You may be surprised to learn that there are more authentic London Dungeons than the London Tourist Attraction beside London Bridge railway station. The Tower of London could be classed as one big dungeon – though not much of it is below ground – and there are other, more genuine dungeon prisons in London.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a dungeon as “an underground prison, especially in a castle” and, contrary to popular myth, dungeons are not really an English thing. Many of the Scottish and French castles contain dungeons, but the practice never really caught on in the London area. When castles were being built in the few centuries after the Norman Conquest, imprisonment wasn’t really considered a punishment. It was death, mutilation or reparation back then. But there are a very few honourable exceptions. Yes, London Dungeons really do exist!
First of which is the reputedly-haunted Clerkenwell House of Detention . Built in 1616 as an overflow for the Bridewell, it was known as the Clerkenwell Bridewell or New Prison. Later the same century another gaol was built next door to hold prisoners awaiting trial at the nearby Newgate Prison. These two prisons became one in 1818 when the Bridwewell was demolished and a newer New Prison built on the site. The newer New Prison was knocked down again in 1847 and rebuilt as the House of Detention, a remand centre for prisoners awaiting trial. It is estimated that, at its peak, almost 12,000 people a year passed through its meagre cells. It would have been very over-crowded.
In 1890, the part of the prison that stood above ground was demolished, the vaults sealed up, and the Hugh Myddleton School built on the site. Like so much of central London, the school has closed and the buildings are now luxury flats. During the Blitz of World War II, the vaults were reopened and used as air raid shelters. After the war they were forgotten about until 1994 when an entrepreneur opened them up as a private museum and party venue called The House of Detention. The venue closed in 2000 after a problem with HM Customs and Excise over unpaid VAT.
Since then the House of Detention has been used as a film set for a variety of movies, including St Trinians 2, Diary of a Callgirl, Spooks and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Ghosts have often been seen at the House of Correction, most often that of a crying young girl.
Several of London’s pubs have cellars that were once used as dungeons. The Viaduct Tavern, 126 Newgate Street, London, EC1A stands over part of what was Newgate Prison and five of the original cells make up its beer cellar . If you ask very nicely when it’s not too busy, the manager may allow you to take a quick peek. Similarly, the Morpeth Arms, 58 Millbank, London, SW1P – as well as the Tate Britain gallery – stand on part of the site of the Millbank Prison and the cellars of the pub are where prisoners were held before being transported by ship to Australia.
There are maybe more London Dungeons than you thought.