Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 1: Westminster’s prison gate

by Victor Keegan

Victor Keegan is a former leader writer for the Guardian with great knowledge of technology and economics. He also knows a lot about London, including bits of its past that most of us don’t notice. This article is the first in a series about such bits.   

The Supreme Court, Britain’s highest court of appeal, looks boldly out over Parliament Square. But if you go around the back to a little used road called Little Sanctuary (so called because prisoners in medieval times used to be able to seek sanctuary there) you will see a stone-framed doorway that looks like the tradesmen’s entrance.

In fact it is the actual entrance to the long-demolished Tothill Fields prison, or House of Correction, dating back to the 17th century, which was built on the land on which Westminster Cathedral now stands at the other end of Victoria Street. The entrance is the only known part of the prison that survives apart from remnants of its foundations, which appear periodically when nearby streets are dug up.

It is not clear how it made its journey to the building now occupied by the Supreme Court, but history has its own serendipity – some of the prisoners who pass through prison doors end up with their cases being decided in the Supreme Court. Maybe we should view it more as an artwork or installation.

Victor Keegan writes the blog LondonMyLondon.co.uk. His book of London poems, featured by On London here, can be bought here. His next piece of Lost London will be found on this website next week.

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