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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown

Bridewell Palace

Bridewell Palace stood on a vast site along the western bank of the Fleet River, reaching up from the Thames to the present day Fleet Street.

Built during the reign of Henry VIII, it was a rambling and spacious complex arranged around three large courtyards. In its early days, the palace was mostly used to lodge foreign monarchs and dignitaries. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, was entertained at Bridewell Palace in 1522. From 1531 to 1539, it was leased by the French Ambassador.

In 1550, the palace was given over to the relief of the poor. The rural poor had been streaming into London for some time. It is estimated that at a time when London had a population of 70-80,000, it received a further 12,000 desperately poor immigrants from around the country. Though most were honest, many begging until they could find work, among them were organized bands of robbers and hoodlums. Concern for the poor soon became mixed with fear of a threat to public order. As a result, Bridewell became not just as a refuge, but the first "House of Correction", the idea being that enforced labour and punishment would reform the work-shy, the drunkard, and the petty criminal.

Prisoners were put to a wide variety of tasks, from carding and spinning to (for those who were to be punished as well as detained) the cleaning of sewers in gangs. Treadmills were installed. An ingenious hand-and-foot mill ensured that even those who had lost a limb would not be excused from working.

Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, with twelve lashes for adults and six for juveniles. Disobedience or any other offence was punished by further flogging. Whippings were carried out in the courtroom.

The palace became a bit of a tourist attraction for those whose idea of a good day out was watching half-naked women being flogged. Bridewell whippings became so popular that a balustraded gallery had to be built to hold all the onlookers.

Though much of the old palace was destroyed in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt between 1666-67 and carried on much as before.

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(c) 1996 Molly Brown