Tothill Fields Bridewell
The Tothill Fields Bridewell in Westminster, central London began in 1618 as a house of correction for minor offenders and debtors, but soon expanded into a key prison site housing notorious felons for over 250 years until its closure in the late 1800s. Its unique circular panopticon design embodied new ideals of constant surveillance and control.
From House of Correction to Major Prison
As with other “Bridewells”, named after the Bridewell Palace turned 16th century prison, Tothill Fields was intended to put able-bodied paupers and petty criminals to work through compulsory oakum picking, treading the treadmill and other menial tasks. But its role and capacity grew over the decades.
Expansion Under Queen Anne
After its expansion in 1655, Tothill Fields’ regime extended during Queen Anne’s reign to cover incarceration of major criminals too, becoming an important site of imprisonment in Westminster for debtors and felons alike.
Not Just for Petty Criminals and Debtors
Gone were its earlier roles as solely a house of correction and workhouse. As well as debtors, it now punished society’s convicted outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, housing them in separate gaols divided by gender. Harsh disciplinarian regimes were the norm.
The New Bridewell Prison
After centuries of use, the aging facilities were replaced entirely in 1834 by an imposing new prison built nearby to Jeremy Bentham’s innovative panopticon design, intended to maximize surveillance and control of inmates.
The Panoticon Layout
Bentham’s panopticon concept placed a central watchtower within a circular cell block, so that guards could monitor prisoners at all times without them knowing when they were being watched. The new Tothill Fields Prison embodied this idea, with a capacity for 900 inmates.
A Prison for Women and Youths
Despite the expansion, the new facilities struggled due to poor management. By 1850 only women and convicted boys under 17 remained incarcerated there, transferred from the other failing facilities, enduring its harsh disciplines until the prison’s eventual closure.
Notorious Inmates Behind Bars
Before its closure in 1877 and later demolition, Tothill Fields Bridewell housed many notorious and high-profile prisoners over the years, including:
Edward Despard – Convicted Traitor
Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was executed in 1803 for scheming to assassinate King George III. He spent his last days condemned in Tothill Fields, maintaining his innocence to the end.
Gregor MacGregor – Flamboyant Fraudster
A soldier, adventurer and confidence trickster, the flamboyant Gregor MacGregor was imprisoned at Tothill Fields in 1827 over his fraudulent “Poyais scheme”, which had duped investors into buying land in a fictional Central American territory he claimed to rule.
Other Notable Prisoners
Other Tothill Fields prisoners included artist John Trumbull, held on treason charges for revolutionary activities, James Tilly Matthews, who claimed the government was controlling his mind with a machine, and Samuel Drybutter, imprisoned for sodomy.
Closure and Legacy
The Tothill Fields site closed as a prison in 1877, its inmates transferring to Millbank. The buildings saw demolition by 1885. Today the impressive Westminster Cathedral occupies the site, reusing parts of the prison foundations, all that remains of the once notorious Bridewell.
Despite its harsh regime, Tothill Fields Prison represented both old and new approaches, housing petty and serious offenders for over 250 years. Its revolutionary panopticon design embodied new ideals of observation, control and discipline in incarceration.
As one of London’s most important and notorious prisons from 1500s to 1800s, the Tothill Fields Bridewell embodied both past penal models as a harsh workhouse through to modern surveillance ideals with its panopticon design. For many, its lasting legacy was simple – the imposition of strict work, punishment and restraints on liberty and dignity.
Why was it called Bridewell?
The name “Bridewell”came from the Bridewell Palace, which was converted into an early London prison and “house of correction” in the 1500s. Tothill Fields took this name to reflect its similar role and approach.
What was the treadmill?
A human-powered mechanism like a giant hamster wheel, the treadmill was used to grind grain. Prisoners were made to step continuously to power it – a form of hard labor.
Who was Jeremy Bentham?
Jeremy Bentham was an influential 18th-19th century British philosopher and legal reformer. He promoted the concept of the panopticon as an ideal, efficient prison design for observation and control.
What stands on the site today?
The impressive Westminster Cathedral now stands on the site of the former prison. Its foundations reuse some materials from Tothill Fields’ demolished buildings.
Did any prisoners escape?
Escapes would have been very difficult from the high-security panopticon structure, however at least one famous escape attempt was made by Colonel Edward Despard and his co-accused, though foiled by guards.