Wandsworth Prison Museum

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851. It is an all-male prison and can currently hold 1,628 prisoners, making it one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.

You can only visit the prison itself if you have professional credentials or official business, but out in the forecourt of the prison is what is basically a large garden shed which turns out to be the Prison Museum. This you can visit by appointment or on the occasional open day. Over the weekend of 2-3 June it was open to the public, so I went along.

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Although small, the museum contains over 400 separate items, packed, hung, arranged and displayed densely together to make a kind of Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia, ephemera, all sorts of documents, old photographs, prison equipment, warders’ uniforms and much much more, all with informative and interesting labels which shed light on the history of Wandsworth Prison in particular and, by extension, on the broader development and evolution of British prisons as a whole.

Bird's eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

Bird’s eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

The free handout gives a useful overview so I’ll quote it verbatim:

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction at Wandsworth. it was owned and run by the County of Surrey until 1978 when the prison was nationalised and became Her Majesty’s Prison, Wandsworth. The prison opened with both male and female prisoners. An original signature piece by the architect, D.R. Hill, a cast iron pillar with the maker’s name plate from the pump house and a letter to Parliament from the first Governor, Richard Onslow, covers the early period of the prison.

The First World War is covered with stories of military prisoners, conscientious objectors, spies, Irishmen of the Easter rebellion, their offences and treatment by the authorities.

The Second World War includes the bombing of the prison, rocket attack, the formation of the Prison Officers Association, spies, traitors and their executions. The conditions for the staff and their duties, including those called up for military service, especially the Deputy-Governor (later Governor) E.J. Paton-Walsh, who attended the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Notable prisoners have included the playwright Oscar Wilde (held at Wandsworth for five months before being transferred to Reading Gaol), James Earl Ray, the assassin of the U.S. civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The prison was also the location of the escape of the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, in 1965. Other prisoners have included Train Robber Bruce Reynolds, Reggie Kray, Eddie Richardson and Frankie Fraser.

Events such as the band Hawkwind playing a concert in the 1970s and a visit by musician Elton John are also illustrated with items on display.

The prison was the last to have an operational gallows that had been installed in 1878, re-built, located in three places and finally removed in 1993. An execution box, No.8, is on display and it contains original items including an execution rope. Details of executions including those of Jack the Ripper suspect, George Chapman, William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), the last man executed for treason, and John Haigh, the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, are on display. The last execution at the prison (and in London) was in 1961.

Random highlights

There is a chronological order of sorts to the exhibits, but part of the pleasure of the place is the sense of unexpected juxtapositions, strange displays, odd stories, surprising objects and the general air of a Curiosity Shop of wonders.

Wandsworth was the site of 135 executions, between 1878 and 1961. This is an execution box containing some of the equipment required to set up a working gallows.

Execution box

Taking up one corners is a gallows frame complete with rope and tackle. In the background are photos of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last executioner (behind the rope on the right) and, obscured by the chain in the middle, Pierrepoint’s death mask.

The heavy chain suspended from the crossbeam was used to adjust the length of drop given to a prisoner during judicial hanging. The test bag at the bottom was filled with sand to the same weight as the prisoner, and used in pre-hanging tests to ensure the strength of the rope, the gallows trapdoor, and the cross-beam. The two single ropes with knots in were positioned so to allow prison officers to steady themselves while standing on plank bridges over the ‘drop’ during the execution.

Gallows, chain and ropes

Photo of the hanging room.

The execution room

An edition of the Illustrated London news showing the execution of Kate Webster in 1879, the only woman ever executed at the prison. She had been found guilty of the murder of her elderly employer, Julia Thomas, in Richmond.

The hanging of Kate Webster, 1879

British citizen William Joyce, known because of his radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany as ‘Lord Haw Haw’, was the last person to be executed in Britain for High Treason. The sentence was carried out at Wandsworth Prison on 3 January 1946.

William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw in the custody of British troops at the end of World War Two

This is a photo of anti-capital punishment campaigner Violet van der Elst, outside the prison in 1935, protesting the execution of Percy Anderson. Van der Elst used up her personal fortune campaigning to end capital punishment, and lived long enough to see it finally abolished in 1965.

The photo is crying out for a humorous caption in the style of a Private Eye front cover. ‘Oh not ‘er again. She’s always hangin’ round here.’

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

 

There were other forms of physical punishment than execution. This is a photo of the last corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth Prison, with the punishment position being demonstrated.

Corporal punishment by either birch rod or cat o’ nine tails whip was a court punishment until 1948 and remained a prison punishment until 1967 when it was abolished under the Criminal Justice Act of that year. Its last use in Wandsworth Prison was in 1961.

The corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth prison

There’s lots to be shocked and outraged by here, if you’re of that turn of mind, starting with capital punishment itself and going on to deplore the whole concept of ‘hard labour’, explained here with a number of contemporary illustrations. There are tales of miscarriages of justice and some horrible examples of the very harsh punishment meted out, as so often, to the poor and hungry and uneducated.

For example, the case of Robert Davey, aged ten and sentenced to three months in Wandsworth for stealing rabbits, in 1874.

Photo of ten-year-old convict, Robert Davey

All this I sort of expected.

But one of the things that genuinely surprised me was the revelation of how much of the Victorian infrastructure of the prison endured right down almost to the present day. The very hospitable and informative curator of the museum (himself a prison officer) explained that after the Second World War Britain was bankrupt and forced to continue with its ageing infrastructure of Victorian prisons, despite calls to rebuild them all.

Then decade after decade went by with one Home Secretary after another continually putting off the enormous cost of rebuilding Britain’s prisons, with the result that many of the older ones, especially in London, continued to contain fixtures and fittings dating from their Victorian origins.

The blue door in the photo below, for example, is Victorian and was painted, repainted and painted again with shiny prison blue, managing to serve its function as a cell door until it was finally replaced in the 2010s. The 2010s!

(Next to it is a mannequin wearing prisoner issue denim jacket and blue striped shirt, a style introduced in the late 1970s, familiar to those of us brought up on the TV sitcom Porridge.)

Prison door and prison uniform

This is a cell card and prisoner information card holder of a design which also dates from the Victorian era, and was still in use as recently as the 1990s. The 1990s!

Prisoner information card holder

This is a blank escaped prisoner reward sheet. Probably the most famous escapee from Wandsworth was Ronald Biggs who escaped by scaling the wall with a rope ladder and dropping onto a waiting removal van. I wonder how much reward was offered for information leading to his arrest. This blank form from the Victorian era is offering a generous £5.

Escaped prisoner reward sheet

In 1932 the Governor of the day, Lieutenant Colonel Rich, invited the film star Charlie Chaplin to visit the prison. Chaplin was given a tour of the prison, including the still-working gallows on F wing. Chaplin had briefly known Jack the Ripper suspect George Chapman, from his boyhood days in Southwark.

Documentation surrounding Charlie Chaplin’s visit to the prison in 1931

James Earl Ray was accused of being the assassin of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, shot dead on 4 April 1968. Immediately after the assassination, Ray fled to Canada, then used a fake passport to travel on to Portugal and, finally, to England.

Two months after the assassination he was arrested at Heathrow airport attempting to use a forged Canadian passport to board a flight to Belgium. He was held in Wandsworth prison while arrangements were made to have him extradited back to the US. During this remand period, Ray’s lawyer arranged a plea bargain where, in exchange for pleading guilty, he would avoid the usual sentence for murder, at that time, execution by electrocution – the electric chair.

So Ray was extradited, convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison without a trial and without the evidence against him being tested in court. Soon afterwards he changed his plea, and then spent the rest of his life (until 1998) trying to prove his innocence and that the murder had been the act of a widespread conspiracy.

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

This is the view from a gallery of the central atrium of the prison at the centre of its famous radial design. On the right, on the ground floor against a wall, is the old wooden ‘central desk’, which is now in the museum.

The main prison centre

Prisoner food tray and cutlery.

Prison tray and cutlery

Prison issue shaving kit.

Prison issue toilet kit

Implements of restraint – handcuffs, belt, a whistle etc.

Handcuffs and other instruments of restraint

Prison officers’ equipment, including truncheons and radios.

Prison officer equipment

Modern helmets: from left to right an officer cap with Senior Officer’s badge (1990s), a Control and Restraint helmet (1990s), and an Officer issue baseball cap (2000s).

Prison officer helmets

I always imagined prisoners wearing jackets covered in arrows was a cartoon convention. Not so. Just such suits were worn until 1922. Apparently the idea stems from medieval heraldry where the image of the arrow denotes ‘government property’. It was conceived by Sir Edmund Du Cane in the 1870s after his appointment as Chairman of Convict Directors and Surveyor-General of Prisons. He intended the arrows to be a mark of shame and a hindrance to escape insofar as the characteristic outfit was immediately identifiable to anyone who saw an escaped convict. I was surprised to learn that the nails hammered into convicts’ boots were also arrow-shaped so that he left footprints in mud or sand which were also designed to show he was ‘government property’.

A convict wearing the characteristic arrow uniform

And, in amid the hundreds of factual artefacts and objects, what does it actually feel like to be locked away in prison for years? The museum has a number of examples of prisoner art, creative art, of course, being a technique increasingly used in prisoner rehabilitation.

For me this work stood out, not for any technique or sophistication, but for its simple eloquence. It seemed, to me, to be saying ‘Help’.

Prisoner artwork – Open hands, from the 2000s


To find out more about the museum, correspondence should be directed to:

Wandsworth Prison Museum
c/o POA Office
HMP Wandsworth
Heathfield Road
London SW18 3HS

wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk

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