Bridewell

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Old Bridewell, Cheapside, Liverpool (2006).
A female prisoner being birched at Bridewell.

Bridewell Palace on the Fleet in London was ordered built in 1515 by Henry VIII and has given its name to prisons and police stations throughout the British Empire - a quaint irony for what was once a magnificent royal dwelling.

Although it must seem nowadays that a place in which people were forcibly incarcerated and subjected to whipping and hard labour was a prison of the nastiest kind, authorities drew a marked distinction between the reforming discipline of Bridewell and the chaotic, perilous squalor of the gaols of the time. Imprisonment was a last measure, reserved for those whom even the Bridewell could not reform. For a time there were disputes regarding the morality and legality of locking up those whose only offence was that of being poor and homeless, with some even claiming the system was an infringement of the Magna Carta, but these objections soon faded.

Like Bedlam and other institutions of the kind, Bridewell became a novelty, a diversion for the curious and for those whose prurient appetites ran to watching the flogging of naked and near-naked women. At first, punishments were carried out in a small room, hung with black, at the southwest corner of the courtroom. When the chairman was satisfied justice had been well and truly done to the body of the prisoner (male or female), he would knock smartly on the bench with his gavel. Of these flogging judges, Sir Thomas Middleton, president of the Bridewell for 18 years, is perhaps the best known, primarily for the cry of "Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock!" which was often shouted after him in the street. Bridewell whippings eventually became so popular that a balustraded gallery was built in the courtroom to hold all the onlookers. Most of the old palace was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, only to be immediately rebuilt and set to use much as before. In 1833 the prison was brought under state control and in 1855 was finally closed. The whipping of females at Bridewell was abolished in 1791.

Bridewell also gave its name to the famous corporal punishment novel Nell in Bridewell by Wilhelm Reinhard (original title: Lenchen im Zuchthaus), published in 1900.

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