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Bridewell Palace, London

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The site of Bridewell Palace, as it is today - at New Bridge Street in London.

Bridewell Palace, London, UK, was a royal palace, then a home for the poor, a house of punishment, prison, hospital and ‘house of occupation’ over its 350 years of use. Its name became synonymous with correctional institutions and there are Bridewell prisons throughout Great Britain and Ireland as well as further afield. Built in the time of Henry VIII on a site between Fleet Street and the Thames to the west of New Bridge Street, the Bridewell Palace was finally demolished in the 19th Century. This is a history of its occupation and use, including some selected details of certain periods of its history.


Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is believed to be based on Bridewell Palace, and so the palace is known, indirectly, to many. It was built for £39,000, on the site of St Bride's Inn, for the patronage of King Henry VIII, who lived there from 1515 to 1523. Its name stems from a well dedicated to St Bride, a diminutive of St Brigid (an Irish saint of the 5th or 6th Century), whose water was supplied by the nearby river Fleet. At that time the river was known as Fleet Ditch, getting its name from the Anglo-Saxon fleot or flod meaning flood.

The palace was a large, spacious and rambling building surrounding three fair-sized courtyards. It was used for the Papal delegation to discuss Henry VIII's marriage annulment from Catherine of Aragon, his first wife. This was a matter which Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was greatly involved in and proud of, it being his pet project (which was abandoned after his fall from grace in 1530). Shortly after this, the palace was no longer required and was leased to the French Ambassador between 1531 and 1539.

Edward VI gave Bridewell Palace to the City of London in 1553. It is believed that the Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley, petitioned the king by writing to numerous important people, such as Sir William Cecyl, Kt1, the Secretary of State, and Sir John Gates, the King's bailiff2. The latter is probably best known for his later role in the brief reign of Queen Jane Grey, or Lady Jane Grey as she is better known, for which he was executed on 25 July, 1553, where at three blows, his head was stricken off.

Ridley secured the premises to be used as a home for ‘Him’ (implying ‘Master Christ’ as he styled Him but, in fact, meaning the homeless and hungry, pouring into London). The King finally agreed and it was officially established by Royal Charter; the Home was to be administered equally, by appointed Governors, along with the Royal St Bethlehem Hospital3. Edward VI was to be the Founder and Benefactor of the Bridewell, but he died two days after granting his benificence – a timely act and probably his last. It was Queen Mary who finally ratified the Charter in 1556 and it passed into the City's ownership.

It took Sir Richard Dobbs4 and Sir George Barnes5 to build what Ridley calls ‘Christ's Holy Hospitals’, namely Christ's, St Bartholomew, St Thomas' and the Bridewell. A committee of 24 aldermen and commoners was formed and was commanded to come up with a scheme to manage the poor. They came up with:

The Three Degrees of Poor

There were nine specific categories of poor which were listed in three ‘degrees’:

  • Poor by impotency

    • The fatherless poor man's child.
    • The aged, blind and lame.
    • The diseased by way of leprosy, dropsy etc.

  • Poor by casualty

    • The wounded soldiers.
    • The decayed householder.
    • Those visited by a grievous disease.

  • The thriftless poor

    • The rioter that consumeth all.
    • The vagabond that will abide in no place.
    • The idle person, as dissolute women and others.

For the above it was felt three separate houses were necessary:

  1. For the innocent and fatherless, the house that was the late Grey Friars' in London, but now called by the name of Christ's Hospital, was chosen.

  2. For the ill and injured the Hospitals of St Thomas' in Southwark and St Bartholomew's in West Smithfield were provided (both of which still occupy their original sites and are both hospitals of some note).

  3. Bridewell was chosen for the vagabonds, idle, and dissolute.

Many of those entering London had previously relied on ecclesiastical charity to survive, but this had disappeared with the suppression and dissolution of the monasteries and other religious establishments. The catchment area or jurisdiction of Bridewell Palace and its Parish Church, St Bride's, also covered the parishes of St Margaret's, Westminster and St Dunstan's encompassing Aldgate and Ludgate. London had rapidly expanded to the point that its population had grown beyond its walls, creating suburbs outside of them and many from these districts were seeking work in vain. However some were less honest, and formed large gangs of brigands, hoodlums and robbers who preyed on the townsfolk and the poor, creating even more misery and mayhem than already existed.

House of Punishment

It was not long before Bridewell Palace went from being a home for the poor to being a house of punishment for disorderly women and homeless children.

It became a combined prison, workhouse and hospital, following the dictat of the day, that punishment and enforced labour would reform the petty criminals, drunkards and those who were work-shy. Inmates would be made to power the treadmills, be involved in various tasks from the wool trade and it was stated that those lame of leg but whole of hand, should be occupied in making feather bed-ticks, wool cards, drawing of iron, spinning, carding, knitting and winding of silk etc. and that the stubborn and fouler sort be set to making nails and other ironwork.

Women were set to clothmaking, apprentices to the nailhouse and the vagabonds to the millhouses and bakery. The list of tasks or jobs was extensive, including manufacture of gloves, combs, lace, house apparel, woollen yarn, hose, pins, shoes, wool cards, nails, points (needles), knives, baize, brushes, tennis  balls, felt, the spinning of yarn or candlewick, working in the mills, as well as the unloading and carrying of sand from the large flat-bottomed barges, or lighters as they were called, which were used to convey goods from a cargo ship. Sand was used extensively for the building, tile and glass trade as well as for such things as abrasives and for soaking up mess in places such as ale-houses and sewage-drenched roads. It was also expected that tradesmen should send work to Bridewell so that production there would not suffer. Revenue from this trade would be used to provide food, bedding, tools and stock.


Beadles were important in the control of the streets and public buildings. The title, Beadle, derives from the Latin bedellus, which came into Old English as bydel, changing in Middle English to bedel before arriving at its modern form. The beadles were minor parish officials, previously employed in a church, and acted variously as parish constables or warrant officers. They patrolled their wards with their staffs to hand, in pairs, to apprehend vagrants and idle people. It was down to the Governors or Almoners, an official in a British hospital who looks after the social and material needs of the patient, to visit taverns, alehouses, dicing houses, bowling alleys, tennis plays6 or other suspected places of likely evil activity.

Punishments were often meted out to inmates upon their arrival, with some adults receiving twelve lashes, and children six. This applied particularly to the vagrants and prostitutes, but not solely so. Floggings were also the preferred method of punishment, although the removal of food, the use of manacles and incarceration in cells were also common. These floggings became so popular with onlookers, especially when female inmates were being punished, that a special viewing gallery had to be built for the visitors.

The Beginnings of the Educational Establishment

As well as being a 'house of correction', Bridewell was right from the start considered a house of education. Citizens, artificers (these were inventors, craftsmen, or others skilled in their trade), farmers and gentlemen were solicited to provide openings for servants and children for the kitchen or service. They would be provided with convenient clothing and be bound for a set number of years of service as well as a thorough instruction in reading, writing, grammar and music. This apprenticeship was there in the Bridewell from as early as 1557, the year after the prison opened. In the Nomenclature, 1585 is mention of ‘a workhouse where servants be tied to their work at Bridewell: A house of correction; a prison...’.

Later education went a step further, with the introduction of Art-masters; the date is unclear although there are references to a number of teachers in the late 16th Century. There is evidence that on 10 October, 1599, there was an agreement to teach both children of the freemen and the Parish a trade. On 8 December, 1606, Churchwardens of St Sepulchre, St Giles Cripplegate, St Bride, St Botolph, Aldersgate and Aldgate parishes were allowed to send any poor boy to take an apprenticeship.

Bridewell was largely destroyed in the conflagration that was the Great Fire in 1666 and was hastily rebuilt in the following year, demonstrating how important it was. Bridewell also became the first school/prison to employ a Physician, in 1700.

House of Occupation

In 1671 a school was set up for the inmates. However, in 1720 the Art-masters and apprentices were noted to be ‘very numerous’ but also disorderly. This was largely due to the free liberty they possessed. Another cause for concern was the ‘Bridewell boys’ and their ‘engine’. This engine was manned by boys from Bridewell and used to attend fires. The boys were noted, in November, 1755, for their courage and dexterity but also for the many injuries, drunkenness and debauchery. This latter was also being noted in the apprentices’ behaviour at Bartholomew and Southwark fairs. It meant some were seriously punished and permitted to continue, while others were stripped of their Hospital clothing and discharged. By 1827, they were regarded as peaceable and industrious lads. Their attendance at fires, though, appears to have ceased.

In 1821 a resolution was passed to return the Hospital back to a House of Occupation, taking males and females for instruction, (in trade, handicraft or occupation to occasion an honest livelihood) the unemployed to be usefully employed until discharged, and prisoners who had been freed at Sessions or requiring refuge and maintenance, being usefully employed while at the Hospital. The full resolution was not passed until 1828. It became a House of Occupation on 7 March, 1835. Its new directive to be ‘A reception for destitute objects of both sexes. They shall be disposed to work and be received at the expiration of their time of confinement and remain at the discretion of the Governors’. In 1836 the intake changed to include males and females between the ages of 8 and 19, being divided into persons of destitution and persons guilty of misconduct, excluding those convicted of offences against the law. Over a period of 23 years 1,632 young people were admitted of almost equal gender proportion. This was a school of two halves, one part being reformatory, and one being preventative. This caused problems in maintaining discipline, due to the convicted and non-convicted youths co-mingling as well as non-convicted being trained in criminal activities or threatened by the convicted.

King Edward's School

In 1860 a major change occurred. The name ‘House of Occupation’ was changed to ‘King Edward's School’. At some point between 1836 and 1860, the age of admission to the House of Occupation schooling had been changed to encompass those between 13 and 16. Under the new scheme, this was lowered to 12- to 15-year-olds, with some as young as ten. The institution also opened its admissions to anyone, including those from outside the parish, thus becoming truly national. Its remit was also as a school of prevention of crime, such that criminal children would not be accepted except under special circumstances.

Bridewell had outgrown its site, however, and the property was now unsuitable, so a new site was needed. Bridewell was closed and finally demolished in 1863-4. On 3 March, 1865, the first stone of the new school was laid at Witley, near Godalming, Surrey and a whole new chapter in the Bridewell Palace history began. De Keysers' Royal Hospital and then Unilever built on the site subsequently.

It was from the name 'Bridewell' that other correctional establishments, such as Tothill Fields7 and Clerkenwell in London got their name. Others included prisons as far away as Queen Street, Exeter, Rose Street, Aberdeen, Kirton Lindsey, Lincoln, and even as far as West 26th Street and California Avenue, Chicago, and New York City, USA! Today Bridewell is still recognised as a term for a detention facility.


  • Invitation to a Funeral, Molly Brown. ISBN 0-575-06132-4
  • Bridewell Royal Hospital, Past and Present, Alfred James Copeland, FSA. (available online).
  • Stype's Stow, vol i, p. 197.
  • CLRO, letter book Y 1575-9, ‘Orders for setting Rogues and Vagabonds on work in Bridewell’, ff. 334v-339.
  • Victorian Dictionary: City Bridewell
1Kt is an abbreviation for ‘Knight’.2In medieval England, bailiffs served the lord of the manor, while others served the hundred courts and the sheriff, amongst other important people of some power. The bailiffs of manors were, in effect, superintendents; they collected fines and rents, served as accountants, and were, in general, in charge of the land and buildings on the estate.3St Bethlehem was known colloquially as Bedlam and it is from here we get the expression It is sheer bedlam!, meaning a place or situation of noisy uproar and confusion or a Lunatic Asylum, probably due to the scenes of chaos and the volume of noise coming from the premises. The site is now occupied by the Imperial War Museum.4(Also spelled Dobbis or Dobbes) Lord Mayor of London, 1551, and the first President of Christ's Hospital.5(Also spelled Barne) Lord Mayor of London 1552, and second President of Christ's Hospital.6A tennis play was an indoor court for the game of real tennis.7Now the site of Westminster Cathedral.

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