Regency (H)Not Spots: Millbank Prison

I started reading Affinity by Sarah Waters, in conjunction with some lighter fare (including Heyerwood) which features Millbank Prison as a main location/character of the novel.

Originally constructed as the National Penitentiary, which was to include a holding facility for soon to be transported (to Australia) criminals, Millbank was opened in 1816 in Pimlico.  Students of architecture may be familiar with Jeremy Bentham, whose vision of the panoptican prison resulted in the Crown acquiring the land in 1799 for 12,000 pounds.  Adjacent to the Thames, the site was marshy and small.  Political changes in 1802 first saw the project abandoned, then hopes of Bentham revived in 1812 only to be dashed for lack of serious buy in to the Panoptican idea.

The Panoptican design was abandoned in 1812, Bentham signed over his title, and the Crown proceeded with plan to erect a prison on the site.  The first step was to hold an architectural competition, which drawing master William Williams (oh, what a fantastical name!) won.  The eventual design, battling against the marshy conditions with innovative concrete raft foundation, was not too far off from a Panoptican, albeit more like a Pan-hexagon.

The first prisoners, all women, were admitted on 26 June 1816.  Men were imprisoned at the site a year later.

By the end of 1817, Millbank housed 103 men and 109 women .  As sentences of five to ten years were offered in lieu of transportation, the population would steadily grow; there were 452 men and 326 women by late 1822.

The marshy site, compounded by poor prison diet and ventilation, saw many diseases run rampant.  In 1822-3 an epidemic swept through the prison, which seems to have comprised a mixture of dysentery, scurvy, depression and other disorders.

The design was also disastrously impracticall; the network of corridors was so labyrinthine that even the wardens (prison staff) got lost.  Furthermore, with an annual running cost of £16,000, plans to build a new prison at Pentonville in the 1840s saw Millbank’s status downgraded from National Penitentiary to, in 1843, a mere holding tank for prisoners awaiting transportation.

There is a lovely collection of contemporary Victorian descriptions of Millbank here:

Some fantastic images of Millbank can be seen here:

For more on cholera and Millbank:!prettyPhoto

Leigh’s Picture Book of London (1819) had this to say about the relatively new prison:

“They are kept regularly at work; and their religious and moral habits, as well as those of industry and cleanliness, are regularly attended to. The female prisoners are under the management of officers of their own sex, the governor himself being restricted by the rules from going round that part of the prison, except in the company of the matron or taskmistress. This circumstance merits particular notice, as the present is the first instance, in which it has been attempted in this country, to place any number of female prisoners under female…The demeanour, however, of the prisoners in the Penitentiary, is quiet and decorous (although some of them entered the prison with very bad characters in regard to their behaviour in the prisons from which they were removed;)…The prisoners appear very sensible of the pains which are taken for their improvement, and are in general thankful for the commutation of their sentences.”

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