Victorian London - Prisons - House of Detention

Clerkenwell Prison is a common gaol for the county of Middlesex,and receives prisoners of every description. It is situated in St. James's Walk, Clerkenwell, and was built about the year 1820. It is calculated to contain 250 persons.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

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from The Illustrated London News, 1846

HOUSE OF DETENTION, CLERKENWELL; established [?], and maintained at an annual average cost of 7000l. The daily average number of prisoners in 1849 was 109.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850


A few minutes after ten o'clock on Sunday morning some little excitement was canned in Clerkenwell by the appearance on the western wall of the House of Detention of a man dressed in prison garb. Alter a few minutes' hesitation he was seen to drop on to the pavement, a height of thirty-five feet, amidst the screams of several women. The next moment the prisoner was again on his legs, and, having first torn the badge off his arm, he ran down Waterloo-passage, disappearing amongst the adjacent courts before the crowd that had witnessed the affair had recovered from the amazement which his extraordinary leap from the prison wall had occasioned.
    The man in question is named J. Waters, aged thirty-eight, and was under remand on a charge of housebreaking. He is described by the police as 5ft 2i n. in height, of dark complexion, and having blue eyes. Ha was dressed in a blue pilot-jacket, fustian trousers, and wore a wide- awake cap. That he effected his escape during the progress to the ordinary chapel service seems certain, having climbed a waterpipe to the extremity of the wall within a few yards of Pear-tree-court. At the point indicated an addition of  6 ft. of brickwork has been added since the fatal explosion at the prison; and he was seen standing as if exhausted, for several minutes before he jumped. According to the testimony of a neighbour, a man happened to be passing just as the prisoner reached the ground, and the latter is alleged to have said, "For God's sake, let me go!"  the reply being, "All right! take off your badge." It is farther alleged that there being a difficulty in removing the badge, a vendor of watercresses exchanged coats with the prisoner in order to avoid detection. It is thought that the prisoner cannot have gone far from the locality, as when he fell into Rosoman-street he rubbed his legs and moved towards Waterloo-passage, as if in great pain; and, finding there was no thoroughfare there, his movements in the direction of Pear-tree-court, where he was last seen, were inactive. It is said that two other prisoners made a similar attempt to soap., but this was frustrated. The prison authorities instituted an inquiry relative to the matter, and we understand that, negligence being attributed to two of the warders, they were discharged.

The Penny Illustrated Paper, 28 August, 1875

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House of Detention —affectionately termed by the “profession” the House of Distinction, or more familiarly “the Tench “—is designed primarily for untried prisoners, the discipline being less severe than elsewhere Prisoners under short sentence of imprisonment without hard labour—technically first-class misdemeanants — are also confined here; being not required to wear any distinctive dress or to have their hair cropped. It stands between Woodbridge-street and Rosoman-street, Clerkenwell. NEAREST Railway Station, Farringdon-street; Omnibus Routes, Exmouth-street and Goswell-road; Cab Rank, Clerkenwell-green.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879