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The Hardest Prison in History, Fleet/London

Kader Kadem | 10:11 | 1Comments
Fleet Prison was a notorious London prison by the side of the Fleet River in London. The prison was built in 1197 and was in use until 1844. It was demolished in 1846.

The prison was built in 1197 off what is now Farringdon Street, on the eastern bank of the Fleet River after which it was named. It came into particular prominence from being used as a place of reception for persons committed by the Star Chamber, and, afterwards, for debtors and persons imprisoned for contempt of court by the Court of Chancery. In 1381, during the Peasants' Revolt, it was deliberately destroyed by Wat Tyler's men.

In 1666, during the Great Fire of London, it was burned down on the third day of the fire, the prisoners fleeing at the last moments. The then-warden of the prison, Sir Jeremy Whichcote, purchased Caron House in Lambeth after the fire to house the prison's debtors while the prison was rebuilt on the original site at his own expense.

During the 18th century, Fleet Prison was mainly used for debtors and bankrupts. It usually contained about 300 prisoners and their families. Some inmates were forced to beg from their cells that overlooked the street, in order to pay for their keep. At that time prisons were profit-making enterprises. Prisoners had to pay for food and lodging. There were fees for turning keys or for taking irons off, and Fleet Prison had the highest fees in England. There was even a grille built into the Farringdon Street prison wall, so that prisoners might beg alms from passers-by. But prisoners did not necessarily have to live within Fleet Prison itself; as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for loss of earnings, they could take lodgings within a particular area outside the prison walls called the "Liberty of the Fleet" or the "Rules of the Fleet". From 1613 on, there were also many clandestine Fleet Marriages.

The head of the prison was termed the warden, who was appointed by Letters patent. It became a frequent practice of the holder of the patent to farm out the prison to the highest bidder. This custom made the prison long notorious for the cruelties inflicted on prisoners. One purchaser of the office, Thomas Bambridge, who became warden in 1728, was of particularly evil repute. He was guilty of the greatest extortions upon prisoners, and, according to a committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of English gaols, arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons, and destroyed prisoners for debt, treating them in the most barbarous and cruel manner, in high violation and contempt of the laws. He was committed to Newgate Prison, and an act was passed to prevent his enjoying the office of warden.

During the Gordon Riots in 1780 Fleet Prison was again destroyed and rebuilt in 1781-1782. In 1842, in pursuance of an act of parliament, by which inmates of the Marshalsea, Fleet and Queen's Bench Prisons were relocated to the Queen's Prison (as the Queen's Bench Prison was renamed), it was finally closed, and in 1844 sold to the corporation of the City of London, by whom it was pulled down in 1846.

National Geographic Channel
If you think debtors today have a hard time, go back 300 years with Piers Hernu to London's Fleet Prison.

Greed and fraud leads to one of the biggest financial meltdowns ever. Thousands of investors lose everything. Sound familiar? Except this was nearly 300 years ago and the losers are thrown not just into debt, but into one of the most brutal prisons of all time.

Who better to investigate than former city boy turned gold smuggler Piers Hernu. He found himself sharing a crowded cell in Nepal. But that was a picnic compared to the hell of London's notorious Fleet prison. Toffs and commoners alike were banged up under the brutal regime of governor Thomas Bambridge. Georgian society was horrified to discover the torture, cruelty and death that took place behind the walls of Fleet Prison, conveniently located on the edge of the City Of London.

HISTORY'S HARDEST PRISON
Thursday 25 November at 6:00PM
National Geographic Channel London's Fleet Prison
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