One of the places I was most excited about visiting during Open House London was Wandsworth Prison Museum, as it is so rarely open. This tiny, free museum in a small garage near the museum entrance is crammed with relics and artefacts relating to the history of Wandsworth Prison.
These include: examples of prison officer uniforms, an ‘escape board’ listing the names of inmates thought to be an escape risk, a selection of truncheons and handcuffs, and documents relating to the prison’s history. There is a photograph of ten-year-old Robert Davey, sentenced to three months in prison in 1874 for stealing rabbits, and and an Illustrated London News article about Kate Webster, the only woman to be executed at the prison: she was hanged in 1879 for killing her elderly employer, Julia Thomas. There is an original Victorian prison door, which was only replaced in the last few years. The hangman’s noose on display is actually a film prop, but the black cap which was worn by the judge pronouncing sentence of death is the real thing.
I had also been able to sign up for an architectural tour of the prison, which was a strange experience. The prison was built in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction, laid out in a panopticon style, with wings radiating out from a central chamber. At the time it was built it was hailed as the prime example of a modern prison, designed to accommodate the increasing numbers of prisoners that the smaller London jails could not cope with. It originally held both male and female prisoners, though now it is a male-only prison. We passed the former location of the condemned cells and the gallows, a sobering experience, and also paid a visit to the prison’s medical centre, where Oscar Wilde, one of the prison’s most famous residents, spent some time. Other notorious prisoners over the years have included John Haigh, Ronnie Kray, Derek Bentley and escapee Ronnie Biggs.
The tour was unusual and worthwhile; the museum is fascinating and well worth a visit.
Address: Heathfield Road, London, SW18 3HS
Opening Hours: Generally by written appointment only, but the museum sometimes opens on special weekends, such as Open House London weekend.