwick, who began construction in 1816.
The Flawed Design
Almost immediately, Hardwick encountered problems with subsidence on the marshy riverside site. The network of cell blocks began tilting and cracking as walls reached six feet high. After just 18 months and £26,000 spent, Hardwick resigned.
His replacement, John Harvey, fared no better. Finally esteemed architect Robert Smirke took over in 1815 and managed to complete the project by 1821. However, the construction issues caused costs to balloon to over £500,000, more than double early estimates.
The Final Layout
The final design was centered around a circular chapel, surrounded by a radial shape of six cell block penthouses extending outwards. The penthouses contained small circular courtyards for inmate exercise. The outer corners featured taller circular towers, giving the prison a castle-like appearance.
Early Years as National Penitentiary
On June 26, 1816, Millbank admitted its first prisoners – 109 women. The first men arrived in January 1817. By late 1822, the prison population had swelled to around 800 inmates.
Millbank was initially intended to reform criminals. Sentences of 5-10 years there were offered as an alternative to transportation abroad. Upon admission, inmates were placed in solitary confinement and forbidden from speaking to enforce contemplation.
Serious Problems Emerge
Within just a few years, major flaws in Millbank’s design and operation became apparent. The damp marshy location bred disease, while the maze of corridors confused even staff. Ventilation issues also enabled communication between cells.
Most seriously, over 1822-23 an epidemic of dysentery, scurvy and other illnesses swept through the weakened inmate population. The prison was temporarily evacuated as a result. Annual running costs also greatly exceeded estimates at £16,000.
These myriad issues made it clear Millbank was unsustainable as the national penitentiary. The search began for a replacement.
Millbank Becomes a Transportation Depot
That replacement arrived in 1842 with the opening of Pentonville Prison, intended as a new “model prison”. Millbank’s status was downgraded to a holding depot for convicts awaiting transportation to Australia.
Every person in the UK sentenced to transportation came to Millbank first for 3 months. They were kept in solitary confinement and silence as at the start of their original sentences. By 1850, around 4000 convicts per year passed through Millbank.
Daily Life for Prisoners
Typical Cell Conditions
Each small cell at Millbank held only basic furnishings like a stool, hammock, and washing tub. Personal items were limited to religious texts, an arithmetic book, and printed moral lessons. The cell’s only window looked inward to the exercise yards.
The prison chapel stood at the center of the complex. Its clock tolled day and night, with the chimes carrying eerily through the cell blocks.
Labor and Routine
Inmates at Millbank underwent a strictly regimented routine of silence, labor, exercise, meals and prayers. They produced goods like mats, shoes, and clothing. Any breaches of discipline were punished harshly through flogging or removal of privileges.
The poor drainage and ventilation meant disease regularly broke out in the prison’s unsanitary environment. Prisoners received minimal health care and inadequate food, leaving them weakened. Scurvy from nutritional deficiencies was common.
The End of the Transportation Era
Transportation of prisoners abroad was gradually phased out in the 1850s and 1860s. Millbank then briefly became an ordinary local prison from 1870. However, its outdated design made it unsuitable for continued use.
Millbank formally closed in 1890, ending its role in the British penal system after over 70 years. Partial demolition began in 1892, continuing sporadically for a decade afterwards.
Millbank’s Legacy and Redevelopment
While most of Millbank Prison was demolished, some parts of its walls and infrastructure remain and have been archaeologically studied. The prison site was redeveloped with new landmark buildings.
The most notable new construction was the Tate Britain art gallery, opened in 1897. Luxury housing called Millbank Estate was also built using bricks from the prison walls. The nearby Chelsea College of Art and Royal Army Medical College also occupy parts of the former prison grounds.
Though the physical prison is long gone, its impact on London, architectural history, and penal reform remains substantial. For decades it loomed large, both physically and symbolically, on London’s social landscape.
Millbank in Popular Culture
As a notorious symbol of punishment and suffering, Millbank Prison appeared in many literary and cultural works over the years.
Charles Dickens depicted it in Bleak House, while Henry James used it as inspiration for The Princess Casamassima. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned it in both The Sign of Four and The Lost World. More recently, it appeared as a plot element in Sarah Waters’ historical novel Affinity.
For all its grand ambitions as Britain’s first national penitentiary, Millbank Prison quickly became notorious for its flawed design, financial issues, and inmate mistreatment. Its failed panopticon model demonstrated the practical challenges of implementing radical penal reform.
While conditions at Millbank improved over time, its symbolic status as a place of suffering and punishment persisted. Its remains serve as a reminder of the cruelty and flaws that once characterised the British prison system. However, Millbank’s closure also marked progress towards more enlightened, humanitarian values in prisons.
When was Millbank Prison built?
Millbank Prison was constructed beginning in 1816 on the banks of the River Thames in London. It opened to its first prisoners that same year.
What was the original purpose of Millbank Prison?
Millbank was originally intended to be Britain’s first “national penitentiary” for reforming criminals. It was based on Jeremy Bentham’s radical idea for a “Panopticon” prison.
How many prisoners were held at Millbank?
By late 1822, Millbank held around 800 inmates. In the 1840s-50s, around 4,000 inmates passed through each year awaiting transportation abroad.
Why did Millbank Prison close?
Due to design flaws, rising costs, and inhumane conditions, Millbank was unsuitable as a national penitentiary. After transportation ended in the 1860s it closed, as it could not function as an ordinary prison.
What buildings now stand on the site of Millbank Prison?
Parts of the prison site are today occupied by the Tate Britain gallery, Chelsea College of Art and Design, and the luxury Millbank Estate housing development.