Smuggling into Millbank Penitentary is exposed

Millbank Prison opened in 1821, the first purpose built convict prison in England. Situated on the banks of the River Thames near where the current Tate Britain art gallery  sits, the gaol was notoriously unhealthy subject as it was to flooding from the nearby river. It was built at a huge cost (£500k) and never fulfilled the vision of  men like Jeremy Bentham who advocated the panopticon (‘all seeing’) design of prison and it ended up being a transit point for all prisoners sentenced to transportation to Australia in the 1800s. It was  a grim place, especially in the ‘darks’ the underground cells reserved for punishing offenders who broke the rules. If you would like an idea of  Millbank Sarah Water’s novel Affinity gives us a vivid and disturbing picture of the place.


Millbank Prison from an 1867 London map

In the eighteenth century prison officers (as we term them) were called gaolers or turnkeys. They earned their money directly from those they locked up. Prisoners (those convicted, remanded and debtors) were obliged to pay for their own upkeep. As a result your access to wealth determined your prison experience. If you had the cash you could live inside somewhere like Newgate Gaol (London’s  largest and most forbidding prison) reasonably comfortably; if you were poor then you existed on bread and water and slept with the rats and lice and your chances of surviving for very long were limited.

In the reforms of the early 1800s (prompted by the work of men like John Howard and the Quaker Elizabeth Fry) led to cleaner prisons and largely saw an end to the entrepreneurial system that existed in gaol.  But it was hard to prevent corruption in what were increasingly becoming ‘closed’ institutions. Turnkeys were poorly paid and worked in conditions that few would relish. It is no surprise that corruption remained a problem.

In July 1848 John Birket, a warder at Millbank, was brought before the justice at Westminster Police Court. Birkett was charged with corruption; to be precise he was accused of accepting money from prisoners to take a letter out and smuggle wine, spirits and tobacco in.

He’d been caught inside the penitentiary and at first his supervisor had thought to warn him and do nothing further but changed his mind. Birket did have a previous good character and the Inspector of Prison for the Home Circuit, a Mr Williams, was clearly prepared to forgive him this transgression. But Williams also wanted to issue a wider warning and that required Birket to made an example of.

He told the court that it was ‘their painful duty to come forward in this case, as the warders took money from the friends of prisoners under pretence of providing things for which there was no necessity, as the government provided amply, and then put it in their own pocket’. Birket confessed his crime, probably urged to do so by his superiors. The magistrate took pity he said, and sent him to prison for ‘ten days only, and without hard labour’.

The problem of corruption in prisons remains.

           [from Daily News, Monday, July 10, 1848]

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