King's Bench Prison
The King's Bench Prison was a prison in Southwark
Southwark is a district of south London, England, and the administrative headquarters of the London Borough of Southwark. Situated east of Charing Cross, it forms one of the oldest parts of London and fronts the River Thames to the north...

, south London, from medieval times until it closed in 1880. It took its name from the King's Bench
King's Bench
The Queen's Bench is the superior court in a number of jurisdictions within some of the Commonwealth realms...

 court of law in which cases of defamation, bankruptcy
Bankruptcy is a legal status of an insolvent person or an organisation, that is, one that cannot repay the debts owed to creditors. In most jurisdictions bankruptcy is imposed by a court order, often initiated by the debtor....

 and other misdemeanours were heard; as such, the prison was often used as a debtor's prison
Debtor's prison
A debtors' prison is a prison for those who are unable to pay a debt.Prior to the mid 19th century debtors' prisons were a common way to deal with unpaid debt.-Debt bondage in ancient Greece and Rome:...

 until the practice was abolished in the 1860s. In 1842, it was renamed the Queen's Prison, and later became the Southwark Convict Prison.


The first prison was originally constructed from two houses and was situated in Angel Place, off Borough High Street
Borough High Street
Borough High Street is a main street in Southwark, London running south-west from London Bridge, forming part of the A3 road, which runs from London to Portsmouth.- Overview :...

, Southwark - as with other judicial buildings it was often targeted during uprisings, being burned in 1381 and 1450. During the reign of King Henry VIII
Henry VIII of England
Henry VIII was King of England from 21 April 1509 until his death. He was Lord, and later King, of Ireland, as well as continuing the nominal claim by the English monarchs to the Kingdom of France...

, new prison buildings were constructed within an enclosing brick wall. This was eventually demolished in 1761.

New building

Its 1758 replacement was built at a cost of £7800 on a 4 acres (16,187.4 m²) site close to St George's Fields (south of Borough Road, close to its junction with Blackman Street/Newington Causeway
Newington Causeway
Newington Causeway is a road in Southwark, London, England, between the Elephant and Castle and Borough High Street. The Elephant and Castle tube station is at the southern end....

, and a short distance from Horsemonger Lane Gaol
Horsemonger Lane Gaol
Horsemonger Lane Gaol was a prison close to present-day Newington Causeway in Southwark, south London.-History:...

; today the site is occupied by the Scovell housing estate). Although much larger and better appointed than some other London prisons, the new King's Bench still gained a reputation for being dirty, overcrowded and prone to outbreaks of typhus
Epidemic typhus is a form of typhus so named because the disease often causes epidemics following wars and natural disasters...

. Debtors had to provide their own bedding, food and drink. Those who could afford it purchased 'Liberty of the Rules' allowing them to live within three square miles of the prison.

On 10 May 1768, the imprisonment in King's Bench of radical John Wilkes
John Wilkes
John Wilkes was an English radical, journalist and politician.He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives...

 (for writing an article for the The North Briton
The North Briton
The North Briton was a radical newspaper published in 18th century London. The North Briton also served as the pseudonym of the newspaper's author, used in advertisements, letters to other publications, and handbills....

, that severely criticized King George III) prompted a riot - the Massacre of St George's Fields
Massacre of St George's Fields
On 10 May 1768, the imprisonment in King's Bench Prison of the radical John Wilkes prompted a riot at St George's Fields. After the reading of the Riot Act, six or seven people were killed by troops, starting with a young man named William Allen...

 - in which five people were killed. Like the earlier buildings, this prison was also badly damaged in a fire started in the 1780 Gordon Riots
Gordon Riots
The Gordon Riots of 1780 were an anti-Catholic protest against the Papists Act 1778.The Popery Act 1698 had imposed a number of penalties and disabilities on Roman Catholics in England; the 1778 act eliminated some of these. An initial peaceful protest led on to widespread rioting and looting and...


In 1842 it became the Queen's Prison taking debtors from the Marshalsea and Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison was a notorious London prison by the side of the Fleet River in London. The prison was built in 1197 and was in use until 1844. It was demolished in 1846.- History :...

s and sending lunatics to Bedlam
Bethlem Royal Hospital
The Bethlem Royal Hospital is a psychiatric hospital located in London, United Kingdom and part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Although no longer based at its original location, it is recognised as the world's first and oldest institution to specialise in mental illnesses....

. Fees and the benefits they could buy were abolished, and soon after it passed into the hands of the Home Office
Home Office
The Home Office is the United Kingdom government department responsible for immigration control, security, and order. As such it is responsible for the police, UK Border Agency, and the Security Service . It is also in charge of government policy on security-related issues such as drugs,...

 during the 1870s, it was closed and demolished.

Literary connections

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 dramatist Thomas Dekker was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison because of a debt of ₤40 to the father of John Webster
John Webster
John Webster was an English Jacobean dramatist best known for his tragedies The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, which are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare.- Biography :Webster's life is obscure, and the dates...

, from 1612 to 1619. In prison he continued to write.

In Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens
Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame than had any previous author during his lifetime, and he remains popular, having been responsible for some of English literature's most iconic...

' David Copperfield
David Copperfield (novel)
The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery , commonly referred to as David Copperfield, is the eighth novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a novel in 1850. Like most of his works, it originally appeared in serial...

Mr Micawber is imprisoned for debt in the King's Bench Prison. Madeline Bray and her father lived within the Rules of the King's Bench in Nicholas Nickleby, while the prison is also discussed by Mr. Rugg and Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit
Little Dorrit
Little Dorrit is a serial novel by Charles Dickens published originally between 1855 and 1857. It is a work of satire on the shortcomings of the government and society of the period....


In Herman Melville
Herman Melville
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and the posthumous novella Billy Budd....

's Billy Budd, Sailor, King's Bench is referenced when Melville describes John Claggart as being possibly arraigned at King's Bench.

In James William Newham's "The Diary of a Prison Governor", Newham (1825–1890) makes reference to the period his step-father, a Mr Henry Benthall, spent in Queens Bench in 1839 for bankruptcy, after running up debts to the tune of £15,000 following the failure of his business as a wine merchant in The Strand. James Newham (at this time aged 14) recalls staying over on occasions, with his mother, in Benthall's rooms at the prison, where such proceedings were winked at "for a consideration". On his release, Mr Benthall had to live within "the rules of the prison" i.e. the immediate neighbourhood.
It was 12 years later that the diarist, through connections of his step-father, secured a position as clerk at Maidstone Gaol, which in turn led to his (Newham) becoming Assistant Governor of Maidstone and later Governor of St Augustine's Prison Canterbury in 1878.
Between 1857 and 1876, James Newham oversaw the hanging of 24 inmates (all of them murderers) including that of Frances Kidder in 1868. Kidder (25)was found guilty of drowning her 12 year old step daughter, Louisa Staples, in 12 inches of ditch water. Following a change in attitudes and the law, she became the last woman to be publicly executed in England.
Less severe punishments included lashings (usually up to 20 lashes applied) and solitary confinement, as well as the daily routine of a 6 hour shift spent on the treadmill for those prisoners set to hard labour.

Notable inmates

  • Claude de la Colombière
    Claude de la Colombière
    Saint Claude de la Colombière was a Roman Catholic priest and the confessor of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. His feast day is the day of his death, 15 February...

  • Richard Baxter
    Richard Baxter
    Richard Baxter was an English Puritan church leader, poet, hymn-writer, theologian, and controversialist. Dean Stanley called him "the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen". After some false starts, he made his reputation by his ministry at Kidderminster, and at around the same time began a long...

  • Thomas Brown
    Thomas Brown (loyalist)
    Thomas 'Burnfoot' Brown was an English Loyalist during the American Revolution.Intending to become a quiet colonial landowner, he lived instead a turbulent and combative career...

  • Marc Isambard Brunel
    Marc Isambard Brunel
    Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, FRS FRSE was a French-born engineer who settled in England. He preferred the name Isambard, but is generally known to history as Marc to avoid confusion with his more famous son Isambard Kingdom Brunel...

     (engineer, imprisoned 1821, for debt)
  • William Combe
    William Combe
    William Combe was a British miscellaneous writer. His early life was that of an adventurer, his later was passed chiefly within the "rules" of the King's Bench Prison. He is chiefly remembered as the author of The Three Tours of Dr. Syntax, a comic poem...

  • Edmund Curll
    Edmund Curll
    Edmund Curll was an English bookseller and publisher. His name has become synonymous, through the attacks on him by Alexander Pope, with unscrupulous publication and publicity. Curll rose from poverty to wealth through his publishing, and he did this by approaching book printing in a mercenary...

  • Alexander Davison
    Alexander Davison
    Alexander Davison was an English businessman, born on 2 April 1750 in Lanton, Northumberland, England and who died in 1829 in Brighton, England. He was a contemporary and close friend of Admiral Lord Nelson....

     (imprisoned for fraud, 1804)
  • John Galt (imprisoned c. 1829)
  • Robert Gouger
    Robert Gouger
    Robert Gouger was one of the founders of South Australia and colonial secretary.-Early life:Gouger was the fifth son of nine children of George Gouger , who was a prosperous city merchant, and his wife Anne, née Sibley. Robert was educated at Nottingham, England, and on leaving school he entered...

  • Emma, Lady Hamilton
    Emma, Lady Hamilton
    Emma, Lady Hamilton is best remembered as the mistress of Lord Nelson and as the muse of George Romney. She was born Amy Lyon in Ness near Neston, Cheshire, England, the daughter of a blacksmith, Henry Lyon, who died when she was two months old...

  • Thomas Curson Hansard
    Thomas Curson Hansard
    Thomas Curson Hansard was the son of the printer Luke Hansard.In 1803, he established a press of his own in Paternoster Row. In the same year, William Cobbett, a newspaperman, began to print the Parliamentary Debates...

  • Benjamin Haydon
    Benjamin Haydon
    Benjamin Robert Haydon was an English historical painter and writer.-Biography:Haydon was born in Plymouth. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Cobley, rector of Dodbrooke, near Kingsbridge, Devon. Her brother, General Sir Thomas Cobley, was renowned for his part in the siege of Ismail...

  • Henry Hetherington
    Henry Hetherington
    Henry Hetherington was a leading British Chartist.- Early years :Henry Hetherington was the son of a London tailor, John Hetherington , and was born on 17 June 1792, at 16 Compton Street, Soho, London...

  • Alexander Holborne
    Alexander Holborne
    Captain Sir Alexander Holburn, 3rd Baronet was a Scottish sea captain in the Royal Navy...

  • William Hone
    William Hone
    William Hone was an English writer, satirist and bookseller. His victorious court battle against government censorship in 1817 marked a turning point in the fight for British press freedom.-Biography:...

  • Jeremiah Lear (stockbroker father of Edward Lear
    Edward Lear
    Edward Lear was an English artist, illustrator, author, and poet, renowned today primarily for his literary nonsense, in poetry and prose, and especially his limericks, a form that he popularised.-Biography:...

    ) (bankrupt, c. 1816)
  • John Mytton
    John Mytton
    John Mytton was a notable British eccentric and Regency rake.- Family :John "Mad Jack" Mytton was born to a family of Shropshire squires with a lineage that stretched back some 500 years before his day...

  • John Pell
    John Pell
    -Early life:He was born at Southwick in Sussex. He was educated at Steyning Grammar School, and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of thirteen. During his university career he became an accomplished linguist, and even before he took his B.A. degree corresponded with Henry Briggs and...

  • John Penry
    John Penry
    John Penry is Wales's most famous Protestant martyr.-Early life:He was born in Brecknockshire, Wales; Cefn Brith, a farm near Llangammarch, is traditionally recognised as his birthplace. He matriculated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in December 1580, being then probably a Roman Catholic; but soon...

     (martyr, briefly incarcerated before his execution in 1593)
  • Moses Pitt
    Moses Pitt
    Moses Pitt was a bookseller and printer known for the production of his Atlas of the world, a project supported by the Royal Society, and in particular by Christopher Wren...

     - publisher who, in 1691, published The Cry of the Oppressed, a moving appeal on behalf of himself and all prisoners for debt across the nation.
  • Edward Henry Purcell
    Edward Henry Purcell
    Edward Henry Purcell , organist, printer, and music publisher, was the son of Edward Purcell, and grandson of the English Baroque master, Henry Purcell. He was a chorister in the Chapel Royal in 1737...

    , grandson of Henry Purcell
    Henry Purcell
    Henry Purcell – 21 November 1695), was an English organist and Baroque composer of secular and sacred music. Although Purcell incorporated Italian and French stylistic elements into his compositions, his legacy was a uniquely English form of Baroque music...

    , organist, printer, and music publisher, imprisoned for debt, 1761)
  • Mary Robinson
    Mary Robinson (poet)
    Mary Robinson was an English poet and novelist. During her lifetime she is known as 'the English Sappho'...

     (poet, imprisoned with husband for his debts, 1775)
  • Robert Recorde
    Robert Recorde
    Robert Recorde was a Welsh physician and mathematician. He introduced the "equals" sign in 1557.-Biography:A member of a respectable family of Tenby, Wales, he entered the University of Oxford about 1525, and was elected a fellow of All Souls College in 1531...

     (imprisoned for debt, he died in the prison in 1558)
  • John Rushworth
    John Rushworth
    John Rushworth , English historian, was born at Acklington Park in the parish of Warkworth, Northumberland, England. He compiled a series of works called Historical Collections , concerning the period of history covering the English Civil Wars throughout the 17th century.-Background:John Rushworth...

  • Christopher Smart
    Christopher Smart
    Christopher Smart , also known as "Kit Smart", "Kitty Smart", and "Jack Smart", was an English poet. He was a major contributor to two popular magazines and a friend to influential cultural icons like Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding. Smart, a high church Anglican, was widely known throughout...

  • Charlotte Turner Smith
    Charlotte Turner Smith
    Charlotte Turner Smith was an English Romantic poet and novelist. She initiated a revival of the English sonnet, helped establish the conventions of Gothic fiction, and wrote political novels of sensibility....

     (poet, imprisoned 1784 with her husband Benjamin, for his debts)
  • William Smith
    William Smith (geologist)
    William 'Strata' Smith was an English geologist, credited with creating the first nationwide geological map. He is known as the "Father of English Geology" for collating the geological history of England and Wales into a single record, although recognition was very slow in coming...

     (geologist, imprisoned for debt, released 1819)
  • John Horne Tooke
    John Horne Tooke
    John Horne Tooke was an English politician and philologist.-Early life and work:He was born in Newport Street, Long Acre, Westminster, the third son of John Horne, a poulterer in Newport Market. As a youth at Eton College, Tooke described his father to friends as a "turkey merchant"...

  • John Wilkes
    John Wilkes
    John Wilkes was an English radical, journalist and politician.He was first elected Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives...

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