Long Lost Dread: The Millbank Penitentiary

Overlooking the river Thames on Millbank, the Tate Britain gallery enjoys a pleasant and relatively tranquil location.

Tate Britain in 2015

Tate Britain in 2015

It may come as some surprise therefore to learn that the site was once occupied by an altogether different building; a place of dread and great suffering known as the Millbank Penitentiary.

The Millbank Prison in the 19th century

Millbank Penitentiary in the 19th century

By the 18th century, long term incarceration, hard labour and transportation to Australia were becoming increasingly popular punishments (as opposed to more traditional forms such as the stocks and public beatings).

The gaols and hulks (prison ships) however were ill equipped to deal with the increasing numbers of convicts and found themselves plagued by bad-management, overcrowding and brutality, the dire consequences of which led campaigners to push for reform.

Overcrowding in Newgate Prison, 1735

Overcrowding in Newgate Prison, 1735

Once such proponent of change was Jeremy Bentham, a forward thinking philosopher and social reformer who played a key role in founding London University, the institution which would go on to become today’s University College London.

Jeremy Bentham by Henry Pickersgill

Jeremy Bentham by Henry Pickersgill

Rather bizarrely, Bentham’s preserved body is kept on public display in the university to this day… click here to see a rather unsettling 360-degree view!

Believing prisoners should be held in a safe, clean- albeit tough- environment, Jeremy Bentham drew up plans for a new type of gaol- the Panopticon; a circular prison in which cells are arranged around a single watch tower.

Plan of Bentham's Panopticon, 1791

Plan of Bentham’s Panopticon, 1791

Taking its name from the Greek for ‘all seeing’ and described by Bentham as “a mill for grinding rogues honest,” the theory behind the Panopticon was that the constant surveillance of inmates would condition them to behave.

How a prisoner's cell would have looked out upon the Panopticon's watchtower

How a prisoner’s cell would have looked out upon the Panopticon’s watchtower

Looking to put his proposal into practice as Britain’s first national penitentiary, Bentham purchased a marshy patch of land by the Thames in 1799. The area was named ‘Millbank’- after a mill which once belonged to Westminster Abbey and stood on the site.

Millbank c. 1800 (image: British History website)

Millbank c. 1800 (image: British History website)

After numerous obstacles however Bentham’s scheme was abandoned and in 1812 a competition was held to find a new design.

This was won by William Williams, a military man based at Sandhurst, whose idea was taken on by architect, Thomas Hardwick… who resigned in 1813. Hardwick was replaced by John Harvey… who was sacked in 1815.

Finally, the increasingly troublesome project was handed over to Robert Smirke, the architect who would later go onto design the British Museum.

Robert Smirke, 1814

Robert Smirke, 1814

Being marshy, the prison’s chosen site presented many problems for builders when it came to setting foundations. Smirke tackled this by laying a large concrete raft into the sodden ground. Unsurprisingly, costs began to run high, finally totalling half a million pounds (approximately £17 million in today’s money).

When it finally opened in June 1816 the Millbank Penitentiary was the largest prison in Britain.

Forged from Scottish Collalo stone, the penitentiary was set out in a hexagonal shape encompassing six petal shaped wings, each three stories high and each containing five courtyards, all of which surrounded a single chapel in the centre.

Contemporary plan of the Millbank Penitentiary

Contemporary plan of the Millbank Penitentiary

If this layout sounds confusing, then that’s because it was- even the guards struggled to navigate their way around the grim labyrinth.

A revealing description of the penitentiary was printed in the Penny Illustrated Paper in October 1865:

If the ground-plan of the building at Millbank is a geometrical puzzle, the interior is assuredly an eccentric maze. Long, dark and narrow corridors and twisting passages, in which the visitor unaccustomed to the dubious twilight has to feel his way; double-locked doors opening at all sorts of queer angles, and leading sometimes into blind entries and frequently to the stone staircases… so steep and narrow are not unlike the devious steps by which the traveller reaches the towers of Strasbourg and some other cathedrals, except that they are even more gloomy.

Steps inside Strasbourg Cathedral, which were said to resemble those within the Millbank Penitentiary (image: Midnight Cafe)

Steps inside Strasbourg Cathedral, which were said to resemble those within the Millbank Penitentiary (image: Midnight Cafe)

The first group of prisoners to enter the Millbank Penitentiary were all female, the first male contingent arriving seven months later in January 1817. Although sentenced to transportation, these convicts were considered capable of redemption and had therefore been offered jail sentences of 5 to 10 years in lieu of banishment to Australia’s Botany Bay.

Millbank Penitentiary in the 1820s

Millbank Penitentiary in the 1820s

In hindsight however those sent to Millbank may have wished they’d been shipped to Oz after all.

Conditions in the newly built complex were atrocious, with minimal rations of bread and water, a mere five minutes of exercise per day and the formation of “jealous cabals” amongst the wardens which encouraged a “system of malicious tale bearing.”

A prisoner in his cell...

A prisoner in his cell…

Worse was to come though, with regular outbreaks of cholera, malaria, dysentery and scurvy thriving within the poorly sanitised gaol.

The Morning Chronicle gave a damming report of conditions in July 1823:

The two chief sources of disease, incident to man, are marsh-miasmata and human effluvia. In the Penitentiary these sources are not only combined but concentrated. It is seated in a marsh, beneath the bed of the river, through which the vapours from stagnant water are constantly exhaling.

The effluvia from the mass of human beings confined within its walls cannot dissipate from deficient ventilation. These causes operating upon a crown of persons, whose minds are depressed by the prospect of lingering confinement, cannot fail to produce all the disease which take place in the Lazar-house; scrophula, scurvy, prostration of strength, and fever of the worse description.

To these sources of disease must be added the malaria from the muddy banks of the river, which renders the whole vicinity unhealthy…

There is but one remedy- to place as much gun powder under the foundation as may suffice to blow the whole fabric into the air. Whether it would be an act of humanity, previously to the removal of the prisoners, may be a fit subject for discussion by those sapient persons who first sanctioned the erection of such a structure on such a site.

Others dubbed the prison “an English Bastille” and noted that Jeremy Bentham would have been horrified by the monstrous design which had replaced his original, forward thinking vision.

'Convict Life at Millbank Penitentiary' (image: Penny Illustrated News)

‘Convict Life at Millbank Penitentiary’ , 1865 (image: Penny Illustrated News)

The awful conditions within the Millbank Penitentiary are illustrated by the death of an inmate called Henry Harror, a 24 year old who’d been imprisoned for stealing a horse. In a report, Henry’s body was described as “a skeleton presenting nothing but skin and bone.”

Millbank Penitentiary's burial ground, 1860s

Millbank Penitentiary’s allotment and burial ground, 1860s


As well as disease, stench and hunger, prisoners were expected to remain silent at all times, and those breaking the rules could expect solitary confinement, shackling or whipping- although this fierce reprimand was reserved for those committing offences of “exceptional violence and brutality.”

The 'Chain Room' at Millbank... (image: Victorian London.org)

The ‘Chain Room’ at Millbank… (image: Victorian London.org)

Considering these conditions it’s perhaps no surprise that numerous escape attempts were made – such as two “notorious fellows”, Meggs and Carey who succeeded in fleeing after leaving dummies- complete with nightcaps- tucked in their beds.

Dummy head... this one was used in the 1962 breakout from Alcatraz. Clearly a vital tool for inmates looking to escape!

Dummy head… this one was used in the 1962 breakout from Alcatraz in the USA. Clearly a vital tool for inmates looking to escape!

After crawling through a ventilation hatch, scaling the wall and donning soldier’s uniforms, the pair managed to flag down a hansom cab which whisked them away. Despite their efforts however the two fugitives were quickly recaptured the following day on Britannia Street near King’s Cross.


By May 1843 the prison had sunk into such degradation that Parliament decided the facility was no longer fit for holding inmates long-term.

The ‘model prison’ role was taken over by Pentonville which had opened on Caledonian Road in 1842, leaving the Millbank Penitentiary to be demoted to a “general depot for all convicts”; a holding facility in which those sentenced to transportation were held (usually for three months) until a place became available on one of the dreaded prison ships bound for the Australian penal colony.

Caged convicts on a ship bound for Australia. The average journey time to the penal colony was 102 days

Caged convicts on a ship bound for Australia. The average journey time to the penal colony was 102 days

One of the first send-offs in early 1844 was described in the London Illustrated News:

A large number of convicts, under sentence of transportation were removed from the Millbank prison and placed on board the Blundell and the London transport ships… the London (a fine vessel of 700 tons burden) takes out 250 of the lighter class of offenders, and is bound for Hobart Town. The Blundell carries 210 of the worse class, her destination being the penal settlement of Norfolk Island.


Two years after the prison’s switchover to transportation duties, the nearby Morpeth Arms pub opened next door, mainly for the refreshment of the prison’s wardens.

The Morpeth Arms (image: Google)

The Morpeth Arms (image: Google)

The pub survives today and legend has it that a network of vaults beneath the building are the remains of an old service tunnel (haunted by a former inmate, naturally), used to escort prisoners from the gaol to the riverbank for their departure.

Tunnel beneath the Morpeth Arms (image: Morpeth Arms website)

Tunnel beneath the Morpeth Arms (image: Morpeth Arms website)

Some believe prisoners nicknamed this procedure “going down under” which in turn led to the popular colloquial term for Australia. Although other sources suggest prisoners were marched above ground via the prison’s main gate, thus making Millbank the last piece of British soil convicts would be in contact with.

It is also said another Aussie slang term; ‘pom’ is an abbreviation of ‘Prisoner of Millbank’…

P.O.M 'Prisoner of Millbank...' The uniform worn by those held in the Millbank Penitentiary  was "rust brown" in colour with a purple stripe

P.O.M ‘Prisoner of Millbank…’ The uniform worn by those held in the Millbank Penitentiary was “rust brown” in colour with a purple stripe


Transportation continued until the late 1860s by which point around 162,000 men and women had been sent to Australia.

Convicts bound for Botany Bay, 1794

Convicts bound for Botany Bay, 1794

Today, a bollard used to moor boats which would transfer convicts downstream to the awaiting, larger prison ships at Woolwich Arsenal can still be spotted beside the Thames, just across from Tate Britain.

The Millbank bollard, a small reminder of the former prison

The Millbank bollard, a small reminder of the former prison


Once transportation ceased in 1867 the Millbank Penitentiary reverted to being a regular gaol and then, in 1870 a military prison.

During this period, one of the inmates was Michael Davitt, an Irish Republican prisoner who wound up in Millbank as a young man.

He described hearing the chimes at Westminster; the Houses of Parliament being a short distance away:

Westminster Clock is not far distant from the penitentiary, so that its every stroke is as distinctly heard in each cell as if it were situated in one of the prison yards… day and night it chimes…and those solemn tones stroke on the ears of the lonely listeners like the voice of some monster spirit singing the funeral dirge of Time…

Contemporary sketch showing the proximity of Millbank Penitentiary to the Houses of Parliament

Contemporary sketch of the Thames showing the proximity of Millbank Penitentiary to the Houses of Parliament


The Millbank Penitentiary finally closed in 1890 and the lengthy demolition process commenced two years later.

In 1899 whilst the prison was still being flattened, sugar magnate, Sir Henry Tate donated his collection of 65 paintings to the government along with a donation of £80,000 for the construction of a gallery in which to house them.

Sir Henry Tate by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1897 (image: Tate Britian)

Sir Henry Tate by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1897 (image: Tate Britian)

Despite “not being near South Kensington” and understandable fears about the dampness which had plagued the prison, the large, vacant Millbank site was chosen for the construction of the National Gallery of British Art– which we now know as Tate Britain.

The Tate Gallery in the 1950s (image: London Illustrated News)

The Tate Gallery in the 1950s (image: London Illustrated News)

The gallery opened in 1897 and the remaining vacant land became home to a housing estate, the Chelsea College of Art and Design and the former Royal Army Medical School.


Today, the angled street layout surrounding Tate Britain gives some idea as to where the Millbank Penitentiary once stood.

The site of the former prison today (image: Google)

Site of the former prison today (image: Google)

A perimeter trench which once surrounded the prison (and which would’ve been filled with stagnant water) can still be seen alongside Willkie House on Cureton Street– it is now used for drying laundry and growing vegetables.

The Cureton Street trench, leftover from the prison

The Cureton Street trench, leftover from the prison

Over the years, excavations have also turned up other remnants.

In 1959 a metal object was located 14ft down, although engineers were not sure whether it was an unexploded bomb or a heavy prison door… it may indeed still be buried down there.

Bomb detection equipment at Millbank, 1959 (image: London Illustrated News)

Bomb detection equipment at Millbank, 1959 (image: London Illustrated News)

In the 1980s when the gallery’s Clore wing was being built, remains of underground cells were found. Further building works in the late 1990s discovered old wall foundations and evidence of the concrete raft originally laid down by Smirke to combat the marshy land.

A rare photograph of the now vanished Millbank Penitentiary, taken from a balloon in the late 19th century

A rare photograph of the now vanished Millbank Penitentiary, taken from a balloon in the late 19th century


36 responses

  1. If only it still existed it would make a fine place to house the politicians and their paymasters….

    1. I like your thinking, Helen! 😀

  2. Very interesting. I was aware that it had existed but knew little of the details. The last photo from the balloon is really good.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. As far as I know that’s the only photo out there (although I’m sure there must be others)…

  3. Thank you for another very interesting article.

  4. […] and here’s the old Millbank Penitentiary: exquisitely […]

  5. pentagonal shape encompassing six petal shaped wings
    Err – don’t you mean HEXAGONAL shape?
    A Pentagon has 5 sides….

    1. Thanks, Greg you’re quite right I’ll change it. I usually write in the early hours after work so please forgive me for getting my shapes mixed up; must be my bleary eyes…

  6. I worked in the primary school that was built on the site of the prisons graveyard.There is a building in the middle of the school playground which we called the middle block which at the time, was home to a marketing company.When the staff began to refuse to work late at night due to strange noises, the manager called in a local priest to conduct a exorcism! Teachers in the attached school which was built in 1901 spoke of hearing footsteps coming up the stone stairs and yet no one would be there!Doors would open but nobody entered. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if lost souls were wondering about, would you!

    1. Thanks for sharing that… very creepy!

  7. I read your article and remembered the photo of the perimeter trench, on a visit to London this weekend, myself and my boyfriend knew we were in the area but just happened to cross the road and spot the tench between the houses! Made our trip that bit more interesting. Keep up the good work really enjoy reading your amazing information.

  8. Really interesting article and photos. I’ve never heard the explanation for POM usually it’s Prisoner Of Mother England, yours makes so much more sense.

    1. Many thanks, Barb. My explanation is not proven though, could very well be Prisoner of Mother England instead 😀

  9. […] has a row of holding cells in its cellar, which were used as holding cells for the prisoners of the infamous Millbank Penitentiary which, in the 19th century, stood on the land now occupied by Tate Britain. The prison was built as […]

  10. […] In the letter he described how he’d been in the County Gaol for five weeks, removed to Millbank Prison in London for 28 weeks and 3 days. Millbank was a disgusting filthy prison in its early years, […]

  11. My 3x great grandfather, Henry Tyrrell, enjoyed some quality time there in 1871

    1. Wow… I dread to think what he endured there. Thanks for sharing, Kellie.

  12. Thanks for excellent info. Do you know please ~
    (i) whether from 1844 did the transportation boats load and sail directly from Millbank or did women convicts get there on local boats from Millbank to go further down the Thames to reach the vessels to transport them?
    (ii) Before 1844 did the women transportees who came from different London prisons go to one central location to join the vessel to take them to Australia?


    1. Hello Peter, as far as I know prisoners were transported by smaller boats to the awaiting larger prison ships which would’ve been moored around Woolwich. I imagine this was because the prison hulks would’ve been too big to fit beneath London’s bridges.

      1. Thanks for that useful reply.


  13. Yes, my G-G-Grandfather William Harvey who was only 15 at the time, was accommodated at this prison for 3 months in 1844 before his free cruise to Australia compliments of London Courts. Hate to think what he went through but it must have all worked out in the end because the photo we have of him shows a very jovial-looking fellow.

    1. Thank you for sharing Robyn, that’s an incredible history.

    2. We are currently in the process of conducting a research project into the early years of Millbank as a depot for dispersal of prisoners (their letters call it ‘disposal’); The record for William Harvey in the registers says: #3824 Willm. Harvey 15 Single Imp (either improving Read/Write or imperfect R/W); convicted at C.C.C on 19 Aug 1844 to 7 years transportation for Larceny (+ prev.conv); he arrived at Millbank on 3 Sep 1844 from Newgate, was placed in Pentagon 6, Ward D [middle floor], cell 31 [end of corridor] …

      The records have him being passed over to Parkhurst (I o W) on 28th Sep, where he would have been trained up before being shipped back, via Millbank usually, and placed on a transportation vessel; his trip down the Thames was usually by a steam vessel, he would have boarded the Transport ship at Woolwich, and the voyage took around 5 months – Tell me the vessel, Robyn, and I’ll look it up – If he came back through Millbank his later entry will be there too.


  14. I went to Millbank school and can say that it was very eerie. I also played around that area when I was young

    1. Interesting, thanks for sharing Steve.

  15. […] And it isn’t everything you might think! Here’s the story of London’s dreaded Millbank Penitentiary, which once stood on the site of Tate Britain. [Long read] And another piece of lost London, the […]

  16. Dianne Spiers (nee Turville) | Reply

    My great grand mother Jane Turville (nee Pim) had her second daughter Margaret Irene in HM prison Millbank Westminster on 30th April 1885. On December 15 1884 Jane was charged with ‘larceny by servant and receiving’ and sentenced for a term of 5 months.
    Jane’s (& her husband/partner William’s) 4th child was my grandfathed Eli (known later as Samuel) born Lambeth 1890 who trained on HMS Exmouth and found his way to Pt Adelaide South Australia 1911 where he established himself and a family.

    1. Hi Dianne,

      Apologies for the delay in replying to you. Thank you for sharing your family history; incredible to hear.

  17. […] Pencil Drawing of Millbank Prison’s Layout in the 19th Century. […]

  18. Really interesting. I’m reading Affinity by Sarah Waters and part of it deals with a lady visitor to the women’s prison in the 1870s. Your article was very informative and also the diagram has helped me understand the descriptions of Millbank prison in the book.

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