Wood Street Compter
The Wood Street Compter first opened its doors in 1555, after replacing the former Bread Street Compter prison. Located in the bustling commercial center of London, it was intended to temporarily hold debtors and petty criminals until their court appearances.
Notable Early Prisoners
Some of the Wood Street Compter’s first prisoners were minor offenders like public drunks and petty thieves. However, it also held more prominent figures like Captain George Orrell, a soldier imprisoned for sedition. Catholic martyr George Napper was also held there before his execution at Tyburn gallows outside the city.
Physical Structure and Layout
The Wood Street Compter was relatively small, with limited capacity, reflecting its status as mainly a debtors’ prison. The building likely enclosed one or more small courtyards with access to a well or communal latrines. Wealthier prisoners could pay the jailers for private rooms and other privileges.
Life Inside the Prison
In its early decades, the Wood Street Compter held mainly debtors, as well as people accused of minor infractions like public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and petty theft. Most spent a short time there before trial, so the population was continually changing.
Conditions and Privileges
Poorer prisoners likely faced grim, overcrowded cells with few comforts beyond basic food and water provisions. However, those with money could bribe jailers for alcohol, private rooms, and other luxuries. The quality of one’s stay often depended on personal wealth and status.
Destruction and Revival (1600s)
The Great Fire of London
In 1666, much of central London burned down in the Great Fire, including the Wood Street Compter. Prisoners were hurriedly evacuated as the building and surrounding neighborhood were reduced to ashes. The adjacent Poultry Compter was also destroyed.
Rebuilding in the Same Location
Despite the devastation, London soon began rebuilding efforts. The Poultry Compter reopened quickly in a new location. Wood Street Compter was also reconstructed in its original site off Wood Street, continuing without pause as a debtor and petty criminals’ holding pen.
Final Decades and Closure (1770s-1791)
As late as the 1770s, Wood Street Compter remained active as a debtors’ jail. Public notices show Londoners imprisoned there for unpaid gambling and clothing debts awaiting trial.
End of an Era
By 1791, city officials decided the aging Wood Street Compter was past its prime. It closed that year and was replaced by the newly constructed Giltspur Street Compter nearby. This marked the end of over 230 years of history at the Wood Street location.
Archaeological Search for Remains (Modern Era)
Development of One Wood Street Site
In recent decades, the One Wood Street office complex was developed on what was thought to be the former site of Wood Street Compter. This led archaeologists to scour the area, searching for artifacts or architectural ruins from the Tudor-era prison.
Lack of Physical Traces
Unfortunately, excavations uncovered no tangible remnants of the Wood Street Compter. Either the prison remains lie outside the searched development site, orDEMOLISHED DD centuries ago, leaving the centuries-old question of its exact location and layout a continued mystery.
For over 200 years, the Wood Street Compter played an important role housing London’s petty criminals, debtors, and religious dissenters. Though records confirm its existence on Wood Street from 1555-1791, archaeology has yet to uncover its physical footprint. The search continues for tangible traces of this lost slice of London history.
What was the typical population of the Wood Street Compter prison?
As mainly a debtors’ jail, the Wood Street Compter likely held several dozen prisoners at a time throughout its history. The population was continually shifting as most only spent a short time there before trial.
What privileges were available to wealthier Wood Street Compter prisoners?
Those with money could bribe jailers for alcohol, private rooms, extra food, servants, and other luxuries that made their stay more comfortable. Poorer prisoners faced overcrowding, grim conditions, and few comforts.
Why did city officials decide to close down Wood Street Compter in 1791?
After over 230 years in operation, the prison was aging, small, and outdated for London’s needs. It closed in 1791 when the larger, more modern Giltspur Street Compter opened nearby to replace it.
Have archaeologists found any remains of the Wood Street Compter?
Extensive excavations on what was thought to be the site of the old prison at One Wood Street found no structural remains or artifacts. Its exact location and layout continues to elude search efforts.
Could remnants of the original 1555 Wood Street Compter still survive underground?
It’s possible that foundations, walls, or debris lies preserved below the surface outside the currently searched development sites. Further digs may one day uncover tangible traces of the Tudor-era debtor’s jail.