London’s Vanishing Dungeons (Compters)
A Compter was a small English prison controlled by a sheriff and used for minor lawbreakers such as debtors, drunks, prostitutes and homosexuals. But their inmates were overwhelmingly debtors. They existed from medieval times and were all closed by the mid-19C, their inmates being dispersed to other institutions.
The City of London had Compters, though usually larger lock-ups until fairly recent times. The original Compter buildings have, like so much of London’s history, been swept away, but here and there the underground cells of former Compters survive.
The compter was unusual in reflecting precisely the social conditions outside the prison: it had three sections — the best section, the master’s side as it was known, was for the wealthy and aristocratic. The knight’s side was for those of some means, however small. And the hole was for the common people.
Mitre Square, a small square in the City of London, contains the remains of the Wood Street Compter. The south corner of the square was the site of the murder of Catherine Eddowes by Jack the Ripper. They found there her mutilated body at 1:45 in the morning on 30 September 1888. This was the westernmost of the Whitechapel murders and the only one within the City.
The compter once housed some 70 prisoners. It was built in 1555 and was under the control of the sheriffs of London. It seems to have been used as a lock-up, but also, curiously, as a debtor’s prison and even to house the overflow of prisoners when nearby Newgate was full. For centuries all trace of it was assumed to have vanished, but early in the twentieth century the former dungeons were rediscovered. One wonders how many other parts of ancient London lay undiscovered.
Until relatively recently, an underground staircase in Mitre Court EC2 was protected by iron railings and a canopy and reputed to be the entrance to Wood Street debtors’ prison. Although there is some doubt about this. The area was redeveloped in 2005 and the compter built over, although its location is preserved in the name of a new alleyway joining Wood Street and Milk Street, called Compter Passage.
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