Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Southwark is infamous for the prisons that were located in the vicinity of Borough High Street – the Clink, the White Lion, the Marshalsea, Horsemonger Gaol and the King’s Bench Prison. This last prison was situated on what is now the corner of Borough High Street and Borough Road and now the site of a low rise housing estate with no trace remaining of its grim past.
The King’s Bench Prison dates back to the early 14th century and was initially intended to hold prisoners who were going through the judicial process in the King’s Bench Court. It was originally sited on the east side of Borough High Street and, along with the Marshalsea, was attacked by rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt and Jack Cade’s rebellion. In 1561 there were 71 prisoners, 13 of these were debtors and the remainder there for misdemeanours. By 1653, the number of prisoners had risen to 393 and these were mostly debtors. Conditions were not good, in 1624 80 prisoners had died from starvation in the preceeding 12 months. Complaints of extortion and overcrowding led to a Parliamentary enquiry in 1754 which found evidence of over-crowding and mistreatment. As a result, a new prison was built on St George’s Fields on the west side of Borough High Street.
The new prison consisted of 224 rooms with eight large state-rooms and a chapel. The prison did not operate in the way prisons do today and within the prison walls there were a coffee-house, two public houses, shops and stalls for meat and vegetables. It was estimated 120 gallons of gin and eight butts of beer were drunk in a week. The grounds of the prison covered the whole of St George’s Fields, an area with a circumference of approximately 3 miles, and known as “the rules”. Prisoners who were able paid a sum of money to the keeper and in exchange were allowed their liberty anywhere within the “rules”, even to take up a separate residence. Those with less money were able to purchase a “day pass”. The system led to a Mr W Smith writing in 1776 that “Many prisoners … occupy rooms, keep shops, enjoy places of profit, or live on the rent of their rooms a life of idleness, and being indulged with the use of a key go out where they please, and thereby convert a prison into an alms-house for their support.”
The prison was burnt down by the Gordon Rioters in 1780 but was quickly rebuilt. The apparent laxness of the prison led to it being described as “the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England.” But that was for those prisoners with money. Enforcement of the regulations could be lax but equally they could be enforced with violence. It is estimated that whilst perhaps one third of prisoners lived “in the rules”, the remaining two thirds lived within the prison walls. By the early nineteenth century, the keeper received £3590 per year: £872 from the sale of beer and £2,823 from income derived from “the rules”.
In 1842 the Marshalsea was closed and the running of the King’s Bench, now Queen’s Bench Prison, came under the jurisdiction of the Home Secretary. All payment of fees was banned and so too were all privileges. A prisoner had to support himself if he was able, those who were unable to do so were maintained by the state. An observer in 1850 wrote that the impression of prisoners “is that of pain and melancholy. Dirt and idleness, with all their attendant vices, meet the visitor at every turn.”
The prison closed in 1869 when the imprisonment of debtors was ended. Scovell Road was formed and the cleared site acquired in 1879 by builder J W Hobbs where he built huge blocks of model dwellings called Queen’s Buildings. The blocks were six or seven storeys high, much higher than the previous prison buildings and walls. An entry in St George the Martyr's Annual Report of 1898 described the estate as being built over three acres of land and comprising 700 tenements, a tenement being a "suite" comprising 2, 3 or 4 rooms. The residents were described as nomadic and half the people visited by the church were no longer there seven months later. A quick look at the census shows a mix of artizans, police, the semi-skilled, and labourers. Ventilation was inadequate and the buildings blocked out the sun on every side that rendered the lower floors gloomy even on bright days. The estate suffered some bomb damage in World War II and was demolished as unfit for human habitation in 1977. The Queen’s Buildings, Scovell Road website, compiled by a former resident, has some unique photographs and insights about living there.
Southwark Council acquired the site and built the well-designed, low rise Scovell Road estate. Said to be a quiet and pleasant place to live, it is now part privately owned and part council rented