Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published October 15th 2013
Go to Gaol - Don't Worry, Just Visiting
Clink Prison Museum
The Clink. The prison that was to name all others. Dating back from 1144, it is one of England's oldest museums, and undoubtedly the most notorious. It remained in use until 1780, when it was burnt down by The Protestant Association. Although never rebuilt, The Clink Prison Museum now stands on the original site, welcoming visitors who have a morbid curiosity.
I have walked past The Clink many times, but never considered going in. I expected that it would a similar experience to The London Dungeons, where characters take you on a tour through nineteenth century London. I'm not keen on that sort of theatrics, which is just as well, because The Clink Prison Museum is actually nothing like that.
So how did I end up in this place I never intended visiting? Well I had travelled to London Bridge for an altogether different purpose, to see The Golden Hinde. But upon arrival, I discovered that it did not open until 1.30pm. With an hour to spend, and The Clink Prison Museum right next door, it seemed like the logical answer.
While reading the details at the front of the building, two girls peered through the entrance and squeamishly scattered off at the sight of a less than convincing skeleton hanging from the ceiling. Not put off by this, I went down the steps to the ticket booth, where jailer was charging £7.50 for adults and £5.50 for children.
Henry of Blois
The Clink Prison was built on the grounds of Winchester Palace, which was owned by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen. It was known as 'The Clink' since the fourteenth century, and there are a number of theories as how the name came about. Some argue that it was named after clinking sound of the blacksmiths hammering away to make chains and manacles, while others think it comes from the Flemish 'klink', meaning 'latch'. This could refer to the prison door, hence the phrase to be 'thrown in the clink'.
If you were accused of committing a crime, you would first be put on trial. There were a number of ways of proving someone's guilt, and these included trial by fire and trial by water. The accused would either have to walk over hot ploughshares or retrieve an object from boiling water. If the wounds had not healed after three days, then they were deemed guilty.
The Clink had its own personal blacksmith, whose job it was to prepare the prisoners' restraints. The irons around the wrists and ankles were secured by inserting hot rivets that were melded in place and impossible to remove. The blacksmith made extra money by offering to make lighter irons for the prisoners at an added price.
The gaol keeper made profit in a similar way. He would charge prisoners for their cell, their bed, and blankets. He would also keep a percentage of the goods family members brought, such as food and drink. This proved a serious problem for the prisoners because there were no formal meals provided.
Although The Clink housed a lot of petty crooks, thieves, and con artists, many of the accused were totally innocent. For example, Ellen Butler moved to Bankside to work as a maid for a man called Thomas Boyd. She latter found out that the role was more unsavoury than had been advertised. After leaving his service, Boyd made false accusations against her, and she was sent to prison. Although it was illegal to force women into prostitution, it took three weeks for Ellen to make claims to the Lord Chancellor. During that time, she had to remain in prison, where she was at risk of all types of sickness. No one knows what eventually happened to her.
The Clink was a squalid place with very poor sanitation; Diseases such as were typhoid, dysentery, malaria, and typhus were common. One part of the prison was referred to as The Hole. It was literally a cellar where some prisoners were thrown in and forgotten about. Very few came out alive because flooding from the Thames, swallowed them up in sewage.
Not all criminals were sentenced to jail; the lucky ones were sent to the pillory (the stocks), where onlookers could throw rotten fruit, vegetables, and rancid meat at them. There was even a rotating version, in which four men would walk around like they were on a round-a-bout.
Father William Weston
During the Tudor period, one of the most common reasons to be sent to jail was because you had the 'wrong' faith. After Henry VIII initiated the dissolution Catholicism so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon, any opposition was dealt with harshly. By the time Mary I took the throne in 1553, Protestantism was strong, and the devout Catholic Queen was enraged. Two hundred and eighty-three Protestants were executed under reign. Things changed again in 1586, when the Protestant Elizabeth I became Queen. An assignation attempt led by three Catholic conspirators resulted in several arrests and executions. For example, Father William Weston, a friend of the men behind the plot, was imprisoned, but went on to perform Masses in jail. Although not executed he was transferred to another prison, where he spent many years in solitary confinement, which eventually resulted in madness.
As though the risk of disease was not bad enough, The Clink implemented many torture devices. The torture chair was designed to hold prisoners in place while various forms of punishment were carried out. The most gruesome chairs had five hundred sharp spikes covering the back and seat.
One 'minor' punishment device was called the scold's bridle, and was designed for shrewd low class women who spoke too much. The metal cage would be placed over their head with a tongue suppressor inserted into their mouth so they could not speak.
Some of the most painful torture instruments include the rack, catch pole, and heavy stones used for 'pressing'. Victims would be tied spread eagled on the floor while weights were laid on top of them. This would crush their ribcage and cause suffocation.
While some were left to rot in jail, others were sentenced to death. The most common form of execution was a hanging. Prisoners sent to the gallows would have a noose tied around their throat and left to suffocate. This could take up to half an hour unless a merciful friend sped things along by tugging at their legs. In 1868 public hangings were abolished, and prisoners were given 'long drop' hangings, which cause instant death.
If you were really unfortunate, you would go through the process of being hung, drawn and quartered. This began with your standard hanging, but then the prisoner would be let down before choking to death. They would then be drawn – gutted out while still alive, and made to watch as your innards were burned. After death the body would be hacked to pieces and put on display.
Beheadings were reserved for royalty (lucky them), because it was meant to be swift. Unless of course, the executioner botched it up, in which case decapitation could require several blows. The heads were put up on stakes to be seen by passers by.
Another way executed prisoners were displayed was by using a gibbet. This was a barrel-like cage that held the bodies of murderer's. It was hung up in a tree as a warning to wrongdoers. It was not until 1832 that the practice was abolished.
Although The Clink Prison Museum is macabre and perhaps a little gory, it is still a great family attraction. Children can learn fun facts and answer trivia questions asked by their cartoon rat buddy. At the end of the exhibit, you'll be asked how many rats you saw, and an interactive chalks board allows you to draw.
There is also a sensory mystery coffin. Do you have the courage to put your hand inside?
The gift shop is small but everything is reasonably priced. You can buy t-shirts from £6-£10, stationary and jewellery between 70p-£2.50, and toys between £2.50-£4.50.