Tag Archives: the Liberty of the Clink

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty Four

Clink Street, SE1

South of the river and running parallel to is to be found the wonderfully onomatopoeic Clink Street between Park Street at its western end and the Golden Hinde and Cathedral Street to the east. The street which still has an atmospheric feel to it has seen considerable gentrification over the last couple of decades or so but in earlier times it was a place to avoid. The reason – it was the site of one London’s oldest and most notorious prisons.

In 1129 the newly appointed Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, built an impressive palace, Winchester, for himself on the south bank of the Thames. Sadly, following an extensive fire in August 1814, all that remains today is the west wall and the impressive Rose Window but you still get a sense of how impressive and imposing it would have been. More germane to our story is the fact that when the palace was completed in 1144, it contained two prisons, one for men and the other for women.

We have come across Liberties before and the area around the Palace was part of the Liberty of the Palace of Winchester and under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. He was able to decide his own laws and mete his own punishment on miscreants. The Liberty was later known as the Liberty of the Clink, a name which seems to have been given to the prison. Quite why, no one is too sure but it is tempting to think that it reflects the clanking of the chains which hobbled the prisoners’ movement or the sound of the iron gates closing. Whatever the origin, it gave its name to the euphemism for any prison – clink.

Life was hard inside the Clink. Those who could afford it could pay the gaolers money in return for small creature comforts such as food, fuel, bedding and candles. Prices were astronomic – after all, the gaolers had a captive market – and the poorer prisoners would beg at the grates facing the street and offer for sale whatever pitiful possession they may have had. As well as the usual collection of vagrants and ne’er-do-wells, the Clink housed the likes of John Rogers, who translated the Bible from Latin into English, various Royalists during the Civil War and some of the Puritans before they set out to settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The prison had a chequered history and was destroyed twice, once during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and then again during Jack Cade’s rebellion in 1450. Following the latter incident, a new two-storey building was erected on what is now the site of The Clink Prison Museum. The fortunes of the prison went into a steep decline in the 18th century, mainly because of the cost of maintaining it. In 1732 there were just two registered prisoners but in the mid 1770s it hosted a number of debtors. During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the prison was broken into, the prisoners released – none were recaptured  – and the building burnt down. It was never rebuilt.

Perhaps ironically, as well as the Museum, the street today boasts a number of food outlets and a pub, The Old Thameside Inn. Perhaps it is as well that the punters are oblivious to the street’s history.