English Justice: A Posh Prison Versus the Original 'Clink'

What comes to mind when you think of London? For me, it’s Big Ben, black cabs, cold rain, and a notorious prison for royalty.

Because I was in London covering a white collar crime conference, I thought I’d visit the Tower of London. After all, England serves as the original foundation for most of America’s laws and its criminal justice system.

Well, before I even visited, I learned in an e-mail from the press office that “while the Tower has served as a prison, they were generally important or high status prisoners, such as [three] queens of England—Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey—and Guy Fawkes for the Gunpowder plot. The Tower of London was never used as a standard prison for common criminals.”

Hmm, so what did a “standard prison for common criminals” look like? Enter The Clink Museum, which stands in place of the original prison in Southwark, England (now a London borough) called “The Clink.”

Both prisons had some overlap from the Middle Ages until about 1780, when the Clink was shut down.

Tower of London

The Tower was really only used as a prison for the 16th to 17th centuries for high-end clientele. Prisoners were expected to pay for the cost of their shackles and food. So if you were wealthy, it wasn’t that bad—except maybe for the being in prison part.

According to a fact sheet from the press office, the “Duchess of Somerset, for example, imprisoned at the Tower in 1551, lunched on mutton stewed with potage, boiled beef and mutton, roast veal, roast capon and two rabbits. For dinner she again ate mutton with potage (obviously a favourite dish) along with sliced beef, roast mutton, two rabbits and a dozen larks, all washed down with either beer or wine at a weekly cost of 77 shillings.”

Where do I sign up?

Traitors Gate

Pillow for Execution

View From the Tower

The Clink

Prisoners at The Clink were also charged for prisoners’ expenses, including shackles, bed, blanket, and rent, according to some signage at the museum. Food wasn’t provided and had to be brought in by families, but a portion of that was given to the prison keeper. If you didn’t have family, you begged for donations from strangers on the street.

I also learned in this museum that when the Thames River flooded, prisoners would just have to deal with it, sometimes standing in waist-deep water.

Seems to me there’s a clear class advantage here.



Entrance Sign