Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Historic Prison Exploration

I'm finally back with the second part of my Clerkenwell Design Week triptych.  This time, in the spotlight is the House of Detention.

Regular readers may recall that I wrote a post over a month ago about the Farmiloe warehouse, which was hosting designers during the event.  I promised to return with related posts but, as I am wont to do, got distracted with more current happenings.

But, now I'm back to tell you all about the spooky former prison which was the other venue used for the Design Week.  Unfortunately, it was rather difficult to take photos in there so this post will be lighter on pictures than the last... though darker on content.  (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

So, on finding the House of Detention, my friends and I all commented, "Funny, this looks more like a school than a prison."  I think you'll agree we were right to be confused:

However, passing through the Schoolkeeper's entrance and descending some stairs, we undoubtedly encountered the prison:

So, the story goes like this...

There was first a prison on this site in the early 17th century, and it was subsequently rebuilt a number of times.  My little bit of research gave me a number of different dates and total number of reconstructions, so I'm just going to leave it loose and undefined!  There also seems to have been quite a few prisons and such in Clerkenwell and its surrounds, serving slightly different purposes.

Previous incarnation of Clerkenwell House of Detention,
from Old and New London, Volume 2 (1878)

Perhaps the area was a little too well-serviced by prisons, because in 1877 it was closed, and then demolished to be replaced by the Hugh Myddleton School.  This late Victorian period was a big time for school buildings in London, following the passing of the 1870 Education Act which meant all children of a certain age, regardless of class or family income, had to attend school.  It's probably a positive transition, to change from a prison to a school, though some people would probably like to suggest that there wouldn't have been much difference between the two types of institution!

The underground rooms and corridors formerly used for prison baths, kitchens and medical examinations (I get shivers just thinking about what they were like in that period) were retained below the school building.  Although massively creepy (and rumoured to be haunted), the sturdy underground network came in handy during World War II, when it was used as an air-raid shelter.

By the 1960s, the building was no longer in use as a school and it has recently been converted into flats.  Now, I like the idea of re-use of some old buildings for flats when they're no longer able to serve their original purpose.  For example, I'd love to live in one of those old river-side warehouses, but to live on the site of an old prison, knowing that creepy underground world was below you and that for hundreds of years straight, people were imprisoned on the site...? That doesn't really appeal to me no matter how nicely the flats are done up!  It does make for some nicely atmospheric photos though:

So, would you live in the flats above this...?


  1. No definitely not! Hehehe But I do love the history of it all.
    I visited a friends exhibition a couple of years ago in a prison in Clerkenwell ( not sure if its the same one). The one I went to had been on an episode of 'Most Haunted' which I had watched and I after realising it was the same one seriously freaked myself out. I didn't stay long. Ha ha x

  2. I reckon it's probably the same one - I seem to remember some ghost programme came up when I googled it. I only found out about the haunted stories after I visited - otherwise I don't think I would have stayed so long down there! I definitely wouldn't have broken away from my group of friends, as I did, as apparently there's some shadowy figure that's been known to follow lone females. Eep!

  3. Oh it looks fascinating, I wouldn't mind living there! Incidentally I have just done a post on my favourite abandoned buildings that I want to live in hah x

  4. Have just seen your post and have just commented! Great minds think alike...

  5. Yes, "dark" pictures. I think there would be a heavy spirit around the building. Like the Old Melbourne Gaol. I don't think I would have liked to attend the school either. Interesting post though. Thank you.