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The Middlesex House of Correction

Roy Walker

Royal Mail's Mount Pleasant Sorting Office in Rosebery Avenue stands on the site of one of London's notorious prisons – the Middlesex House of Correction commonly known as Cold Bath Fields Prison after the nearby well. It was built in 1794 and although later noted for its strictness and severity was built to a scheme recommended by the prison reformer, John Howard. It housed prisoners of both sexes.

B. Lambert in his History and Survey of London and its Environs, 1806, describes the then newly-built prison as being; erected on a swamp thus requiring extra special foundations so deep that "it is supposed there are as many bricks laid underground as appear in sight."

It was divided into separate cells (as recommended by Howard) each being just over 8ft by 6ft in size with two windows in each about 2 feet square, one over the door, the other 7 feet high on the wall facing the door, with wooden shutters for the use of the prisoner.

There were in total two hundred and eighteen cells, sixteen with just the window above the door for "refractory prisoners". In addition there were twelve double cells for two prisoners sharing as well as larger rooms used as workrooms, the infirmary and a spinning room for the female prisoners.

There were eight yards for "occasional access" and "eight airing grounds to which the offenders of the least criminality have free access."  Prisoners could pay ten shillings and sixpence a week to hire a suite of two rooms "if they chose".

Surprisingly, the Chapel was spacious enough to contain "the whole number of prisoners which can be accommodated in the cells."   The prisoners were employed in various trades and activities - carpentry, shoemaking, tailoring, spinning and oakum picking and drying.

No doubt John Howard was satisfied with the benevolent regime at Cold Bath Fields Prison  However, in 1822 came the  treadmill and in 1834, the silent  system.   Its reputation as a notorious place of imprisonment might have been achieved quite early on as in 1799 Coleridge, in ‘The Devil's Thoughts’, had written:        

As he went through the Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in Hell.

This implies that Howard's ideal of single cells was not such a good idea from the prisoners' point of view, the Devil favouring it as a suitable imposition for his victims. Some drawings of the prison do actually show communal dormitories so a change must have been made later in the prison's life.

Its most famous Prisoners were the Cato Street conspirators held there in 1820 prior to removal to the Tower and execution. They were in theory the last to be judicially beheaded as a knife was used to remove their heads after execution by hanging. They had planned to murder the entire Cabinet when dining at Grosvenor Square but were betrayed.

The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889. However, chilling reminders of its existence are displayed in the Museum of London.

The Middlesex House of Correction

The earliest human occupation of Britain

The demise of Peter of Colechurch's London Bridge

The enduring fascination of the mammoth

Further excavations at Winchester Palace, Southwark

London Before London:
The Iron Age of London

Survival or introduction? Romanitas in Britain after AD410


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copyright © COLAS 2011