Minute Books of the General Prison Committee of Bridewell (MB)

An elevated view of the Palace of Bridewell showing its two courtyards The Prospect of Bridewell from John Strype's, An Accurate Edition of Stow's Survey of London (1720). © Tim Hitchcock.


Bridewell was both a hospital and a house of correction, or prison. Three volumes of the minute books of the Prison Committee of Bridewell Prison survive for the late eighteenth century, when, influenced by the prison reform movement, efforts were made to improve conditions for the petty offenders imprisoned in Bridewell, and to create an environment more conducive to reforming them.

Prison Committee Minute Books

Alt text London Metropolitan Archives, Bridewell General Committee Minute Book, MS 33131/1, LL ref: GLBRMB201000007

Two of these volumes document the activities of the General Prison Committee. One covers October 1775 to December 1790, and the other July 1792 to December 1801. It is not known whether the Prison Committee met in the intervening period between December 1790 and July 1792, but given the increasing gaps between meetings at that time it may well not have. The second volume includes an index in the front.

The minutes of each meeting start by listing the committee members who attended, who were governors of Bridewell. They then record the decisions taken by the committee with respect to repairs and improvements to the prison and the policies for the treatment and punishment of the prisoners. With respect to the prison building some examples of the business recorded include the committee's decisions to: create separate cells for the prisoners; build an infirmary; provide a room for the apothecary to store medicines; provide bathtubs for the prisoners; fumigate the prison; and appoint or discharge the superintendent of prisoners and other officers.

With respect to the prisoners themselves, at various times the committee decided to: provide new types of work for the prisoners; prohibit the bringing of spirituous liquors into the prison; change the diet, clothes, and bedding provided to the prisoners; provide hammocks, but not beds; separate categories of prisoners; put prisoners in solitary confinement; punish disorderly prisoners in the stocks; stop whipping female prisoners (in 1792); and change the procedures for dealing with vagrants who were about to be passed back to their parish of settlement. These were general policy decisions and the names of individual prisoners are rarely mentioned.

There is also some discussion of the accommodation and furnishings provided for the Bridewell apprentices, including the provisions of beds and rugs. The second volume contains some material about the proposed abolition of the apprenticeships and eviction the arts masters, but this did not actually happen until 1827.

In the second volume the entries for each meeting include a list of the number (but not the names) of inmates in the hospital/prison, divided into men, women, children, and apprentices.

Minutes of the Prison Sub Committee

Alt text London Metropolitan Archives, Bridewell Prison Sub-Committee Minute Book, MS 33132/1, LL ref: GLBRMB201020004

In 1792 the governors decided to increase further the oversight of the prison by establishing a prison sub-committee, to meet weekly "in order to visit the prisons". A volume titled Memorandums [sic] of the Prison Sub-Committee is the third volume of this MB record series, and covers the period from 1 August 1792 to 29 April 1802.

Like the minutes of the General Committee, each entry starts with the names of the governors who attended. This is typically followed by a statement such as examined the prisons and found them clean, and then a list of the numbers of inmates currently in the prison and hospital, divided into men, women, children and apprentices. There is often an indication of how many prisoners were ill or incapable of work and how many were working, and at what type of work (beating or picking hemp, spinning, etc.). A few names of individual prisoners are mentioned when particular problems arose, such as if they had venereal disease, were "deranged in their senses", or needed clothing; or when they were ordered to be discharged, punished, or treated differently from the other prisoners. Like the General Committee Minute Books, this volume includes reports of decisions taken on policy issues concerning the treatment of prisoners in terms of the work provided and the conditions and upkeep of the prison. Because these minutes deal with much of the same business which was heard by the General Committee, this volume needs to be read alongside the General Committee Minute Books. Occasionally the committee dealt with problems concerning individual apprentices.

The reports become briefer as time went on, frequently only listing the governors who attended and the numbers and categories of inmates in the prison/hospital, with an indication of the types of work they were doing. Towards the end of the volume only occasionally is other business minuted, for example when the committee examined workmen who had suffered when a wall fell down in the men's prison in 1795.

Introductory Reading

  • Cowie, L. W. Bridewell, History Today, 23:5 (1973).
  • Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. Summary Justice in Early Modern London. English Historical Review, 121 (2006), pp. 796-822.
  • Griffiths, Paul. Lost Londons: Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City 1550-1660. Cambridge, 2008.
  • Hinkle, William G. A History of Bridewell Prison, 1553-1700. Lampeter, 2006.
  • O'Donoghue, E. G. Bridewell Hospital, Palace, Prison, Schools, [1]: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Reign of Elizabeth; [2]: From the Death of Elizabeth to Modern Times. 2 vols, 1923-9.

Online Resources

For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography

Documents Included on this Website

  • Bridewell and Bethlem, Minute Book, 1775-90, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 33131/1, LL ref: GLBRMB20100, Tagging Level: B
  • Bridewell and Bethlem, Minute Book, 1792-1802, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 33131/2, LL ref: GLBRMB20101, Tagging Level: B
  • Bridewell and Bethlem, Minute Book, 1792-1802, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 33132/1, LL ref: GLBRMB20102, Tagging Level: B