Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 7: the Millbank Penitentiary

Across the road from the Morpeth Arms pub, which stands between Vauxhall and Lambeth bridges on the north bank of the Thames, you will see a large stone post. It is an original, and marks the spot where prisoners were taken from the vast 18-acre Millbank Prison, where Tate Britain now stands, to be transported to Australia. It is said that the word “Pom” – as in Prisoner of Millbank – originated here. It is as good an explanation as any.

The octagonal prison, originally conceived as a national penitentiary, opened in 1816. It was devised by Jeremy Bentham to be run on liberal principles  (though it didn’t work out quite that way in practice) and could hold up to 1,000 men and women. Charles Dickens said  the discipline here was “rather severe”. It closed in 1890.

The Morpeth Arms, a carefully restored Grade 11 listed building purchased by Youngs in 1984, is situated across the road from the post at the western end of the former jail. Turn right as you come out of the main entrance to the Tate.

In its basement you can still see some of the cells (pictured above) and the blocked up entrance to the tunnel that prisoners passed through to reach a waiting boat on the river. If the bar staff are not busy, and you are a customer, ask nicely as they might, just might, even take you down there. 

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be read via here. Vic’s own website is here.

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