Nell in Bridewell

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Cover of the first English edition of Nell in Bridewell (1900).
A female prisoner being birched at Bridewell.

Nell in Bridewell - Description of the system of corporal punishment (flagellation) in the female prisons of south Germany up to the year 1848 by Wilhelm Reinhard under the original title: Lenchen im Zuchthause (Young Helene in the House of Correction), tells the story of a maid servant who gets herself sentenced to penal servitude in prison. Upon incarceration the young woman gradually experiences the horrors and indignities of being a condemned prisoner without rights inside a 19th century penitentiary in Germany. The occurring events along with her thoughts and feelings, which frequently alternate between hope and abject fear, are told in the form of private letters to a close female friend, written behind the prison walls. The story culminates in a severe corporal punishment, which is publicly carried out.

The novel was orignally published in 1848 in German language. Nell in Bridewell is the title of the later English translation, done by W.C. Costello and A.R. Allison, released by the "Society of British Bibliophiles" (Charles Carrington) in Paris in 1900. A so-called "Bridewell", from the original "St. Bride's Hospital", was colloquial for a woman's prison in English usage.


The first person narrator Helene Reinhard ("Lenchen" as a German diminutive form of Helene indicating a still rather young age, "Nell" in the English translation) is sentenced for stealing money from her employer in order to help out her troubled fiancé. In her letters she describes in very explicit terms the merciless beatings she witnesses of adolescent girls and young women like herself, occasionally also of boys and young men. She also describes the confused emotions which such sights aroused in her and the deep anxiety about her own pending punishment she is desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get out of during the course of the book. Helene recalls the often lustful and relishing expressions on the faces of onlookers, records the strong words of gratitude to the skillful flogger from the lips of high-born ladies who were only too delighted to see such girls and women soundly whipped. She also tells of the apparently sensual appetites such cruelties brought out in the warders and floggers. She gives account of the warders' delight in humiliating and victimizing the imprisoned women, who are of course defenseless and have no rights or access to legal remedies behind those prison walls. In other words, the author describes what would later be called sadism as a typical trait notably of prison personnel.

The young servant Helene (Nell) recounts in vivid detail the dreadful whipping she herself was subjected to, the so-called "Welcome", a harsh and demeaning public flogging with a bull’s pizzle as an obligatory and factually inescapable procedure for every prisoner. The buildup to her final public beating follows the young delinquent's ultimately futile efforts and repetitious pleadings in order to get the terrifying penalty reversed. In one of the concluding letters the prisoner then describes the entire gruesome procedure. An assorted group of spectators from the local townsfolk are closely watching the happenings, cocky younger middle-class boys are sometimes mocking and teasing the condemned women as they are getting punished. After waiting in apprehension and also having to watch some of her prisoner friends getting brutally beaten, she too is finally restrained on the punishment bench, where she has to helplessly endure the excruciating chastisement, she had so desperately tried to avert. The way of publishing by a former prison warder suggests, that Helene's letters might have been intercepted by the prison authorities and probably not even been mailed out at all for being too inculpative for the penal system.


The following illustrations were made by the artist Martin van Maële for the 1900 English edition of Nell in Bridewell.

About the novel[edit]

Although Nell in Bridewell by itself is a work of fiction, the scenes described are based on fact and stem from the author's first-hand experiences as a warder in a women's penitentiary. The book had some influence in the course of prison reform. In several of the later chapters, various characters lecture one another on methods of punishment used in America, in England, and in the home.

The book, and its classic illustrations, have been reprinted several times. The unredacted version had a very limited release in the original German language, of which only very few copies still exist.

The novel has influenced other works of fetish-based fiction set in a corporal punishment-oriented prison. Cade0, for example, wrote a story inspired by Bridewell, portraying a version of the institution in Remnant for the web series RWBY. It can be found on DeviantArt.

Changes from the original manuscript[edit]

The published release is a redacted and slightly shortened version of the author's original manuscript, which covered more of the harsh realities of everyday life as experienced by the women behind those prison walls and the often unfortunate circumstances of their imprisonment, which were deemed too unbecoming for readers at that time. Passages were left out, which described the everyday discipline and punishments of the female prisoners, who were in fact beaten frequently by their warders for instances of misconduct, at this often arbitrarily and unfairly for very minor transgressions. All mentions that in reality the incarcerated girls and women had to go barefoot in prison were also removed, just as references that they were occasionally bound or put in shackles. Helene's hands were tied behind her back on several occasions throughout the book and her shoeless feet were always locked in iron shackles with chains, whenever she was allowed to work for the warden's wife doing needlework outside of the prison. In the realistic original depiction Helene's hands and feet were also shackled for her transport from the local jail to the penitentiary. The changes were made as those things were regarded as too harsh and offensive to be printed out for the public.

Helene's empathic descriptions of her severely punished friend Sabina's openly visible bare feet helplessly trembling in their restraints were also discarded by the German publishing house. Her close observations of Sabina's toes uncontrollably splaying, clenching and convulsing, written with the intent to illustrate the excruciating pain the female prisoners have to endure as they are mercilessly beaten on the punishment bench, were entirely left out. So were the either mocking or salacious comments by some of the spectators about the agitated movements of the women's bare feet while receiving their punishment. As in those times wearing shoes was a mandatory requirement in urban societies and being unshod fell under taboo in general, a woman with her bare feet fully exposed and even showcased in this manner was a highly uncommon sight. This of course attracted attention instantly, also in a lecherous manner especially from the partly still rather immature boys and men among the onlookers, who of course took considerable delight in the rare sight they were so freely offered. Those mentions were accordingly deemed too graphic and indecent as well, as they rather bluntly not only revealed, but even highlighted the unpopular reality, that the incarcerated women were all in fact forced to remain barefooted while in the house of correction. For those female prisoners being showcased sans footwear meant severe social ostracism long after the conclusion of their incarceration. In one of her futile pleas to get her punishment reverted Helene explains to the warden, how for any woman being publicly beaten like that with her bare feet exposed this means a manner of debasement, from which there can be no recovery within the civil community as they will be branded and stigmatized for all time.

For the same reason the publisher changed the actual beating on the prisoners' uncovered skin to the invention of having them wear specific underpants during their punishment. Among the various things left out were as well multiple accounts of corporal punishment, where some of the imprisoned girls and women were getting beaten underneath their bare feet with a rattan cane as a lower level disciplinary measure. Any hints of corruption had to be removed, such as warders seizing items from the prisoners to possibly keep or resell them. In the first local jailhouse that Helene had been put right after her police arrest, the jailer's daughter ordered her to hand over her valuable footwear, dearly bought from a shoemaker to wear in tenure, as well as all her further personal items of value. She never received any of them back, effectively robbing her of all her assets and leaving her barefoot. The latter was particularly detrimental and distressing for Helene as going with bare feet inevitably meant being degraded and severely humiliated in the public eye. From there Helene repeatedly pleaded in vain to receive back at least her shoes, also as they would have been crucial for her in finding future employment as a maidservant. In that chapter the jailer's daughter Christine was also described far more appealing in the final release as in the manuscript. In the original draft she also acted generally friendly towards roughly same-aged Helene, who had been put in her charge by the mostly absent actual jailer, while at times she was also rather cruel, intimidating and domineering, repeatedly demonstrating her power over the defenseless prisoner, also binding her on several occasions.

Lastly the final letter, denoting Helene's real fate, was entirely changed to give the book an idyllic and uplifting, but rather unrealistic happy ending. In the released version she finally regains her freedom and is happily reunited with her lover overseas, when originally she remains imprisoned after a harsh resentencing for another severe crime she didn't commit. Although no clear account is given it is hinted, that Helene might have been raped by the warden on several occasions following her resentencing, which was also a rather realistic depiction of the conditions in women's prisons at the time. Lastly no further account of the fiancé is given in the more realistic author's version, who apparently just took advantage of Helene and disappeared with the money she had stolen for him, which also mirrored the often rather bleak realism of that era.

See also[edit]