Take a walk along the bank of the River Thames between Southwark Cathedral and the Globe Theatre and you may stumble across a narrow, dark and cobbled street with a very sinister past.
This street is best known for the location of one of London’s oldest and most notorious medieval prisons1. The prison is of course The Clink, from which the street takes its name.
There has been a prison of some form or another at the site of The Clink since 860. The Bishop of Winchester had ownership of the land and the penitentiary began as just one cell in a priest’s college2. The construction of The Clink began in 1107 and was finished at some point between 1144 and 1149. It consisted of two prisons, one for men and another for women3.
There has been some ambiguity around where the origins of the name ‘The Clink’ originated from. It is likely onomatopoeic and derived from the rattling sound that prisoners’ shackles made as they shuffled around their cells or from the deafening echoes of metal prison doors being bolted shut4.
Nowadays, when the phrase ‘in the clink’ is used, you may naturally assume it is slang for someone in a cell or in prison, but from 1144 to 1780 it meant something a whole lot worse5.
A Brief History
The Clink was situated in an area known as Liberty of the Cink in Southwark, it attracted businesses and activities not allowed in other areas of London due to the fact that it lay outside the regulations of the City of London. This facilitated bear and bull baiting, gaming houses, inns, prostitution and brothels6.
As the area became more popular, the Bishop of Winchester decided to build a prison in order to control the area and enforced its harsh punishment regime. Those who broke the rules of the Liberty were sent to The Clink6.
Life in The Clink was one of extreme brutality and unimaginable pain. There was a long list of horrific tortures that took place in the prison, the most famous of these involving irons and fetters being fitted to the prisoners to prevent sleep, and in many cases causing paralysis. Other punishments consisted of prisoners being forced to stand in water until their feet became rotten. Additionally, women accused of adultery were sometimes said to be strapped to a pole and dunked into cold oil, which would then be gradually brought to the boil, resulting in an excruciatingly painful death2.
The only way for a prisoner to abate or at least lessen these extreme and gruesome punishments was through bribery. Jail keeps (gaolers) would supply extra food, water and in some cases even allow prisoners to remove their leg irons in exchange for money. Female prisoners were allowed to keep a brothel running, with any cash made going straight to the gaolers7.
The Clink prison was very profitable due to the fact that debtors were forced to pay for their jailers fee, causing incarceration to be drawn out for as long as possible in order to extort the maximum amount of money from the prisoners8.
In 1450, rioters protesting the Statute of Labourers raided Winchester House, murdering the gaolers and freeing the prisoners before burning The Clink to the ground. However, The Clink was then rebuilt and expanded, to form an even larger prison8.
The Demise of The Clink
The downfall of Winchester house came in 1649 when it was sold to a property developer who divided it into shops and dye houses. The upkeep costs of the prison meant that it became smaller and less functional. In 1745 The Clink was in much decay and eventually was burnt down by ‘Gordon rioters’ in 1780, never to be rebuilt 1. A map from 1879, which can be seen below, shows that a Flour Mill was later built in its place. Little would the new occupants have known the pain, suffering and misery that had plagued the ground they now worked on. If you would like to relive the horrors of The Clink, then you can visit a small museum and tourist attraction which now occupies part of the site.
(1) Oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk, (2015). David Rowland | Clink Street Prison. | Prisons | David Rowland | Local Historians | The Old Police Cells Museum. [online] Available at: http://www.oldpolicecellsmuseum.org.uk/page/clink_street_prison
(2) The Clink Prison Museum, Clink Street, London (2015). [online] Available at: http://h2g2.com/approved_entry/A645112
(3) Martha Carlin ‘Medieval Southwark’ London 1999.
(4) Does Clink Street take its name from the prison or vice-versa?. (2015) [online] English.stackexchange.com. Available at: http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/146062/does-clink-street-take-its-name-from-the-prison-or-vice-versa
(5) TheFreeDictionary.com, (2015). clink. [online] Available at: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/clink
(6) Walklondon.com, (2015). Clink Prison Museum – Walk London Sightseeing Tour. [online] Available at: http://www.walklondon.com/london-attractions/clink-museum.htm
(7) Burford, E. J. In the Clink: Story of England’s Oldest Prison, New English Library, 1978
(8) Ghost Hunt and Ghost Hunting. Clink Prison ghost hunts. (2015). [online] HauntedHappenings.co.uk. Available at: https://www.hauntedhappenings.co.uk/ghost_hunts/Clink_Prison.php