There must have been some symbiotic reason – maybe to do with sin and redemption – why Clerkenwell was once so dominated by monasteries and prisons. They included the Priory of St John adjacent to St Mary’s Nunnery (both early 12th century) with Charterhouse (14th century) nearby and Blackfriars monastery a short walk away.
The road up from the Thames included the original Bridewell prison on the left or western side, then, after crossing Fleet Street, the Fleet Debtors prison was on the right. After that came the Clerkenwell House of Detention which was close by Cold Bath prison. The curious thing is that remnants of nearly all of them are still extant, though you may have to explore underground to find them.
None are more underground than the House of Detention, a dank and allegedly haunted prison, recently restored and rebranded as the Clerkenwell Catacombs. It was rebuilt in 1818 and later in 1847 on the site of two earlier prisons and achieved notoriety on December 13, 1867 when Fenians blew up part of it in an attempt to release Richard Burke, one of their arms suppliers.
Twelve bystanders were killed and over 100 wounded in a tragedy known as the “Clerkenwell outrage“. Some of the participants were executed, including Michael Barrett, the ringleader. He was the last person to be publicly executed at Newgate prison. When the House of Detention was demolished above ground in 1890, the much lauded Hugh Middleton school was built, before being converted into apartments in the 1960s.
The extensive cells and the vaults beneath, however, were retained and are well worth visiting on the occasions when they are open to the public. They are mainly used now for film locations and product launches but there are open days. Its address is Sans Walk EC1.
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