A short walk from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, most people probably do not know the National Penitentiary, an experiment in prison reform once dominated Millbank.

The prison was vast and intimidating, and the world’s first modern prison. Jeremy Bentham, a social reformer who believed in well-regulated hard labour and religious instruction, masterminded it.

For prisoners incarcerated within its forbidding walls, life in Millbank was grim. All cells were single occupation, and prisoners could not speak to one another or socialise for the first half of their sentences. They also made the prisoners wear masks so they could not see each other’s faces during exercise periods. They incarcerated both male and female prisoners in Millbank, with the women arriving first in June 1816. Male convicts initially began arriving the following year, in January.

They used penal treadmills in the prison to exert hard labour, a form of punishment prescribed in the prisoner’s sentence. They introduced the treadmill penal appliance in 1818 to usefully employ convicts. The device was a wide hollow cylinder, usually composed of wooden steps built around a cylindrical iron frame, and was designed sometimes to handle 40 convicts. As the device rotated, it forced each prisoner to continue stepping along the series of planks. It was a useless but exhausting task that fitted with Victorian ideals about atonement achieved through hard work.

Prisoners would climb the equivalent of thousands of feet on gruellingly long shifts. The exertion, combined with poor diets, often led to injury and illness, but that didn’t stop prisons all over Britain from buying the machines. Using treadmills was abolished in Britain by the Prisons Act of 1898.

Another equally pointless device was the Crank. This was a large handle in the prisoner’s cell, which they would have to turn thousands of times a day. This could be tightened by the warders, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of ‘screws’. It was a pointless, soul-destroying form of labour, but one that could be carried out in the cell. Most prisoners had to complete 10,000 turns a day. They considered crank labour suitable for prisoners confined in isolation in their cells.

The Millbank prison plan comprised a circular chapel at the centre of the site, surrounded by a three-storey hexagon made up of the governor’s quarters, administrative offices and laundries, surrounded by six pentagons of cell blocks. Each pentagon’s buildings were set around a cluster of five small courtyards (with a watchtower at the centre) used as airing-yards and in which prisoners undertook labour. Tall circular towers distinguished the three outer angles of each pentagon, described in 1862 as ‘Martello-like’: these served in part as watchtowers, but their primary purpose was to contain staircases and water-closets. The third and fourth pentagons were used to house female prisoners and the remaining four for male prisoners.

Every male and female convict sentenced to transportation in Great Britain was sent to Millbank previous to the sentence being executed. Here they remained for three months under close inspection. Despite all the development along the Thames, you can still see a surviving concrete bollard where the barges that picked up the prisoners to take them to larger ships that were tied up further down the Thames. The Morpeth Arms pub, dating back to 1845, still survives to this day. They built it for the enjoyment of wardens, but it’s also said to contain the remnants of a tunnel and cellar that formed part of the prison. Convicts were escorted along here as they were taken to barges on the Thames.

When the prison shut in 1890, it left 16 acres of land vacant for re-development. Today passers-by may not recognise the red-bricked housing estate that stands in its place or the onetime army barracks, now an art college. They may, however, be familiar with the Tate Gallery; its grand entrance stands upon the very spot where one would have entered Millbank Prison, and some bricks from the penitentiary were used in its construction. Some reports suggesting that the Millbank housing estate was also constructed of bricks from the prison are unlikely to be true since the estate is built entirely of red brick. They built Millbank prison in yellow brick.

Traces of the prison have all but disappeared, but its existence hasn’t completely vanished. You get a sense of the Millbank Prison’s octagonal shape through the jagged angles of streets that marked the site’s outer perimeter. The houses that remain were where the prison warders lived, just outside the complex. If you look between Cureton Street and John Islip Street, you can see a surviving part of the prison’s perimeter ditch, which in the 1800s was a stagnant outer moat.


Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.  Priced at £1.99 –

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


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