Bridewell Palace, London.

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Bridewell Palace was a Royal Palace, then a home for the poor,a hospital, a house of correction, a prison, and a house of occupation over it's 350 years of usage. This is a history of its occupation and usage, including some selected details of certain periods of its history. The Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is believed to be based on Bridewell Palace, and so is known, indirectly, to many. It may well be better known from The Harlot's Progress by William Hogarth from a set of six engravings from 1732, that charts the downfall of country girl Molly Hackabout who succumbs to prostitution and ends up in Bridewell, such offenders being the most recognised in the hospital as detailed below.


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 5-6C), who's water was supplied by the nearby river Fleet. At that time it was known as Fleet ditch getting it's 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 of which Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was greatly involved and proud, it being his pet project (which was abandoned after his fall from grace in 1530). Shortly after this it 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, Kt.1, the Secretary of State, and Sir John Gates Gates is probably best known for his 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., the King’s bailiff2. In this way he secured the premises to be used as a home for ‘Him' (inferring ‘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 Hospital. St. Bethlehem was known colloquially as Bedlam and it is from here the expression It is sheer bedlam! comes from, 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 Imperial War Memorial was built on the site. Edward VI was to be its Founder and Benefactor but King Edward 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 Dobbs3, and Sir George Barnes4, to build what Ridley calls 'Christ’s Holy Hospitals', namely Christ's, St. Bartholomew, St. Thomas' and Bridewell. Twenty four Aldermen and commoners were selected to form a committee and were 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. ie

a) The fatherless poor man's child.

b) The aged, blind and lame.

c) The diseased by way of leprosy, dropsy etc.

Poor by casualty

a) The wounded soldiers.

b) The decayed householder.

c) Those visited by a grievous disease.

The thriftless poor

a) The rioter that consumeth all.

b) The vagabond that will abide in no place.

c) The idle person, as dissolute women and others.

For the above it was felt three seperate 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 vagabond, idle, and dissolute..

These two men secured Bridewell Palace for just such an establishment. 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 it’s 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 it’s population had grown beyond it’s walls, creating suburbs outside of them and many from these districts were vainly seeking work. However some were less honest, and formed large gangs of brigands, hoodlums and robbers who preyed on the townsfolk and the poor, creating more misery and mayhem than already existed.

House of Punishment

It was not long before Bridewell Palace went from a Home for the Poor to 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 criminal, drunkard and those who were work shy. Inmates would be made to power the treadmills, be involved in various tasks from the wool trade and 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, such as spinning and carding, or to being on the sewer cleaning gang.’

Women were used for clothmaking, apprentices for 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 and on the lighters, 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 of tradesmen to send work to Bridewell so that production at Bridewell 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 latin bedellus, was corrupted in old English to bydel and eventually in middle English to bedel. They 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, known as alms, to visit taverns, alehouses, dicing houses, bowling alleys, tennis plays or other suspected places of likely evil activity. Beadles were made obsolete in 1785.

Punishments were often meted out to inmates upon their arrival, with some adults receiving twelve lashes, and children six. It was usually 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 cells was also common. These floggings became so popular with onlookers, especially when female inmates were being punished, that a special gallery had to be built for the visitors.

The Beginnings of the Educational Establishment.

Later, 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 signified a change in the stance of the Hospital, which had started a form of apprenticeship in 1557. In the Nomenclature, 1585 is mention of ‘a workhouse where servants be tied to their work at Bridewell: A house of correction; a prison...’. The date of the introduction of Art-masters and apprenticeships 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 and the first appointment of the equivalent of an apprentice appears to be when Thomas Scarlet was bound on 28 March 1598 for seven years.. 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. The cachement area grew due to bequests by Locke, Fowke and Palmer to foster and encourage these apprenticeships.

Bridewell was largely destroyed in the conflagration that was the Great Fire in 1665 and was hastily rebuilt in 1666/7 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 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.

On the 14 June 1792 a notice to quit was given to the art-masters as strong opinion had been expressed that the system was extravagant and useless. In 1799 a report recommended the institution of a 'School of Occupation' for 'the reception of destitute persons discharged from prisons and hospitals'. The apprenticeships resumed in May 1799. In 1818, in a report from the Committee of the House of Commons, Bridewell was referred to as a 'House of Correction', but was almost useless as a place of education, with only twenty eight apprentices, down from ninety three twenty one years previously. On June 1821 the Court passed a resolution to alter the classification and superintendence of the prison of Bridewell to return the hospital to a House of Occupation.

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. It’s 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. Education included the taught trades of baking, bootmaking, brewing, ropemaking and tailoring, although religious education was of paramount importance.

Over a period of 23 years 1,632 youths 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 due to the convicted and non-convicted youths co-mingling not least in maintaining discipline, as well as non-convicted being trained or threatened by the convicted. Many boys, on completion of their period at Bridewel,l went on to join the Royal Navy. In the 1850's, of 140 boys discharged, sixty two enlisted, with a further twelve joining the Merchant Navy. Of the 68 girls discharged, 50 went into service. All were deemed 'much improved'.

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 to 16. Under the new scheme this was lowered to 12 - 15 year olds, with some as young as 10. The institution also opened it’s admissions to anyone, including those from outside the Parish, thus becoming truly national. It’s remit was also as a School of prevention of crime, such that criminal children would not be accepted except under special circumstances.

However Bridewell had outgrown it's site, 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. Keysers' Royal Hospital and then Unilever built on the site subsequently.

It was from the name Bridewell that other correctional establishments, such as Tothill Fields 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 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 F.S.A. Treasurer of THE ROYAL HOSPITALS OF BRIDEWELL AND BETHLEHEM 1888. (Out of Copyright.
  • 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.
1The traditional means of indicating someone has been knighted, and has Knight after his name.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.3(Also spelled Dobbis or Dobbes) Lord Mayor of London, 1551, and the first President of Christ's Hospital.4(Also spelled Barne) Lord Mayor of London 1552, and second President of Christ's Hospital.

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