The Reading Bridewell
A Description of 1808

John Man (circa 1808) described the old prison or 'bridewell' at Greyfriars Church in Reading's Friar Street thus, "The town bridewell [was] originally a conventual church of the grey friars, given to the Corporation by Henry VIII. at the Dissolution, for the purpose of making it a Town-hall, but afterwards they having obtained a more eligible situation for their Hall, this was converted to its present use. The prison is about eighty feet long by fifty-four wide, consisting of the original body and side aisles of the church, the chancel having been taken down some years. The former is divided into two wards by a boarded transept, separating the male from the female prisoners, and open at the top, the roof of the church having been recently taken down to prevent its falling. The south aisle was, till lately, the keeper's house, and the north one has been converted into cells for the prisoners, opening into the body of the church, where they are allowed to walk. On the same side are three solitary cells, lately erected beyond the original line of the building, on the north side, but communicating with the prison by doorways formed in the original wall. These cells are about fourteen feet long by six wide, to which is added a small court yard, about seven feet square. The cells, it is true, are lined with wood, but neither light nor air are admitted into them when the door is closed on their wretched inhabitants, and the only furniture they possess is a bed of straw. The courtyards are paved with bricks, which are always green and damp, from the exclusion of the sun and air by the surrounding walls. Such are the places which the Corporation has provided for those unhappy beings, who, from want, or the infirmity of our natures, have been impelled to transgress the laws. The ingenuity of mankind, one would have supposed, could not have contrived a place so well adapted to reduce their fellow men below the condition of their beasts, who, though compelled to labour, are oftentimes better fed and more comfortably lodged. In these holes the wretched sufferer is compelled to linger for three, six, and sometimes twelve months on the scanty prison allowance of bread and water, without a bed to lie on, and even deprived of fire in the coldest months of winter, at the same time that they are exposed to the inclemency of the season, in a place never dry, and from whence, at their release, they will probably carry with them the seeds of disorders that may render their future days full of pain and misery. With a wish that some future Howard, guided by humanity, might be tempted to visit this dismal abode of misery, and by the influence of his character, might prevail with the magistrates, at least, to ameliorate, if not entirely remove it, I hastened away, and pursued my walk along the main street."

     

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