An article in The Observer, 2 November 1817, described an inquest at the Grey-coat Boy public house into the death of John Burden, aged 37, in Tothill-fields 1bridewell in Westminster2. The bridewell was established in the 17th century as a “house of correction” for “able-bodied but indolent paupers” but later also admitted criminals.
Burden, who had been arrested as a vagrant, was already looking “very ill” when he arrived at the bridewell. Later he complained of pains in his chest. Although his condition deteriorated he was not sent to the hospital ward.
Before his death Burden was visited by Mr. Nodder, the governor, who ordered him some gruel3 and the prison apothecary was informed. William Hanbury, the prison surgeon, prescribed him soup. None of this was over and above the standard allowance for prisoners.
The inquest revealed the appalling conditions the men lived in. According to Hanbury, Burden was well dressed, (meaning not that his clothes were fine but that they were warm) but the governor admitted that the room was so damp and cold that the men huddled together for warmth. No fires were permitted (too dangerous) but Samuel Badcock, a prisoner who gave evidence, claimed that the men could sell their bread for potatoes and would make fires in the floor with coals.4 At the time Burden died, he was in a room measuring 10 feet by 6 (3 x 2 metres), with about 25 other prisoners.5 The prisoners had nothing but straw on the floor and a blanket.
Samuel Badcock, a prisoner, said the food allowance was
- a three-penny loaf
- a little water
- gruel twice a day
but said that Burden had not been given soup. Badcock thought the cold was enough to kill a man.
The soup available to the prisoners, it turned out, was made from joints of meat that the Governor, Mr Nodder, had already had for dinner and was given only to those most in need.
Before he died, Burden begged Nodder to intercede with the authorities in Greenwich. He was due a pension, he said. Nodder said he had done this but the pension was denied.
Verdict: “The deceased came to his death for the want of proper nourishment & medical aid.”
During the inquest the Coroner, Hugh Lewis, admonished the turkey, Ephraim York, for prevarication and threatened to have him locked up.
The case was mentioned in the House of Commons on 18 February 1818. John Ashley Warre, MP, used it to argue successfully for a Motion to establish a committee to look into the state of London’s prisons.6
An interesting post at The Street Names explains the origin of the name Tothill Fields.
- An interesting post at The Street Names explains the origin of the name Tothill Fields.
- Tothill Fields Bridewell occupied the block where the Army&Navy department store is now. It was demolished in 1836 and rebuilt on land on which Westminster Cathedral stands. All that remains of the original bridewell is a stone gateway.
- A thin porridge-like meal, made with cereal (oats, barley, rye or rice) boiled in milk or water.
- Somewhat confusingly, Badcock also said they weren’t allowed coals, so something may have been lost in the reporting.
- These dimensions seem excessively small. Perhaps it was a typo for yards.
- Hansard, Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time, Volume 37.