The House on the Hill: 200 years of Brixton Prison

As Brixton Prison turns 200, Christopher Impey looks back at a history marked by grim conditions as well as oyster addicts, pioneering women and Mick Jagger

Brixton is London’s oldest prison and this year marks its bi-centenary. Over its 200 years, it has held hundreds of thousands of people and while all of them have different stories to tell, most are connected by poverty, disadvantage and the feeling of being cast out. Throughout its existence, the jail has long been at the heart of the prison debate, as pioneering as it has been ruthless.

Those sent to Brixton immediately after it was built in 1819 were truly destitute. London had swelled to become the first city in the Western world to reach the million mark and many of its inhabitants were migrants from the countryside, looking for a better life in the city. Instead, they found themselves living in the dirt and squalor of slums and doing whatever they could to make ends meet.

It meant Brixton had no shortage of guests. Most had been convicted under the Vagrancy Act – legislation passed in the 1820s which made it an offence to sleep rough or beg and which remains in place today. They were punished beyond their loss of liberty by being made to climb the treadmill. It looked like a giant, elongated waterwheel; its victims – men, women and children – had to tread the boards that ran along it for up to eight hours a day. 

Among them was Edward Dando, the oyster eater. My discovery of his story inspired me to write my book, The House on the Hill. His modus operandi was simple – he feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring London’s eateries consuming huge quantities of food then refusing to pay. Oysters were his weakness which, at the time, were a staple of the London poor. He served a string of sentences punctuated by what he liked to call ‘blow-outs’ at oyster shops. He died in poverty, though Charles Dickens wrote fondly of him, imagining ‘he was buried in the prison yard and they paved his grave with oyster shells.

Those sent there were guilty of the most serious crimes.

London continued to grow, and by the middle of the century Brixton became so overcrowded it had to be shut down. In 1853, it reopened as a prison for convict women – the first such jail in the country. Those sent there were guilty of the most serious crimes. Until then, they would have expected to have been transported to Australia, a policy which had suddenly been brought to an end when the Australians, understandably, began to object.

Brixton’s uniqueness as a women’s prison was reflected by its complement of around 70 staff which was almost entirely female; Victorian sensibilities precluded men from being in charge of women. This included the de facto governor, the remarkable Emma Martin, who lived in the prison with her 12 children.

Brixton later became a convict prison for men and – briefly – a military prison. But at the turn of the 20th century it took on the role of London’s remand prison. For the next 90 years or so, almost every man facing trial in London – and a handful of women – would pass through it, all awaiting their day in court.

DID YOU KNOW…

Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

They included some famous – and infamous – names. The prison’s switchboard was jammed by concerned Rolling Stones fans when Mick Jagger as sent there on a drugs charge in 1967; the philosopher Bertrand Russell was ordered there twice for his pacifist activities; Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, appreciated the time Brixton gave him for reading; the arrival of the Krays in 1968 put the whole prison on high alert for fear of a breakout; Giggs, the rapper, was a more recent visitor.

A stay in Brixton though, is rarely one that could ever be described a pleasure. Never was this truer than during the latter half of the 20th century when conditions reached inhumane levels and the prison population had risen to such an extent that men were being held three to a single cell for up to 23 hours a day. Inspectors described living conditions and cleanliness as ‘nothing short of scandalous’. Come the millennium, it was named the worst prison in the country. It was in such a decrepit state that when it was put out to private tender, no company would bid for it.

House-on-the-Hill-by-Christopher-Impey

Over the next two decades, positive change came, albeit slowly. Most significantly it changed from a jail that served the courts to one that served its community, becoming a resettlement and training prison – helping those coming to the end of their sentence prepare for life after release.

Today, anyone on the outside can book a meal in the esteemed Clink restaurant – where those who prepare, cook and present the food are serving prisoners. Others work in the Bad Boys’ Bakery, which supplies bread and cakes to cafes on the outside. The Bounce Back charity runs an award-winning painting and decorating course. Some inmates present on National Prison Radio which – from its studios under the chapel – broadcasts life-changing information to over 80,000 people in more than 100 jails.

Brixton’s story has been a troubled one – but at least those who come through its doors today are given some opportunity for change, and hope.