The Clink

The Clink

Nestled along the south bank of the River Thames stands the site of one of London’s most notorious prisons—The Clink. For over 600 years, The Clink incarcerated religious dissenters, debtors, and criminals in harsh conditions at the blighted heart of medieval Southwark. Though only a museum remains today, The Clink still clings to its lingering reputation as one of England’s oldest and most miserable prisons.

The Early Days of The Clink

A Prison Takes Shape in Saxon Southwark

The origins of The Clink hark back over a thousand years to the early medieval period. As early as 860 AD, the Bishop of Winchester constructed a rudimentary prison with a single cell in Southwark, known at the time as Suthriganaweorc or “fortified enclosure to the south.” This cell likely imprisoned clergy who had broken rules at the nearby St. Mary Overie Priory.

The Liberty of the Clink Under the Bishops

After the Norman conquest, Southwark became known as the Liberty of the Clink, an area controlled directly by the Bishop of Winchester rather than the monarch. The bishops, needing a London residence close to the royal court, built the grand Winchester Palace there between 1144-1149. As administrators of the Liberty, the bishops could imprison people who failed to pay taxes, fines, and levies.

See also  HM Prison Finnamore Wood

Possible Origins of the Name “Clink”

But where did this prison get the name The Clink? Some believe it comes from the rattling chains and clinking bolts that echoed through its walls. Others say it’s simply onomatopoeic – “clink” perfectly captures the sound of locks slamming shut behind new prisoners.

A Prison Grows Around Winchester Palace

As Winchester Palace expanded, so did its prison facilities. By the late 12th century, the bishops had powers to scourge, isolate, or starve prisoners. The Clink grew into a warren of dank cells infested with vermin, housing prisoners manacled in heavy irons. Accounts tell of miserable living conditions and corrupt guards extracting payments for “privileges.”

The Wretched Lives of Prisoners

Heretics Under Lock and Key

As head of the Catholic church in England, the Bishop of Winchester would often imprison religious dissidents and heretics at The Clink. Early Protestants like Anne Askew suffered for their faith inside its walls in the 16th century. Catholics priests also endured confinement in later years as political winds shifted.

Wealthy Prisoners Could Buy Comforts

Conditions at The Clink were so squalid that wealthier prisoners resorted to bribing guards to improve their stay. With enough money, they could acquire private rooms, beds, candles—even permission to leave and work! For poorer prisoners, overcrowded cells, prisoner chains, and starvation rations were the norm. They often had to beg from street grates for survival.

A Wretched Debtors’ Prison

By the 17th century, The Clink transformed into a holding pen for debtors. But whether one was a heretic or debtor, daily life centered on barely surviving The Clink’s infestations, infections, and rampant corruption. The prison operated based on bribes, cruelty, and neglect right up until its destruction.

See also  HM Prison Ranby

Famous Inmates Behind Bars

Despite the misery, The Clink occasionally held some famous personages. 16th century poet William Alabaster wrote some of his earliest verse within The Clink. Catholic priest John Gerard was imprisoned several times for his forbidden faith. The martyr Anne Askew also spent time there before her execution at the stake.

The Decline and Demise of The Clink

Rioters Torch The Prison in 1450

The Clink experienced several destructive fires during its history. The first major blaze occurred during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1450. Violent rioters overran Southwark, murdering several clergymen before burning Winchester Palace and The Clink to the ground. The buildings were later rebuilt and enlarged.

Gradual Abandonment in the 1700s

By the early 18th century, The Clink decayed from disuse and overcrowding. Public stocks and whipping posts were removed due to maintenance costs. A temporary prison opened nearby in 1745, likely replacing the rotting and unusable Clink. Only two prisoners seem to have occupied it by the 1730s.

Destruction in the Gordon Riots, 1780

The final curtain fell on The Clink during the violent anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in June 1780. For days, rioters rampaged through London burning Catholic chapels and aristocratic homes. The Clink was torched on June 7th, destroying it completely. Due to the devastation, it was never rebuilt again.

The Notorious Legacy of The Clink

Corruption, Violence and Misery

In many ways, The Clink represented the worst aspects of medieval English prisons. Gross mistreatment of poorer prisoners contrasted sharply withprivileges afforded to the wealthy. Violence and deprivation were rampant. Its reputation for misery Echoed through the centuries in literature and popular memory.

See also  HM Prison Whitemoor

Enduring in Folklore and Language

Though The Clink was leveled over 240 years ago, its name became common slang for jails throughout the English-speaking world. To be “in the clink” still conjures images of unjust imprisonment accompanied by suffering. The very word “clink” comes from the ominous rattling of prisoners’ chains within its walls.

Today’s Clink Prison Museum

While The original Clink disappeared long ago, its notorious legacy remains. A museum opened on the archaeological site displaying The Clink’s artifacts and recreating its harsh conditions. Tourists can descend into the claustrophobic prisoner pits or view relics like cramped stocks and torture devices, remnants echoing The Clink’s centuries of misery.


For over 600 years, The Clink embodied some of England’s darkest practices involving religious persecution, judicial corruption, and prisoner exploitation. Though only an empty lot with a small museum now stands on the site, the word “Clink” continues to evoke its bleak heritage of wretched confinement. The Clink remains an infamous chapter in London’s long history.


Q: When was The Clink prison built?

A: The Clink prison likely began as a single cell built by the Bishop of Winchester in 860 AD. It grew over the centuries into a larger prison adjoining Winchester Palace between 1144-1149.

Q: Who owned and operated The Clink?

A: As part of the Liberty of the Clink, The Clink was owned and operated by the Bishop of Winchester from the medieval period until its destruction in 1780.

Q: What was daily life like for prisoners?

A: Poorer prisoners endured miserable conditions including overcrowding, infestations, disease, and starvation rations. Wealthier prisoners could bribe guards for better treatment.

Q: How did The Clink finally meet its end?

A: The Clink was burnt down by anti-Catholic rioters in June 1780 during the Gordon Riots. It was never rebuilt after its destruction.

Q: Where is The Clink located today?

A: Today, The Clink Prison Museum sits near the archaeological site of the original Clink prison in Southwark, London. Visitors can see reconstructed cells and prison artifacts.

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