Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Clink

Thursday 3 April 2014

Mary is back with us, hooray, and the three of us met in what will one day - though not quite yet - be the wonderful London Bridge Station, under the Shard.  I was the earliest, since the TfL website had told me to allow an hour for a journey by Number 17 bus which actually took 32 minutes.

We were going to visit The Clink, a museum about early prisons.

We walked along to the remains of the Bishop of Winchester's Palace, which once included the prison as one of its many amenities.  The Museum is 'on the site of' rather than the original.

I think all three of us were expecting it to be rather lurid and gory, and so were pleasantly surprised by the displays and the information.  This was the first time in the project so far that we had paid to enter a museum, but we felt it was worth while!  A school party (or at least a group of young people escorted by some adults) arrived after us but as is the way of things, they rapidly swept through and left us to read the various boards and study the objects in peace.

Many of the objects were found in the mud of the Thames, and the Museum thanks the Society of Thames Mudlarks for its donations and loans.

The children's information is given by rather an endearing rat at the bottom of most of the displays, and the museum starts with a description of Southwark, notoriously a 'den of thieves, rogues, vagabonds and harlots'.  Or it was:  now that the average property price in the borough is almost half a million pounds, the profile may be changing.  

The first displays are to the accompaniment of church music, to drive home the fact that it was Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, who started the prison:  there is a model blacksmith making fetters for the prisoners.  The sound effects continue throughout, children weeping, and tortured prisoners moaning.

'Winchester geese' was the name used for the prostitutes who worked this side of the river, who were expected to wear white aprons and yellow caps.  And the unpleasant side effects which some of their clients experienced were known as 'being pecked by a Winchester goose'.  A number of the women finished up in the gaol and, dying in prison, were not entitled to Christian burial.  Obviously the Bishop and his successors had a slightly skewed view of Christian morality.

There was, predictably, quite a large section on torture, including everyday punishment objects like the Scold's Bridle and the stocks, but also some thought provoking and curiously relevant discussion of torture as a means of interrogation.  One display board gave a list of scenarios and asked which ones would justify the use of torture to get information.

Torture in Britain during the lifetime of the Clink, was all mixed up with religion and again, it all felt rather up to date, with the Catholics being seen as traitors, after the Pope issued his 'fatwah' in 1570, saying that anyone who assassinated Elizabeth I would go straight to heaven.  So two of the suspects in the Babington Plot were imprisoned here, though not their leader, who was in the Tower.

As the politics and religion of the 16th century swung to and fro, both Puritans and Catholics were dealt with in the Clink, but political dissidents were not the only category of prisoner: from 1283 onwards, imprisonment for debt was the law.  In the eighteenth century, there  was a prisoner who called himself the 'Father of the Clink' and we thought Dickens had probably adopted this reference while writing about the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit.

There was quite a section about the anti-Catholic Riots of 1780, because Gordon's followers set fire to the Clink and it was never reopened afterwards.  But the Museum does go on to talk about the reforms of the next century, with the end of Gaol fees in 1815, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt in 1869.

We left at 11.15, having had an entertaining and interesting forty five minutes.

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