By Sharon Whitley Larsen
"What did you do in London?" several friends inquired about my trip there.
"I went to jail!" I responded.
And I even had a photo of me behind bars to prove it.
While strolling in Southwark near the southern end of London Bridge, my husband Carl and I stumbled upon the Clink Prison Museum, claimed to be "one of England's oldest and most notorious between 1151 and 1780."
"Let's go in!" I said.
Funny that after some three dozen visits to London, my favorite city, I was unaware of this prison and didn't realize it was a popular tourist draw. The original prison building within nearby Winchester Palace walls was burned down (following release of the prisoners) in 1780 by Protestants during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. This section, on the site of a former men's prison, is open today for self-guided tours at a nominal fee.
The small, quirky jail is a hit with children's field trips, too. Not only educational, it is also entertaining and informative regarding the political, social, and religious climate from medieval times to Tudor and Elizabethan periods — through the late 18th century.
The dark, dungeon-type atmosphere is chilling, with replicas of former prisoners, various punishment tools, detailed display signs (which are even geared for children with special or humorous "Clink Kids" explanations) and tragic stories of life behind these bars.
Many of these prisoners in the 12th century had not been convicted but were merely accused of a crime — ranging from petty theft to poisoning — and "thrown in the Clink" while awaiting trial.
There was the Ordeal by Fire, where the accused was forced to walk across nine hot ploughshares or carry a scorching metal piece while walking nine paces. Ouch! And there was the Ordeal by Water, where the accused was ordered to retrieve an object from a pot of boiling water. Ouch again! After three days the wounds were checked: If they were healing well, the accused would be deemed innocent; if the wounds were festering, he or she was guilty.
Other torture treatments included sleep deprivation, extreme cold and the more horrendous: executions via burning at the stake, by hanging or by beheading (which was mostly reserved for royal family members).
This area was established as a borough around 886 and was known for its poor residents and crime. When the nearby Thames River experienced high tide, the jail would flood, leaving the prisoners waist-deep in putrid water (complete with sewage and rats). As you can imagine, that caused dysentery, typhoid and malaria. Just awaiting trial could kill you.
Privately run by the Bishop of Winchester, the Clink had a jail-keeper who charged the poor prisoners "gaol" (jail) fees — not only for admission but also for room (jail cell), bed and bedding, candles, food, water and even payment for the jailer who attached and removed their chains. Often prisoners were at the mercy of friends and family to provide meals.
So just what crimes did these unfortunate lock-ups commit? They ranged from drunkenness to debtors, from religious fanatics and heretics to thieves, traitors and murderers. In 1553 John Rogers was imprisoned here for two years for the crime of translating the Bible from Latin to English. Sentenced to death by the Catholic Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, he reportedly was cheerful about meeting his demise and his God. The devout Rogers was burned at the stake on Feb. 4, 1555.
Bishop Hooper, another prisoner who had paid more for an "upgraded room" for one night, did not leave a nice review: "They hath used me more vilely then the veriest slave. Put me in a ward, not even a bed, only a little pad of straw and a rotten covering of tick. One side the privy and all the filth of the house. The door locked and barred so none could hear my cries for help." Alas, he was later burned alive outside Gloucester Cathedral. Beware of leaving bad reviews!
Catherine Murphy, found guilty of counterfeiting in 1769, was the last prisoner to be executed by burning (although hanged first), which was abolished in 1770.
Visitors can learn about the pillory — which held a victim's head and hands still so he or she could be pelted with rotten vegetables, toilet waste or dead animals — the ultimate punishment by humiliation. And then there's the gallows. Hanging was the most common method of execution in the Clink.
The name "Clink" appears to derive from the sound of the blacksmiths' hammer "clinking" shut the metal irons on the prisoners' wrist or ankle chains. "Gaol" fees were abolished in 1815 and food was then provided for all prisoners. The Debtors Act of 1869 decreed that imprisonment for debt be abolished.
An "In Memoriam" list on one wall names some of the men and women imprisoned here between 1386 and 1712.
Oh! And about my photo behind bars? That's a souvenir included in the ticket price at the end of the tour — before one is released.
WHEN YOU GO
Due to Covid-19, check the website for reopening times: www.clink.co.uk.
This year a special new section commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims — dedicated to the story of the Clink prisoners who began the Independent Church, which led to the Mayflower journey to America. Also this year the Clink Prison plans to launch a new Mayflower Pilgrim guided tour.
The Clink Prison Museum in London is a hit with both children and adults. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.