Coldbath Fields Prison
Updated: May 27, 2018
Coldbath Fields Prison was founded under the reign of James I in the 1600's, and rebuilt and restored in 1794, formerly known as Clerkenwell Gaol “The Steel”.
Built with the designs of prison reformer John Howard in mind, a humanitarian approach was taken with a focus of solitude cells which in turn would lower the spread of disease and infection, and would allow for the prisoners to focus on inner reflection and repentance. But the prison became infamous for it's strict regime of silence, and the use of the treadmill as a form of punishment.
Coldbath Fields housed those charged with felony, vagrancy and misdemeanour, a maximum of 1250 people (a mixture of men, women and children until 1850) for up to 2 years, with an annual charge of £21 per prisoner, per year!
Early history of the site known as Mount Pleasant was in fact a Laystall, and from the 16th to the 19th centuries, this area was where Gong Farmers would dump all the human waste they collected from Londons cesspits, nice, it was then cleared to make room for a prison. The term Coldbath links back to a nearby medical spring found in the 17th century, a private bath advertised the spring had many a healing property.
Punishment at the prison is how Coldbath Fields is sadly remembered for, and it was pretty gruelling. The silence system was introduced pretty early on by the first Governor Thomas Aris (his name crops up again below), which meant hard labour must be completed in complete silence; words, gestures or any signs of any kind were banned.
The treadmills were also another form of punishment for the prisoners too. Invented by Sir William Cubitt to "reform stubborn and idle convicts", prisoners could spend up to 7 hours on these contraptions, climbing up to 14,000 feet per day. And at first they did absolutely nothing. It was punitive, there just to punish prisoners. It's said that some could be linked up with the ability to grind grain, pump water or operate a ventilation system later.
Oscar Wilde wrote about his time on the treadmill whilst at Pentonville prison, and he described it as nearly killing him. This was in 1895, he was transferred to Wandoworth and then released in 1897, and sadly died 2 years later.
Other forms of punishment here were to pick hemp ropes into oakum, which could be used to fill the gaps between timbers of ships, and to separate the fibre of the coir of coconut shells.
Delving a little deeper and looking into the deaths at Coldbath Fields prison is pretty harrowing too.
376 deaths were recorded between 1795 and 1829 (a period of 35 years) with most being men between 20-29. This is shocking as I mentioned early most prisoners spent a maximum of 2 years here, but the average was in fact only 6 weeks. 123 of the deaths were recorded as "cause not stated", 69 "visitations from God" and 68 "decay of nature".
Coldbath Fields Riots were well publisized at the time, primarily because it was the first major clash between the newly formed Metropolitan Police and the public (they weren't so welcomed in London). On the 13th of May 1833, the NUWC (National Union of the Working Class organised a demonstration against the 1832 Reform Act, where a few more men were able to vote, but not the NUWC.
Large crowds gathered in the area, with speeches out of the back of wagons and voices being heard. The police arrived, shouting and generally causing tension and panic, eventually trapping some protestors down a street who attempted to fight their way out. Three police officers were killed, with one sadly dying. The murderer wasn't caught and the jury, made up of local shopkeepers and home owners, ruled it as homocide as police provoked the crowd. As the jury generally reflected local peoples thoughts, they were hailed heroes, with a riverboat trip arranged for them and their families down the Thames, and it's said that crowds lined the bank cheering. Very strange.
Back to the prison, and it's mention in literature of the day.
“The Devil’s Walk” by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a dark poem mentions the prison as such;
"As he passed through Cold-Bath Fields
he looked at a solitary cell,
and he was well pleased for it gave him a hint
for the improving the prisons of hell.
“The Last Cab Driver” sketches by Boz also features the prison. The author Charles Dickens, includes a crazy angry cab driver whose fed up with the public complaining and making threats about his high fare; his opercular temper is a result from his time spent in Coldbath Fields prison. Dickens himself had links to Coldbath and most likely visited it himself, and had a few friends with governors of other London prisons.
Famous inmates who spent time at Coldbath include the Cato Street Conspirators, and also Colonel Edward Despard was imprisoned here before being executed. His failed conspiracy to assassinate George the 3rd in 1802 led to his execution in the following year - said to be the largest public gathering (up to 20,000) until the funeral of Lord Nelson 2 years later!
Although the tendency is to focus on the prisoners in such a sense, an insight into the staff at Coldbath Fields prison is of great interest. They were paid incredibly low, at around 6 shillings per week (labourers were on 9-12 shillings, with skilled labourers being around double!). They worked the same hours as the inmates and most actually lived inside the prison too.
Thomas Davis, a staff member of the prison, approached the committee to ask for a higher pay to compensate his recent blindness saying "through night watching last winter...spent too long watching".
Another interesting character is Governor Thomas Aris who I mentioned earlier. His repeatedly ability to pay staff on time got him quite a name (as well as his idea of strict silence!), and following on from that, an investigation launched in 1799 as Thomas was borrowing substantial sums of money from his prisoners, one of which escaped!
The prison closed in 1885, and transferred to the Post Office in 1889, with the last sections of the prison being demolished in as late as 1929.
At one point it was the largest sorting office in the UK, and was connected to other major post offices and railway stations by the London Post Office Railway.
Today it's also home to a museum, which opened in 2017, and also gives you a change to explore the railway!