The governance of institutions such as Bridewell Prison and Hospital and St Thomas's Hospital was determined by their royal charters, which established courts of governors and authorised them to meet periodically to conduct the business of running the hospital and looking after its property. The minutes of these meetings constitute a formal record of their decisions.
The Court of Governors of Bridewell and Bethlem Hospital met every two or three weeks in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and then less frequently (sometimes only a few times a year) during the rest of the century. They met to discuss a wide variety of business.
The record of each meeting of the court starts with a list of the governors present, and then includes a list of offenders currently kept in Bridewell Prison, and the court's decisions about what to do with them. This is typically followed by decisions taken about matters pertaining to the running of the institution and its property, and the report ends with decisions taken about the Bridewell apprentices.
The governors were responsible for the appointment of new governors, as well as the appointment of all the hospital's officers, including the president, treasurer, and auditor general. They also appointed those who actually carried out the work of the hospital including stewards, beadles, porters, matrons, physicians, apothecaries, surgeons, nurses, and arts masters (for instructing the apprentices). They decided on salaries, and on annual gratuities which topped up the salaries. Much of the business of the court was taken up with the management of the hospital's finances and its properties, for example granting leases. Some of the governors' work was devolved to separate committees.
Petty offenders were committed to Bridewell by beadles, constables, and others figures of authority. Many were discharged before the Court met, particularly later in the century when the Court met infrequently, but the fates of those who remained in Bridewell when the meetings took place were determined by the governors. Most were simply discharged, as indicated by the abbreviation dd in the margin, followed by a number in a rough chronological series. This series was restarted every Easter, and probably corresponds to a numbered register of inmates which has not survived. These numbers allow the size of the prison population to be calculated, while gaps in the series reflect prisoners who were taken into Bridewell, but who were discharged before the Court met.
Some prisoners were discharged to their master or father, while others were ordered to be whipped. This is indicated with the abbreviation in the margin of pun for punished; or else they were ordered to hard labour. Some were simply cont (continued), or ordered for re-examination, while others were to be removed to their parish of settlement.
Unless described as an old prisoners, indicating that they had been brought before a previous meeting of the Court, the prisoners' offences were briefly described in the minutes. These delinquencies include a very wide variety of minor vice, vagrancy and property crimes, or often a combination of offences. Most frequently, prisones were accused of:
- prostitution, with the women often described as nightwalkers or accused of strolling in the streets and picking up men
- pilfering and other petty thefts
- being runaway or disorderly apprentices and servants
- being pedlars and petty chapman selling goods without a licence
- having been taken wandering or sleeping in the streets
- having with no visible means of earning a living
- abusing the poor relief system (insulting officers; pawning the clothes provided; making fraudulent claims; carrying counterfeit passes; returning to the City of London after being passed to their parish of settlement). Elizabeth Eaton, for example, was suspected of carrying a fraudulent pass and "makeing it her business to impose on parishes".
- committing a host of other types of disorderly conduct, including swearing, drunkenness, and assault, or simply loose, idle and disorderly conduct
It is likely that the majority of prisoners were discharged in between meetings of the governors, and therefore are not recorded in these minutes. This becomes increasingly the case over the eighteenth century as the intervals between meetings of the Court grew longer.
Pauper apprentices were kept in Bridewell in order to learn a trade, such as weaving, shoemaking, or glove making, from the arts masters. Decisions about these boys (and they were exclusively boys), were taken by the governors at the start and end of their apprenticeships, and at other times when problems arose or they needed assistance. Specifically, the minutes record the governors' decisions with respect to:
- the admission of new apprentices by placing them in indentures. These entries in the minutes are typically abbreviated in the margins as indre, with the date of the indenture specified, as in "Indre dat 14th. Apr. 1720". The names of the apprentice, arts master, and governor who nominated the apprentice are listed, as in "Mathew Franklyn, to Tho. Swynburne P Col. Withers", where Franklyn is the apprentice, Swynburne the master and Withers the governor.
- disciplining apprentices who misbehaved (a regular problem). For a register of disciplinary cases, see IA.
- making apprentices free of the City of London on the completion of their apprenticeship, allowing them to leave Bridewell, set up a trade, and participate in City elections
- responding to petitions from former apprentices requesting assistance with carrying on their trade, in the form of a charitable grant from a fund known as Lock's Gift. Those who were deemed to be of good character frequently received £10.
The General Court of Governors was the primary organ of the hospital's government. It was held annually, with special meetings called from time to time for specific tasks such as electing new senior officers. The record of each meeting of the Court starts with a list of the attending governors, usually chaired by the hospital's president. This is often immediately followed by reports from the Grand Committee for discussion and decision-taking, if needed, by the Court.
The business of these meetings included the election of the hospital's senior officers, setting the salaries of officers and maintaining discipline; selecting Committee members; drawing up and revising hospital policies on the conduct and regulation of patients and medical staff; decisions concerning major work on the buildings and fabric of the hospital; administering bequests and legacies; and administering the hospital's extensive properties and estates and granting leases. The governors' powers of patronage with regard to the latter made the hospital a powerful influence in London, and on occasion struggles for political control of the hospital with the City or the Crown also surface in the minutes.
- 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.
- Lawrence, Susan C. Charitable Knowledge: Hospital Pupils and Practitioners in Eighteenth-Century London. Cambridge, 1996.
- McInnes, Eilidh Mary. St Thomas's Hospital, London, and its Archives. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 1 (1959), pp. 277-82.
- O'Donoghue, E. G. Bridewell Hospital, Palace, Prison, Schools, : From the Earliest Times to the End of the Reign of Elizabeth; : From the Death of Elizabeth to Modern Times. 2 vols, 1923-9.
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1689-95, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-16 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20201, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1695-1701, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-17 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20202, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1701-13, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-18 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20203, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1713-22, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-19 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20204, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1722-37, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-20 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20205, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1738-51, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-21 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20206, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1751-61, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-22 (Box C04/3), LL ref: BBBRMG20207, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1762-81, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-23 (Box C03/2), LL ref: BBBRMG20208, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1781-92, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-24 (Box C03/2), LL ref: BBBRMG20209, Tagging Level: B
- Bridewell and Bethlem, Minutes of the Court of Governors, 1792-1800, Bridewell and Bethlem Archives, Ms. BCB-25 (Box C03/2), LL ref: BBBRMG20210, Tagging Level: B
- St Thomas's Hospital, Court of Governors Minute Books, 1690-1735, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. HO1/St/A/001/006, LL ref: LMTHMG55301, Tagging Level: B
- St Thomas's Hospital, Court of Governors Minute Books, 1736-84, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. HO1/St/A/001/007, LL ref: LMTHMG55302, Tagging Level: B
- St Thomas's Hospital, Court of Governors Minute Books, 1784-1800, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. HO1/ST/A/001/008 pt. 1, LL ref: LMTHMG55303., Tagging Level: B