Long Lost Dread: The Millbank Penitentiary
Overlooking the river Thames on Millbank, the Tate Britain gallery enjoys a pleasant and relatively tranquil location.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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’…
Transportation continued until the late 1860s by which point around 162,000 men and women had been sent to Australia.
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.
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…”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.