diamond geezer

 Friday, August 26, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
the Fleet Prison

Here's a site you don't see every day. They're building a new office block on Farringdon Street, on the site of what used to be the notorious Fleet Prison. Come back in a couple of years and there'll be a very shiny office block (called Ludgate West) here instead. But for the time being, if the blue gates in Old Fleet Lane are unlocked and open, you can peer in and see men in fluorescent yellow jackets at work where the ne'erdowells, debtors and petty bankrupts of London were once locked away. This brief period of reconstruction is a rare window into the past, except with JCB diggers where there ought to be tiny cell windows and wailing convicts. Here's a quick (and unexpectedly fascinating) history of the Fleet prison site:

1197: The first Fleet prison is built on a small eyot in the River Fleet, just outside the city walls. The prison has a square tower with four polygonal turrets, and the river provides a protective moat. [archaeological details here]
1381: The prison is burnt to the ground by Wat Tyler and his revolting peasants (and later rebuilt).
1666: The prison is burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London (and later rebuilt). [map here]
1667-1754: 'Fleet marriages' were semi-official weddings conducted by clergymen incarcarated in the Fleet Prison. These priests made a living by solemnising vows for couples without parental consent or for those who wanted to avoid tax and licence costs. During the 1740s it is estimated that 15% of all the marriages in England were held within the 'Rules of the Fleet'.
1735: Plate 7 of William Hogarth's famous series of paintings The Rake's Progress sees upper crust debtor Tom Rakewell locked away in the Fleet, surrounded by desperate women and lunatics.
1780: The prison is burnt to the ground during the Gordon Riots (and later rebuilt). [map here]
1837: Charles Dickens, whose parents were themselves condemned to a debtors' prison, casts fictional Mr Pickwick away in the Fleet.
1842: The Fleet prison is finally closed, and is pulled down four years later.
1865: A railway line is constructed down the Fleet valley from Farringdon to Blackfriars, through the rear of the old prison site. Holborn Viaduct station survives until 1969. [network maps from 1899, 1905, 1935 and 1969]
1872: The Congregational Memorial Hall is built on the site of the Fleet prison, a spiky Gothic meeting house which is the headquarters for an offshoot of Methodism.
1900: The Labour Party is founded here, on this very spot, at a conference held in the main hall on 27 February 1900. (See, I told you this place was historic)
1969: As Farringdon Street becomes a characterless street of soulless office blocks, the Congregational Memorial Hall is knocked down to be replaced by a soulless office block called Caroone House. [archaeological details here]
2007?: A new soulless office block called Ludgate West opens on the site of Caroone House, on the site of the Congregational Memorial Hall, on the site of at least six different Fleet prisons, on a site of great history.

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