Throw yourself into the Clink

Ian Collins Even if you don’t fancy a night locked in the clink, as a paying guest of Brixton Prison’s governor, a day-time visit to the Clink might appeal. IAN COLLINS praises a London museum with a horrible history.

Ian Collins

Number One, Clink Street. The address alone explains the authentic nature of the exhibits. In the cellars of an old Southwark warehouse, relics, screens and models help to portray an earlier enterprise on this site: the Clink Prison. As well as telling the story of a single jail, the museum also outlines the origins of our penal system.

It tells us that in pagan times punishment was swift and savage, varying from cash settlement to mutilation to death. (Make mine a fine, please.)

In 816 AD the church introduced special premises for the correction of miscreant clerics. And when St Swithun, Bishop of Winchester, founded a “Colledg of Preestes” beside the Thames in 850 AD, the building would have included two kinds of monks' cells!

It was under Christian rule that the idea of imprisonment as a punishment for ordinary citizens took shape.

And while the process was in theory a vast improvement on what prevailed before, the Clink shows how things could go horribly awry in practice. In medieval times the Bishop of Westminster was as much a political figure as a religious one.

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And when the post went in 1144 to King Stephen's half-brother Henry de Blois - from the family long linked to Yoxford in Suffolk - a humble Thames-side building was transformed into a palace. Complete with its own prison, the palace was also at the centre of an 80-acre Liberty of the Clink - a red-light district where the bishop was virtually king.

Here he was surrounded by his knights, squires, clerks and valets. Here, too, he prospered from his rake-off on taverns, theatres, bearbaiting arenas and “stewes” - bathhouse brothels.

For centuries a jail in often-flooded and always-rat-infested vaults beneath the palace held martyrs and heretics, debtors, thieves, political prisoners, children and actors (Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was closed down in the puritan period).

There were also pimps and whores who had offended against the bishop's rules... or tried to cut him out of the profits.

Conditions were appalling. Cruel and poorly-paid jailers levied entrance and release fees. They charged inmates for board and lodging, for fitting manacles and leg irons and for anything else that came to corrupt minds.

As Chief Justice Montague declared in 1550: “The prisoner ought to live on his own goods.

“And if he have no goods he shall live on the charity of others, and if others will give him nothing them let him die in the name of God, for his own presumption and ill-behaviour brought him to that punishment.”

One ghastly engraving even shows a wild-looking man catching mice for food.

As we wander through a series of recreated prison sets, we hear jailers and inmates telling their terrible stories.

A musical soundtrack of Gregorian chants underlines that this torture chamber was both set up under a religious authority and filled with people of faith.

Clinking and clanking in chains, the confined wretches could also have their hands and feet clenched fast in stocks. So one prison acquired a name which in time was spread to all the others.

The Clink display includes a scold's bridle (a metal head-cage with spiked tongue-piece for silencing gossiping or complaining women), a foot crusher and a torture chair. As if just being in this hellish place wasn't bad enough...

We are invited to feel the weight of a ball and chain. And warned not to drop these heavy historical relics on our feet.

The Clink was often a last port of call for prisoners on their way to the gallows. For centuries the heads of villains - or of victims of a villainous system - were stuck on pikes and displayed on London Bridge.

But even hanging was sometimes regarded as too lenient a sentence. So the ever-inventive Henry VIII legitimised boiling in oil.

Alas, the first to suffer this barbaric fate was the Bishop of Rochester's cook. Perhaps the cook was punished for an unsatisfactory recipe, the Clink guide suggests in its one descent into death row humour.

Latterly incarcerating chiefly Roman Catholics and dissenters, the Clink was largely abandoned when finally burned down during the anti-Catholic riots of 1780.

Nine years later, in France, the storming of the Bastille was to have rather more sweeping consequences. No, a visit to Clink Prison Museum is not for the squeamish. Neither does it make for a light and bright day out.

But, slightly dodgy dramatisations aside, it does give a valid and instructive picture of Britain's violent past.

And however worried we may be about lawlessness these days, the Clink reminds us that cruel punishment can also be a wicked crime.

t Clink Prison Museum is open 10am-6pm on Monday to Friday, 10am-9pm Saturday and Sunday. Adult admission £5, children and concessions £3.50, family ticket £12. Nearest Tube: London Bridge or Monument. Website: