Clink Museum is on Clink Street, Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames in London, and is a family attraction with a difference. A ticket takes visitors into the site of the original prison that, during its period of operation from AD 860 to its demise in 1780 became synonymous with the evils of gaol. Among its inmates were debtors, prostitutes, murderers and even conspirators in the Gunpowder and Babington Plots, not to mention an actor colleague of Shakespeare, whom he visited in the Clink, and crew members of the Mayflower.
The Clink Museum is a hands-on family day out housed in the basement of a former warehouse that was built on top of the defunct prison. The Clink Museum contains many original torture devices, displays on the history of the lock-up, and reproductions of the prisoners in wax figurine, as well as the appalling conditions in which most of them were housed from the medieval era onwards.
Originally the Clink Museum was a manor owned by the Bishop of Winchester and situated close to his residence, Winchester Palace. It was used for the detention of heretics in a single punishment cell comprising a basement with a grille to the outside world and little else. Subsequently, it grew in scope and housed common criminals, its name deriving most likely either from the sound of its doors being locked, or the clinking of prisoners’ manacles, fetters and chains.
In 1076, an Archbishop listed the punishments allowed at the Clink as including scourging with rods, solitary confinement, and bread and water taken in silence. Not much of a family day out then!
The family attraction of today then saw expansion in 1107, when a chapel and new mansion were begun by the incumbent Bishop of Winchester, and completed under his predecessor in 1144. The male and female prison blocks served as an income source for the Bishop, as Henry II had allowed church regulation of brothels, and fines could be meted out on both prostitutes and their customers. The bordellos were often closed, reopened under bribe, and the clients and working girls hounded for more cash in a never ending cycle of profit for the clergy. By 1180, the Clink was wholly church-owned and became an integral and infamous part of Winchester House.
Ticket holders can see in the Clink Museum re-creations of the jail’s inmates and their saw-dust floor cells, with beds, bedding, candles, and fuel for those who could afford it, empty cells for those who could not. A family day out to see an incarcerated inmate at the time would have cost as well, as food and drink provided for inmates were charged at twice the going rate. Bribes were accepted by warders for fitting lighter irons to prisoners, and for removing them, as well as allowing the inmates to beg at the exterior grates for a meal ticket from passers-by. Brutality in the regime was de rigueur – something the family attraction now highlights with its gibbet-hung skeleton outside the Clink Museum, and an array of fearsome torture implements inside, notably the whipping post, torture chair and foot crusher.
There is also a ducking stool on the bank outside the Clink Museum that was used to punish scolds (those people, especially women, who constantly find fault with things and nag others about it), ale sellers dispensing dodgy drams, and bakers selling underweight or inedible bread. Offenders were often obliged to sit outside their own door in the commode-like armchair and face the taunts of passers-by, while scolds could be forced to wear a metal scold’s bridal, and a ball and chain (hence the derogatory term for a wife).
In the Clink, beatings dispensed by the warders and other inmates were commonplace, and the moans and groans of the waxworks bear testament to the way that criminals were treated, with punishments including sleep deprivation, water torture, mutilation, stretching on the rack, breaking on the wheel, and crushing under heavy weights – not something you’ll find at your average family attraction! Murders even occurred in the Clink Museum’s darker corners, along with other serious physical and sexual assaults, all of which are related to ticket holders by the Clink Museum guides.
From 1352, creditors were permitted to send their debtors to prison and they were meant to pay their creditors as well as paying fees to their jailers. Consequently, their incarceration was often lengthy, allowing the authorities to extort as much cash as they could from their wards.
In 1450, rioters protesting against the Statute of Labourers raided Winchester House and murdered several clerics, as well as releasing prisoners from the Clink before raising it in a fire. However, Winchester House was rebuilt and extended, including a new jail block, and in 1485, Bishops were directed by Henry VII to incarcerate priests for adultery, incest and fornication, ensuring another ongoing revenue stream for the prison.
In 1530, Henry VIII legalised boiling in oil for women who’d murdered their husbands and they were strapped to a pole to be immersed either in scalding oil or slowly turned in a slightly less hot concoction. The Kings’ Act Against Vagabonds allowed men, women and children to be given severe floggings, which carried on into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. When Mary I acceded to the throne in 1553, however, the Clink was used to incarcerate less common criminals as political opponents, namely persecuted Protestants. They were locked in stocks and pillories, and either starved to death or executed.
When Elizabeth succeeded Mary, it was the Catholics and Protestant Puritans persecuted in the Clink, scores of Puritans being starved to death after a plot to overturn the Church’s hierarchy in 1584. Some of the Puritans who survived sailed aboard The Mayflower for the American colonies in 1620.
At the end of the First British Civil War of 1642-49, Winchester House was sold to a property developer for conversion into shops, tenements and dye houses. The Clink was retained as a debtors prison. The Cage used to imprison offenders was temporarily removed due to the cost of its upkeep, but the whipping post remained. However, by 1707, both it and the stocks had also fallen into disuse due the cost of their maintenance. By 1732, there were only two inmates and, by the end of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, the Clink was in such a state of disrepair that it was left empty. However, by the outbreak of the American War Of Independence in 1776, the prison was again welcoming debtors, only to finally be burned to the ground by rioters during the 1780 Gordon Riots. It was not rebuilt, only the site and the ghosts of former residents remaining – some of which are still said to be seen to this day! So if you want a hair-raising family day out, this is just the ticket!
The Clink Museum is festooned with pictures and articles that bring to life the family attraction’s history, while audio devices document the stories of inmates. Ticket holders can even handle various implements and artefacts, while there are many hard, uncomfortable benches about to remind us of the hardships of those who lived and died in the Clink. Since its renovation in 2007, the Clink Museum has improved its disabled access, making it an all-year round family attraction that is a chilling but thrilling fun day out.
There is additionally a small gift shop and the Clink Museum can be booked for private parties with full silver-service banquets, with further details at the revamped website.
Address: Clink Prison Museum, 1 Soho Wharf, Clink Street, London SE1 9DG
Tel: 020 7403 0900
Opening Times: Summer: July-September: 10am-9pm 7 days a week
Winter: October-June: Mon-Fri: 10am-6pm; Sat&Sun: 10am-7.30pm