Palace, Prison and Poorhouse | The story of Bridewell in the City of London
Originally built as a Tudor palace, the name ‘Bridewell’ has now become synonymous with prisons around the world.
Today, the City of Westminster is associated with royal residences, with Buckingham and St James’s Palaces and Clarence House located in the borough. Although it’s been some time since British monarchs resided in the City of London, there are still reminders of former royal abodes to be found within the Square Mile. While the Tower of London is an obvious historic relic of the royal City, there is also another less noticeable remainder just over a mile away.
Situated on the busy A201 road, leading north from Blackfriars Bridge, is Bridewell Court. It consists of a 19th century gatehouse, which forms an entrance to an office building, currently home to a law firm. If you look above the archway, you’ll spot a clue to the site’s fascinating history: a relief portrait of King Edward VI (1537-1553).
Bridewell Palace was built in the 16th century on the site of St Bride’s Inn, on the banks of the River Fleet. It was a huge site, spanning south from the existing gatehouse towards where the Unilever building on the Embankment stands today. The structure was the main London residence for King Henry VIII (1491-1547) during the early part of his reign in 1515-1523 after acquiring the site from Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530). The palace complex comprised of three-storey royal lodgings surrounding two courtyards. A bridge led from the palace over the Fleet to the Dominican priory of Blackfriars. Henry and his first wife Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) lodged at Bridewell while the validity of their marriage was being debated at Blackfriars when the King was hoping to re-marry Anne Boleyn. By the 1530s, it was leased to the French Ambassador. Following Henry VIII’s death, the property passed onto the ownership of his son, Edward VI.
During his short reign, Edward VI gave Bridewell to the City authorities in 1553 to be used as a women’s prison, workhouse and orphanage for homeless children. Many of the female prisoners sent to Bridewell were prostitutes. By 1556, the complex also included a hospital. In 1557, Bridewell was paired with Bethlehem Hospital (aka ‘Bedlam’) in Bishopsgate for administrative purposes. However, as with most buildings in the area, the Bridewell complex was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but was rebuilt soon after.
By the end of the 17th century, the prison had both male and female prisoners, with many being flogged or sentenced to hard labour, such as beating hemp. By the late 1700s, Bridewell was the only London prison where inmates were allowed to use straw or bedding to sleep on. It was an ‘open prison’, so visitors could bring food, gin and money to their incarcerated friends and relatives. In 1843, Bridewell’s prisoners were described as “petty pilferers, misdemeanants, vagrants, and refractory apprentices” in Charles Knight’s London, Vol. 5 in 1843. Knight reported Bridewell had confined 1,342 prisoners in 1842, with many working the treadmill. It had a poor reputation with prison reformers, who complained convicts were highly likely to be corrupted at Bridewell and reoffend with more serious crimes upon release. Meanwhile, in a more positive light, the pupils studying at the Bridewell school (who came from impoverished backgrounds) were being taught a trade, such as shoemaking, glovemaking or weaving, to prepare them for adult life.
In the early 19th century, the existing gatehouse and adjoining building were erected to a design by architect James Lewis (1751-1820). The three-storey structure is a neo-classical design with a Portland stone façade. Doric pilasters span the 1st and 2nd storeys, with the building topped by pediment, with a coat of arms in the tympanum. The arched entrance features a keystone of Edward VI.
By the Victorian era, Bridewell was primarily known as a school. The prison was closed in 1855 with most of its inmates being transferred to Holloway. The prison buildings only survived a few years before being demolished. In 1867, the Bridewell school moved to Surrey and was renamed King Edward’s School after its founder, and still exists today.
Although the prison is long gone, the name Bridewell has subsequently become a popular name for jails both in the UK and internationally. It was used by Tothill Fields jail in Westminster and Clerkenwell, as well as others nationwide, along with others in Ireland, Canada and the US. Meanwhile, the existing gatehouse – known as Bridewell Court – on New Bridge Street is now Grade II* listed by Historic England.
- Bridewell Court, 14 New Bridge Street, City of London, EC4V. Nearest stations: City Thameslink or Blackfriars.
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