Our intrepid reporter Howard Ryland braves the Clink Prison Museum in Southwark.
Ever seen the skeleton in the cage hanging off a wall near Borough Market? It heralds the Clink Prison Museum, a long-running attraction dedicated to torture and imprisonment. What finer way to spend an afternoon?
Descending into the crypt-like gloom of an entrance, a sign invites us to ‘ring bell for jailer’. Somewhat incongruently, the bell summons a cheerful lady who sells us a ticket before nonchalantly informing us:
there’s lots of torture equipment you can handle.
What’s that funny smell?
The museum turns out to be a peculiar jumble of serious history and schlocky horror, with the promised interactive torture equipment readily available at every opportunity. The fascinating story of the prison and its unfortunate residents is presented on colourful boards attached to the walls. The windowless underground rooms are suitably murky and there are ‘genuine’ smells, which we could probably have done without, if we're being completely honest.
Ropey mannequins, which look like rejects from the Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, recreate scenes of general misery. There's even a soundtrack of moaning emanating from various corners.
The prison that gave its name to all others
The Clink’s importance in the history of incarceration is such that ‘in the clink’ has become a recognisable way of saying that someone's in prison.
The first information boards in the museum set the scene, giving background on the history of Southwark, an area with a strong tradition of both crime and punishment.
We learn that in 1144, Winchester Palace was completed, the remains of which can still be seen on Clink Street next to Pret a Manger. This London home of the Bishop of Winchester boasted all mod cons, including lavish gardens, pike ponds and not just one, but two prisons; one for men and one for women.
Not exactly the Shawshank Redemption
The current museum occupies the site of just one of the manifestations of the prison. It burnt down — with prisoners fleeing — on numerous occasions, including the Peasant's Revolt, Jack Cade's Rebellion and finally the Gordon Riots. Security was often less than watertight; several prisoners apparently just walked out through an open door and many even had the keys to their own cells.
The exhibits highlight the stories of some of the more interesting residents, such as Henry de Broncker, AKA ‘The Father of the Clink’ who survived his incarceration by cultivating a sizeable rat farm, earning him his nickname ‘Ratman’.
Father John Gerard ended up in The Clink in 1594 charged with heresy, after he was busted returning to England in a (clearly not very good) disguise after completing his training as a Jesuit priest on the continent.
Numerous Puritans were also imprisoned before heading off to Virginia to start a new life and found a new nation.
That stings a bit
Torture was a prominent feature of life at the Clink and forms a key attraction in the current museum. Barely legible are the words ‘Torture Chamber’ daubed in fake blood over a lintel of the museum’s inner sanctum. Here, man’s inhumanity towards man becomes a hands-on tourist exhibit. The cast of ingenious instruments of torment is long, cruel and inventive.
The Boot sounds innocent enough, but was in fact a metal overshoe that was filled with wood, which was then expanded with water to excruciating effect. There are Game of Thrones-style swords to swing, stocks to be locked in and racks to admire. We decided not to interact with the chastity belt.
So, should you visit The Clink Prison Museum?
The Clink Prison Museum encapsulates a lot of history and does a reasonable job of bringing it to life. For such a grim topic, there are plenty of fun elements, although some of these border on end-of-the-pier cheesiness. All of the information boards have gruesome facts for children presented by a cartoon rat in chains, and there's an opportunity to get a ‘dungeon selfie’ at the end of the exhibition and download it for free online.
Ultimately the museum seems undecided about whether it wants to provide sincere testament to the often tragic history of the prison, or be a fairground sideshow for the passing tourist trade on the ever-packed South Bank.
The Clink Prison Museum is located at 1 Clink St, SE1 9DG. Adult £7.50, child £5.50.