From Clink Street to Giltspur street: prison-related London streets

View of Clink Street

Well, it’s been a while, and thank you to all my faithful readers who have continued to visit this blog despite the lack of new material for a few months.

The last post I put up on the website was about watery names, prompted by our near miss of flood water in October. We were not so lucky when Storm Dennis raged through in February and so we are seeing out lockdown, and probably the rest of the year, in a rented house. No more water-related posts just yet.

But, speaking of lockdown, I am not making light of anything that has been happening this year, but a while ago I saw some unfortunate comments from celebrities with Hollywood mansions talking about lockdown similar to being in prison, so I did turn my thoughts to prison-related streets, of which there are many.

Today, let’s look at three of them, starting with Clink Street in Southwark. I used to work just round the corner, in the days long before Borough Market, when what became a bustling, trendy, foodie hang out was somewhere you didn’t like to walk through even during the day.

The street takes its name from the Clink Prison, now a museum. The first prison on this site, dating back to 1144, was a cellar in the Palace of the Bishop of Winchester. The contradictorily named Liberty of the Clink was attached to the manor of the Bishops of Winchester who occupied much of the land on the south bank of the Thames.

A popular theory for the derivation of the name is that ‘clink’ was the sound made when the blacksmith’s hammer secured the irons around the wrists or ankles of the prisoners.

Another theory is that the Flemish word ‘klink’ means ‘latch’, and may have referred to the latch on the door of the prison.

The Clink prison was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and never rebuilt. Much of the rest of the area was also destroyed in the blitz during World War II; when the damage was being cleared up, part of the west wall and the 14th-century rose window of the Bishop’s palace was discovered and preserved.

Today, in addition to the Clink Prison museum, Clink Street leads to the replica of the Golden Hind – Sir Francis Drake’s galleon. 

The Clink Museum

We now move north of the river to Coldbath Square, which takes its name from a spring discovered in 1697 by Walter Baynes and converted to a bath, which was said to be a great cure for nervous illnesses. A famous 18th-century strong man, Thomas Topham, had a pub in the Coldbath Fields area, called the Apple Tree, but the area was, however, far more notorious for its prison.

The Coldbath Fields Prison was built in 1794 with 280 cells for individual confinement; soon there were nearly a thousand prisoners. It was built on swampy ground and the over-crowding and unhealthy air were responsible for prisoners dying off at an alarming rate. There was a great deal of rioting and the troops were often called in. The prison was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentions the prison in his poem ‘The Devil’s Thoughts’:

As he went through the Cold-Bath Fields he saw
A solitary cell;
And the Devil was pleased, for it gave him a hint
For improving his prisons in hell.

The area once covered by the prison is now the site of the Mount Pleasant Post Office. 

Not so very far away is Giltspur Street, which takes its name from the spurs worn by the knights who would ride through the street to reach jousting tournaments at the nearby Smooth Field. (That field gave its name to Smithfield, and I used to work around the corner from the meat market, again, many years ago when it a very un-trendy area.)

Spurs were an essential part of the knight’s life in medieval times; the expression ‘to win one’s spurs’ – to prove oneself – comes from the fact that originally it meant to obtain knighthood. (The word ‘spur’ itself derives from the Anglo-Saxon spura, to kick.) Gilt spurs, therefore, would have been a real mark of oneupmanship.

Giltspur Street later became far less glamorous: it was the site of the Giltspur Street Compter, a debtors’ prison, built at the end of the 18th century.

The street also formed part of the route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, leading into the steep ascent of Holborn Hill, sometimes called Heavy Hill. As prisoners on that journey rode backwards, the expressions ‘to ride up Heavy Hill’ or ‘to ride backwards up Holborn Hill’ indicated that someone was on their last journey.

The expression ‘going west’, unlike the ‘go west’ of American pioneering times, referred to that last journey towards Tyburn.

6 thoughts on “From Clink Street to Giltspur street: prison-related London streets

  1. I am so sorry to hear about your flood, Elizabeth. That said, it is great to see you back. I know these three, especially Clink Street, near where I was brought up. I would add Angel Place, SE1, (Off Long Lane, near Borough High Street) the site of the former Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison, featured in Dickens. There is a plaque marking the site now.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete, it’s good to be back! Once I started I realised there are a lot of prison-related streets so I will revisit that theme again. All the best, Elizabeth

  2. Sorry to learn of the flood issues Elizabeth, and thankful you are sheltering safely. Hope Jonathan and family are safe as well.
    Always a delight reading the blog.
    Be well!
    Selwyn

    1. Selwyn, is that you? My goodness, long time no hear. I used to get a Christmas card from your mother every year for such a long time. Jonathan is safe and well in Australia. How are you?

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