The Clink Prison Museum is located on the lower floors of a former warehouse on the original site of the Clink Prison, which gives its name to the slang term for all prisons, ‘the clink’. The prison dates back to 12th century making it one of the oldest men’s prisons and the oldest women’s prison in Great Britain. It housed no famous prisoners, the majority of inmates being debtors, unlicensed prostitutes, and religious heretics.
The Bishop of Winchester was the head of what is now the South Bank of London, then known as ‘The Liberty of the Clink’. The area was formerly in Surrey, but fell outside the jurisdiction of the High Sheriff and under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester, who was traditionally the Chancellor or the Treasurer of the monarch. Such areas (outside of county administration) were called ‘liberties’ and exercised more freedoms. The Clink Prison was used to police the liberty itself, but in the 16th century was used for any religious prisoners, the term Liberty of the Clink is first recorded in 1530.
Due to the relaxed judicial system within the liberty, and its proximity to the city of London itself, the area now known as Southwark became a hub of criminal activity: in 1161 the Bishop of Winchester received the power to license prostitutes and brothels within the liberty (provided the prostitutes were ‘clean’), he also maintained an unconsecrated cemetery called the Cross Bones for the prostitutes. The ‘single ladies’ – a common euphemism for prostitutes – who were licensed in Winchester were known as the Winchester Geese, ‘goose bumps’ were slang for certain symptoms of venereal disease, and ‘to be bitten by a Winchester goose’ was synonymous to contracting a venereal disease; the bishop’s best efforts to keep his ‘geese’ clean were in vain. Other unsavoury activities included bear-baiting, boar-baiting, gambling, and four theatres – in the 16th century a type of uncivilized, crude entertainment. The theatres were: The Rose, The Swan, The Hope, and of course, The Globe. (to see artifacts from The Globe which will help you understand life in The Liberty of the Clink go to the Shakespeare exhibition in the British Museum)
The bishop’s palace stands adjacent to The Clink, it was more than just a bishop’s residence, but the administrative centre of The Liberty of the Clink; part of the foundation and the famous Rose Arch Window (a marvel of medieval architecture) can still be seen behind The Clink Museum.
By 1780 The Clink had 2 registered prisoners, and was burned down as part of the Gordon Riots never to be rebuilt again. The bishop’s marvelous palace was destroyed in 1814.
The museum itself tells the scandalous story of The Liberty of the Clink and the prison itself, artifacts from nearby excavations illustrate the unsanitary living conditions in the prison, replica torture devices demonstrate that religious crime and debt were serious offences in the Middle Ages, and wax models tell the stories of known prisoners in The Clink. Rumour has it the museum is haunted: a woman rattles her chains in the corner, poor abandoned souls wander the corridors, dogs run through walls.
To complete the haunting trip to Southwark drop by the Cross Bones, to visit the prostitute’s cemetery where bodies were piled in unmarked graves, and excavations have revealed most bodies to be either women around age 30, and children under one year old. Who knew South London could be so creepy!
The Clink Prison Museum