THE CLINK PRISON MUSEUM: 900 YEARS OF TORTURE AND MISERY IN SOUTHWARK, LONDON

With only a few rooms, a visit to The Clink is short but sweet. With a rather shlock-horror layout of torture equipment, displays including heads on pikes and an executioner's block dripping with blood, it also has plenty of information boards providing historical detail of what life must have been like for those imprisoned here over the past 900 years.

Four heads on a pike

The building is not the original Clink prison which is long gone, although it is on the site and does contain a part of the prison wall from the 17th - 18th century. The museum tells the story of The Clink, the most notorious of medieval prisons in the country, and the one which lent its name to all future prisons which are informally known as 'the clink'.


In darkened rooms with some grisly displays of the terrible conditions the prisoners lived in, their tortures and suffering and against a back drop of occasional whimpering and screams, the museum gives a vivid depiction of life for the inmates. Torture devices line the walls which you can handle and try on and there are display cases with eclectic finds of items from the 900 years of life within the walls.

The Clink is in the borough of Southwark, one of the oldest parts of London, originally settled by the Romans and again by the Saxons.


From 1149 the area was the London home of the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, who was also brother to King Stephen. It was awarded the status of Liberty, i.e. outside the jurisdiction of the authorities, and so was controlled by the notoriously corrupt Bishops. The estate was a huge complex of buildings which included stables, a tennis court, ponds and a prison.


With about 70 acres of land around Winchester Palace, they took proceeds from all commercial activity that took place in the Liberty, and were allowed to license brothels and prostitutes, bull and bear baiting and to house theatres, all of which were unlawful in other parts of the city. Prostitution was very commonplace in the area, the Bishops taking a cut of their income. The ladies were known as the Winchester Geese - geese because of the loud screeching they did to attract custom.

A drawing of the clink
The Clink 13th - 16th century

The prison started out as jail cells within the Winchester Palace complex, and the Bishops could imprison a wide range of people from local criminals, heretics to enemies of the King.


It was not a prison in the modern sense of the word, as people actually had to pay to be kept and fed there, meaning the wealthy had better conditions than others, who were forced to beg for food at the grates of their cells. The gaolers were underpaid and supplemented their income by taking money from the prisoners, hiring out beds, selling food, offering lighter chains and allowing them outside to work and beg.


By the 14th century, inmates at the Clink were living in terrible conditions. It flooded regularly and they often ended up waist deep in raw sewage and rats. Disease was rife with dysentery, typhoid and malaria all common ailments. There was no sanitation facilities and they would just all use the corner of the room. Many innocent people died inside whilst awaiting their trial.


Winchester Palace was raided by rioters in 1450 with the clerics being killed, prisoners released and the Clink burnt to the ground.

A mannequin of a priest praying
Catholic priests would still manage to worship inside the confines of The Clink

It was rebuilt and by the 16th century it held mainly heretics - the religious fervour of the times and the fact that the accepted religion changed with whoever was monarch meant that a lot of people were labelled as heretics. The gaolers would turn a blind eye for the right sum, and there was a secret chapel in the Clink where two famous inmates, Fathers John Gerrard and William Weston would hold mass for other Catholics. They would buy items such as oranges from the gaolers, and used orange juice as invisible ink to communicate with the outside world.

Torture was commonplace in medieval times, and the Clink was no exception. In fact one prisoner, a Catholic priest called Saxy, hanged himself inside as he was so afraid of being tortured. Displays include an execution block dripping with blood, a rack, scavengers daughter, iron boot, ball and chain, bridles, a chastity belt and a gibbet, complete with a rotting corpse and a crow sitting on top clutching an eyeball in its beak.


Executions were also common in the Clink - mainly by hanging, as beheading was saved for the condemned with high status, but being boiled to death was also in use, introduced by Henry VIII, and heretics were burnt at the stake. There are some grisly descriptions of executions on the information boards on the walls.

A mannequin of the Ratman
The Ratman

There is a display of The Ratman, Henry Broncker, who was a long term resident from 1670. Imprisoned for debt, he was unable to pay his way out of the Clink and remained there until he was released around 1712.


He would feed the rats on rubbish such as fat, parchment, leather and faeces, then kill the rat and eat it once it was fat and juicy. Although it sounds horrible, it was probably how he survived there for so long.


There are some impressive objects in the display cases, such as Oliver Cromwell's death mask, a lace glove worn by Charles I at his christening, a pewter spoon from 1600, a 17th century wooden snuff box with a detailed depicted of the Gunpowder Plot amongst other objects. Some are on loan from other museums, others have been found by 'mudlarkers' - people who search the muddy river banks of the Thames for treasures from its long history.

The prison was mainly used as a debtor's prison in its later years, the buildings crumbling and ruinous, until it burnt down in 1780 and was never rebuilt.


A visit here is an entertaining and informative one, albeit fairly brief. It ends with the opportunity to take a photo of yourself behind bars which you can download for free. I declined, but did enjoy watching others screaming behind bars for their photo.


If you get the chance, then you can wander a few roads down to Crossbones Graveyard, where many of the former inmates were buried in unmarked graves along with paupers and prostitutes. Bodies were just piled up on top of each other in pits, with over 15,000 remains in there by the time it closed in 1853. It is only occasionally open to the public, but you can peer through the gates.


VISITING THE CLINK


How to get to The Clink


Postcode: SE1 9DG

what3words: winks.butter.acted


Public Transport: The closest tube station is London Bridge


When is The Clink open?

Daily (except 25th December) 10am - 6pm


How much does it cost to visit The Clink?

Adult: £6

Children: £6


Are there any facilities at The Clink?

There is a small gift shop and loos.


Is The Clink good for kids?

Although dark and a bit gruesome it is not really frightening for kids, in fact it seems quite kid friendly with a trail and special kids facts on the information boards. Kids love a bit of mild horror and none of the kids visiting when I was there seemed anything other than entertained and amused. Very different to my trip to the London Bridge Experience where kids howled and had to be taken out!