Poultry Compter was a small but important prison located in the bustling commercial center of London for over 300 years. Operating from the 16th century until 1815, this cramped facility housed debtors, religious dissenters, petty criminals, and even played a role in early anti-slavery efforts.
History of Poultry Compter
Poultry Compter occupied a site on Poultry, a street in the heart of the City of London’s Cheapside neighborhood. It functioned as a jail or “compter” run by the Sheriffs of the City of London. Minor offenders and those convicted under civil law would be locked up there, often for short stays.
The first references to Poultry Compter date from the mid-1500s. In a 1561 letter, reformer John Foxe mentioned the poor conditions that dissenters were kept in at “the Poultry Counter.” This implies it was already an established institution at that time.
Location and Architecture
Poultry Compter was situated on the eastern side of Poultry, a narrow thoroughfare lined with the shops of merchants and tradesmen. The three-story brick building was wedged into a small lot backing onto the churchyard of St. Mildred Poultry.
Inside, the prison consisted of overcrowded wards and cells to house the diverse occupants. There were no individual cells or any divisions between male and female inmates. All types were mingled together in cramped quarters.
Life Inside Poultry Compter
Poultry Compter held a wide variety of minor transgressors and unfortunates during its 300 year existence.
Many inmates were debtors too poor to pay their creditors. Conditions for these prisoners were miserable, as depicted in contemporary accounts.
Religious nonconformists made up another group held in the compter. Quakers, Puritans and others were imprisoned for their unorthodox beliefs.
Petty thieves, drunks, prostitutes and homosexuals also populated Poultry’s cells, sometimes for just a night until fines were paid.
Conditions and Reputation
As London grew more crowded, Poultry Compter’s unsavory conditions became notorious.
The cramped wards were packed with far too many occupants. Cells meant for a handful might hold twenty or more.
With no plumbing or sanitation, the compter was filthy, smelly and prone to disease. The air was fouled by the stench of unwashed prisoners.
Violence and crime thrived inside the prison walls. Unsegregated inmates faced threats from fellow prisoners forcing them to “garnish” or pay for protection.
Poultry Compter’s Role in the Anti-Slavery Movement
Granville Sharp’s Legal Fight
In the 1760s, Poultry Compter became involved in the fight to abolish slavery through the efforts of activist Granville Sharp.
Freeing of Jonathan Strong
When a slave owner imprisoned the falsely accused Jonathan Strong there, Sharp worked tirelessly to get him freed.
Appeals to the Lord Mayor
Sharp petitioned the Lord Mayor to release Strong and other slaves, since no warrant authorized their detention. His advocacy established important legal precedents.
Closure and Demolition
By the early 1800s, the insalubrious state of the prison could no longer be ignored.
Official Reports on Decay
In 1804, Poultry was described as too decayed and dangerous for continued use. The city recommended moving prisoners to the nearby Giltspur Street Compter.
Relocation of Prisoners
It took over a decade, but by 1815 prisoners were finally transferred out in preparation for closing Poultry Compter.
In 1817, the vacant prison buildings were pulled down after centuries of use. A chapel for the surrounding parish was erected on the site.
Conclusion – Legacy of Poultry Compter
For over 300 years, Poultry Compter housed London’s petty lawbreakers and dissenters in notoriously harsh conditions.
Impact on Prisoners and the Law
Thousands of inmates passed through the compter’s miserable confines. But important legal advances came from cases like Granville Sharp’s fight against slavery there.
Small but Important Role in History
Though it occupied a tiny footprint of land, Poultry Compter’s long existence touches many aspects of London’s rich history as it evolved from medieval to modern times. The importance of this small prison thus looms large.
When was Poultry Compter operational?
Poultry Compter operated as a jail from approximately the mid-1500s until 1815, when it was closed and prisoners relocated.
Who was imprisoned there?
Poultry Compter held debtors, religious dissenters, petty criminals like thieves and drunkards, and prostitutes.
What were conditions like?
The prison was notoriously overcrowded, unsanitary, disease-ridden and dangerous due to mixing of all types of inmates.
Why is it historically significant?
Poultry Compter provides insight into London’s legal system and social history. Its role in early anti-slavery cases also gives it importance.
What is presently on the site of the old prison?
Poultry Compter was demolished in 1817. A chapel known as St Mildred’s Church was built in its place and still stands today.