Prisons and historic palaces that once stood in London

Newgate Prison
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You won’t believe the buildings that once stood in the very heart of the city!

London has expanded and altered much over the course of its existence and continues to do so and many old and wonderful historical buildings have thankfully remained. Sadly though, many more have also been lost and are little known about. Passing by some of the city’s well known and now sometime lesser interesting places it is fascinating to think about what once stood there. Here are just some of London’s lost buildings. Some more pleasant than others.

Baynard’s Castle

Beynards Castle
Baynard’s Castle circa 1200s

Named after the nobleman Ralph Baynard; who arrived in London following the Norman Conquest, this long lost London fortification was situated at on the River Thames at Blackfriars. Scant clues remain of its existence but if you were to glance up at the nearby street signs you would discover Castle Baynard Street nearby, a modern-day reminder of what once proudly stood at the site. King John had the castle demolished in 1213 but a grand mansion house was later built a short distance from the site. The royal house of York made use of the building, basing themselves there when in London during the lengthy Wars of the Roses, with Edward IV being crowned there.

The building later came into the hands of Henry VII when he took the crown from Yorkist King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The new king then had it reconstructed into a royal residence.

King Henry III later gifted the residence to his first wife Catherine of Aragon as a wedding present. The Earl of Pembroke; the brother of Henry’s sixth and final wife Catherine Parr, came to own the building after the king’s death, and it passed through various hands until like many other buildings, it was destroyed in London’s Great Fire of 1666. Today, office buildings occupy the site.

Montfichet’s Castle (or Tower)

Montfichet’s Castle - artist impression
Montfichet’s Castle – artist impression

This little known castle was the near neighbour of Baynard’s Castle. Another Norman fortress, it was situated on Ludgate Hill midway between where St Paul’s Cathedral and Thameslink station now stand. Earliest recordings of the castle date back to the 1130s and it is thought that it was constructed late in the 11th century. During the revolt against King Henry II by his wifeEleanor of Aquitaine and their three sons, the castle’s defences were strengthened.

King John was also responsible for the demolition of this castle in 1213 and the site was later sold off to accommodate Blackfriars Priory. Waste pits and the remnants of ditches were uncovered in the 1980s when excavations were carried out by The Museum of London. It is also said that the Old Bailey was so named after the fort’s Bailey wall.

The Savoy Palace

Savoy Palace
Savoy Palace – Credit: Wikipedia

Savoy Palace was said to be the very grandest house of the nobility during in the middle ages. Sited on the Strand beside the River Thames, this fine edifice was in what was even then a prime location, away from the stench of the City of London and approaching the grand Palace of Westminster. John of Gaunt owned the palace and when he introduced a very unpopular poll tax in 1381 the uprising that ensued; known as the Peasants Revolt, brought about the destruction of the building. The building and its contents were burned, smashed or simply tossed into the Thames by the unhappy mob.

Canterbury Tales creator Geoffrey Chaucer also began penning the famous works whilst living there as a clerk.

Later in 1512, Henry VII had a hospital erected on the site. The Savoy hospital for the poor and needy was said to be the first to employ medical staff on a permanent basis. Later still in 1642, the site became a military hospital then later still a barracks in 1679. It was destroyed by fire in 1779 when a prison had also come to be situated there.

Today the Savoy Hotel and Savoy Theatre occupy the site and take their names from it.

Millbank Penitentiary

Millbank Penitentiary
Millbank Penitentiary – Credit: Wikipedia

Strolling past or visiting the Tate Britain today, most of us would likely have no idea about the notorious prison that was once sprawled across the site, its neighbouring art collage and a pleasant large housing complex in the quiet leafy streets nearby. Millbank Prison was vast.

Opened in 1816, the prison was purchased by the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham on behalf of the Crown. The first arrivals were initially women, with men subsequently being incarcerated at Millbank from 1817. Those deemed to be likely candidates for reform were given five-ten year sentences in the institution; which was said to be a dreadful place, rife with disease and abject misery. Others were sent from there to great hulks on the Thames, from where they were transported to Australia.

There are far more clues to the existence of this Thames-side prison; if one knows where to look, than that of other lost buildings of London. Behind the Tate Britain is a low segment of wall, incorporated into the modern-day wall; yet much older and somehow out of place, thought to have surrounded the site, as well as the remnants of the moat to the rear of a residential building which once encircled the prison. It is now used by local residents for growing herbs and hanging out washing to dry. Excavations beneath the art college uncovered some of the prison’s cells and the nearby Morpeth Arms public house claims to have cells remaining in its cellar. There is also a belief that the Victorian redbrick Millbank housing estate was constructed from bricks recycled from the penitentiary. However, this is most unlikely since it well known that the prison was constructed of yellow brick, some of which have been discovered on the Thames foreshore close by, along with buttons bearing a symbol of the Crown, which are thought to be from the uniforms of the prisons officers who worked there, possibly coming loose as they escorted prisoners to waiting hulks in the Thames. Also a stone’s throw away in tranquil St John’s public gardens on Horseferry Road, lays quite out of sight the decaying gravestone of one of the prison’s Governors. A reminder that history lies all around us, yet is so often unseen or unnoticed.

Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison
Newgate Prison – Photo credit: peterberthoud.co.uk

So named because it was originally built into London’s old Roman wall, this hellish prison came to be when Henry II instigated legal reform giving the Crown more authority in administering justice. Newgate was rebuilt several times from the 12th century onwards until its demolition in 1902. Infamous for its horrific conditions, after a rebuild in 1782 the prison comprised of two main divisions, a common general section which housed societies poorest and most destitute and more comfortable state accommodation for those who could pay for it. Newgate was also the site of London’s public gallows, they having been relocated from Tyburn at modern day Marble Arch. Up until 1868, the execution of prisoners drew large crowds but after this time condemned men and women went to meet their maker from within the prison walls. Today we know the site better as the Central Criminal Court, or even better still as the Old Bailey but remnants of the prison do remain. In Amen Court to the rear of the present-day court building, you will find what survives of Newgate prison wall. Additionally, the prison bell; which rang out when an execution was imminent, can be found a short distance away in St Sepulchre’s church.

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