Few of us would want to live next door to one, but it’s undeniable that the United Kingdom’s prisons have a certain gruesome fascination. All the more so when they have a history stretching back over 150 years and have housed some of the most famous and infamous of Britain’s criminal classes. Such is the case with the UK’s biggest gaol – Wandsworth Prison.
Founded in an Age of Improvement
Wandsworth opened in 1851 under the name The Surrey House of Correction, a title reflecting the Victorian attitude to the purpose of imprisonment. The design of the building, corridors radiating from a central control point, was devised to allow the prison to function using the so called separate system. The principal was intended to be humane, as well as corrective. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, all the better to reflect on and do penance for their sins in society. A notable aspect of the separate system was that each cell was intended for single occupancy and all had their own toilet facilities.
Attitudes to solitary confinement as a compassionate or even useful form of remedial treatment have changed somewhat since the mid-nineteenth century but it seems likely that many twentieth century inmates would have envied those of the earlier times, at least for the facilities they enjoyed. The individual toilets were removed around 1870 to increase the gaol’s capacity. It was only in 1996 that the ritual of ‘slopping out’ ended in Wandsworth and across the prison system.
A Place of Corporal and Capital Punishment
Corporal punishment, flogging with a birch stick or the hated ‘cat o’ nine tails’ was a sanctioned punishment in the British prison system until 1967, though the last official beating was carried out in 1962. In 1951, Wandsworth was the holding prison for the national stock of implements of corporal punishment. Perhaps the most notorious story regarding corporal punishment at Wandsworth occurred in 1930. Inmate James Edward Spiers, serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery, committed suicide in front of a group of Justices of the Peace who were there to witness his receiving 15 lashes.
Between 1878 and 1961, 135 executions took place at Wandsworth. These included the execution of Francis Forsyth, whose life was ended in November 1960 when he was just 18 years of age.
Famous Inmates of Wandsworth
Some of the notable names of held at Wandsworth include Max Clifford, the publicist, convicted of 8 counts of indecent assault, Chris Huhne, politician, jailed for perverting the course of justice after swapping fixed penalty points with his wife to avoid a driving ban, and Oscar Wilde, convicted of gross indecency, or in his own words ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.
Other residents of Wandsworth became famous solely for their criminal activities. The most notorious was undoubtedly Charles Bronson often referred to in the British press as the ‘most violent prisoner in Britain’. Other long term inmates have included ‘The Two Ronnies’ of the criminal world. Ronnie Kray the gangster and Ronnie Biggs, famous for his participation in the Great Train Robbery and for his escape from Wandsworth and subsequent flight to Spain.
Most Ingenious Escape
In March 2014 the remand prisoner Neil Moore was released from Wandsworth after managing to set up a fake email address and sending an email to prison staff purportedly from a senior court clerk ordering his release. The deception was only discovered three days later when Mr Moore’s solicitor attempted to visit him in jail.
A Troubled History
In recent years Wandsworth has been the subject of many critical reports. It has been dubbed ‘Britain’s Worst Jail’. In October 2009, gross misconduct charges were brought against managers of Wandsworth Prison, after an investigation found that prisoners had been temporarily transferred to HMP Pentonville before inspections in order to manipulate prison population figures. A follow up inspection in 2011 noted that it compared badly with similar prisons facing similar challenges and that there appeared to be unwillingness among some prison managers and staff to acknowledge and take responsibility for the issues the prison faced.
Undoubtedly the prison is still under strain and improvements will need to be ongoing but there have been some signs that Wandsworth is moving in a more positive direction. The establishment has an award winning in-cell radio station called ‘Radio Wanno’. There is some training available for prisoners, in radio production, literacy qualifications, ICT, employability and life skills. The chaplaincy offers support to prisoners from the Anglican, Buddhist, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Sikh faiths.
Some useful links for when you’re in Wandsworth (and which might help you not find your way in ‘The House of Correction’):
Wandsworth Gutter Cleaning