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 5 feet 10 inches tall that looks like the tradesmen’s entrance.
In fact, it is the actual entrance to the long-demolished Tothill Fields Bridewell prison, dating back to 1618. It started off as a “house of correction”, enforcing employment on indolent poor people, but was eventually enlarged to become a full-blown prison. It was situated next door to the Greencoat School (roughly where the Greencoat pub is today in Greencoat Place, Victoria).
In 1834 the Bridewell was replaced by a larger prison nearby in Francis Street, where Westminster Cathedral now stands. It turned out to be much better for some than living outside. Almost half of inmates were recommittals compared with a national average of 25%.
It is not clear how the original entrance made its journey to the Supreme Court, but history has its own serendipity. Some 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.