The Coldbath Fields Prison.
The Prison was opened in 1794
This Prison is not to be confused with The Middlesex House of Correction and Clerkenwell Gaol. It so happens that The Coldbath Fields Prison used to be called Clerkenwell House of Correction.
The prison was situated in Clerkenwell in London. It had a capacity to hold 2,000 prisoners but in 1877 it housed a total of just 1,700 prisoners.
The Prison was opened in 1794 and finally closed in 1885.
For a long time after it was rebuilt, Coldbath Fields had a reputation for severity. In 1799 Gilbert Wakefield, the classic, expressed a morbid horror of it; and Coleridge and Southey, many years later, in “The Devil’s Walk,” published their opinion that it exceeded hell itself, as a place of punishment:—
“As he went through Coldbath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.” British History on line
The prison was built on a plan of the benevolent Howard’s, and soon became a scene of great abuses, men, women and children were herded together in this chief county prison. And smoking and drinking were permitted. The Governor of the day strove vigorously to reform the hydra abuses, and especially the tyranny and greediness of the turnkeys (prison warders.) Five years later he introduced stern silence into his domain. On the 26th December 1834, a population of 914 prisoners were suddenly appraised that all intercommunication, by word, gesture or sign was totally prohibited. ’this is what is called the silent Associated System,’ he said. ‘The treadmill had been introduced at Coldbath Fields several years before. This apparatus, the invention of a Mr. Cubitt, an engineer at Lowestoft, was first set up,’ said Mr. Pinks at Brixton Prison, in 1817. At first, the allowance was 12,000 feet of ascent, but was quickly reduced to 1.200.
The Coldbath Fields prison was originally run by a group of local magistrates and was mostly used for prisoners who were sentenced to short sentences. The prison also served as debtor’s prison.
Cold Bath Spring
The prison took its name from ‘Cold Bath Spring,’ a medicinal spring that was discovered in 1697. The prison housed men, women and children until around 1850 when the women and children were moved to Tothill Fields Bridewell in Victoria and then Coldbath was restricted to adult male offenders over the age of 17 years. Despite its aspiration s to be a more humanitarian prison, sadly, it became notorious for its very strict regime of silence and also for the way in which the treadmill was officially used.
In 1829 Thistlewood and the other Cato Street conspirators were lodged here, before being taken to ‘The Tower’ and later executed.
During the early 19th Century, the prison temporally housed members of ‘the Cato Street Conspiracy.’ In march 1877 a fire, which started in the bake-house, destroyed the treadmill house’ no prisoners were hurt but two firemen who had attended this fire were badly injured.
The prison closed in 1877. The site was transferred to the Post Office in 1889 and its buildings were gradually knocked down and replaced. The last sections were demolished in 1929 for an extension of The Letter office. However, today, the site is occupied by the Mount Pleasant Sorting office.
A few of the more famous Inmates who were imprisoned there:
Edward Despard, Colonel and superintendent of British Honduras, imprisoned for revolutionary activity. He was later executed for his part in the Despard Plot.
John Gravener Henson; a worker’s leader and historian of framework-knitters.
Owen Suffolk; a Bushranger.
Robert Wedderburn: ultra-radical leader and anti-slavery advocate.
Derives its name from a celebrated cold bath, the best known in London, and is fed by a spring, this was discovered quite accidently by a Mr. Baynes, in 1697. This active discoverer then declared that the cold water had great power in treating nervous diseases, and equalled those of St. Magnus and St. Winnifred. Mr, Baynes advertisement in ‘the Post Bag’ asserts that the cold spring prevents and curse cold, it creates an appetite, helps digestion and also makes hardy the tenderest constitution.
The location of the bath was described as ,In St.John Oldcastle’s, field near the north end of Grays Inn Lane. It went on to say that the bathing hours were from five am to one, the charge is two shillings, that is, unless the visitor was so infirm as to need to be let down into this cockney pool of Bethesda in a chair.
Mr. Baynes died in 1745 and was buried in the old church of St. James’s. He was originally a student of the Middle Temple, and was for fifteen years the treasurer of St. James’s charity school. The old bath house was a building with three gables and had a very large garden with four turret summer houses. In 1811 the trustees of the London Fever Hospital bought the property for £3,830, but, being driven away by the frightened inhabitants, the ground was then for building, the bath remaining as late as 1865.
Researched and written by David Rowland, September 2015.