London: Wandsworth Prison Museum

I’ve been interested in seeing the Wandsworth Prison Museum for some time, but it only opens to the public a few days each year and I never quite managed to catch one of these open days. However, a friend of mine sent me an email about an open weekend in early June as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, so I made sure to make the effort to get there this time, even though I had to go alone and take my own poor quality pictures because I was working on the Saturday of the open weekend, and Marcus was volunteering at a filming of Antiques Roadshow on the Sunday, so we didn’t have an opportunity to go together (yes, I gave up a chance to queue for hours and have my antiques appraised to do this instead. Actually, I could have still queued for hours after visiting the prison museum, but it was hot that day, and I did not fancy spending three hours standing in direct sunlight, especially since I already know that anything antique that I own is of low value. Poor Marcus had no choice but to stand outside all day, and ended up with terrible sunburn, but at least he got to volunteer with the cool militaria expert with the moustache).

   

The prison is located in the North Car Park of Wandsworth Prison (still a functioning prison), which is probably why it is only open a few times a year. It was hard to spot it because of the high walls surrounding the prison, and I didn’t see any signs anywhere as I would have expected from an open day, so I ended up circling the entire complex and walking back again from the opposite direction. It was on the return trip that I spotted the A4 sign with a tiny arrow directing me to the museum, which was completely invisible from the angle of my initial approach. I was glad I managed to find the museum on the second attempt, because I was worried I might be starting to look suspicious to the guards strolling around the site (I mean, they weren’t in watch towers with guns or anything like that, but authority figures still make me nervous). It is in a small shed right in the parking lot (as seen at the start of the post), but the current shed is apparently twice the size of the shed it used to be in, so I guess that’s an improvement. However, after looking at pictures of the old museum, I don’t think they’ve actually added anything to the new museum, just spread things out a bit more.

  

Wandsworth Prison has had some famous inmates come through it over the years, including Oscar Wilde, who spent four months here whilst awaiting transfer to Reading Gaol; John Haigh, the “Acid Bath” murderer; Ronnie Kray, and Ronnie Biggs (also Hawkwind played here, as you can see from the newspaper article above, but their female singer was advised not to take her top off on this occasion as she normally would onstage, and she apparently followed that advice). Obviously Wilde is a far more sympathetic figure than the others, but I can’t pretend I’m not interested in the lurid details of true crime, so of course John Haigh is of considerable interest as well. Contrary to his nickname, he didn’t actually kill people with acid, but battered or shot them to death first, and then dissolved their bodies in acid to hide the evidence (I’m not sure if that makes it any better than just killing them with the acid, but it does sound slightly less agonising for the victims). Although you wouldn’t have learned much of that here, as it was much more a prison museum than a crime museum, and frankly, even the history of the prison was a bit lighter than I was hoping.

 

The most interesting things in here by far were the execution box, which I think I saw before at the Black Museum exhibition, and the life mask of one of Britain’s last and most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint (he featured prominently in the black comedy play Hangmen, which I saw a few years ago. The main character is a second-rate hangman who is super jealous of Pierrepoint (pronounced peer-point)). People were executed at Wandsworth Prison, including the aforementioned John Haigh, hanged by the also aforementioned Pierrepoint, but Wandsworth Prison was also the keeper of all the execution boxes for the whole of England. They had twenty boxes containing rope, straps, a sandbag, a hood, and whatever else you might need to hang someone, which were sent out as needed. There was a police officer supervising the museum whilst I was there (I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to take photos, and I was too shy to ask, so I kept trying to surreptitiously take them when his back was turned. I’m sure he was on to me, as I must have looked shady as all hell, so I dropped some coins in the donation box on the way out to look more like an upstanding citizen), and he started telling some guy about the difference between American and British noose knots, which was super interesting (basically, American knots lock on the neck and can only be cut, rather than untied, so are single use. The British just used a basic slip knot so the rope could either be reused or cut into lengths and sold to souvenir hunters to make some extra cash on the side for the hangman (I already knew about them selling the rope, but I don’t know anything about knots, so that part was news to me)). I wish he had shared more stories like that without prompting, because I don’t really like asking questions.

 

Aside from those objects, it was fairly standard prison museum fare – lots of photographs and newspaper clippings, and a couple uniforms and a little wooden (cardboard?) model of the prison, although there were a few grisly bits thrown in here and there amongst the mundane if you took the time to look, like the innocent looking ruler and pliers that were actually tools used by executioners to measure the rope for hanging. But it certainly wasn’t as thrilling as an actual criminology museum, and for all that the museum had been recently redone, I found the information in the cases quite hard to read, as it was printed in small font on laminated sheets hung in the back of the cases, and with the sunlight streaming in through the open doors, it was hard to get the right angle to actually be able to read them and match the labels up with the objects in the cases, let alone clandestinely photograph them.

Apart from being intimidated by the location (which, as you might expect, is not the easiest thing to access. You kind of have to get a bus from Earlsfield, or walk for quite a while) and thus having a bit of a panic when I couldn’t find it right away, I certainly don’t regret visiting, but I do wish that the information was more detailed and a bit easier to read. I also wish the officer working there could have shared more behind-the-scenes stories with us, as that was what made the City Police Museum so delightful on my first visit (until they went ahead and ruined it by making it very impersonal). I imagine they’ll probably be open at some point in September for either Heritage Open Days or Open House London if you want to pay this museum a visit yourself, though I think there are certainly better crime and punishment museums out there. 2.5/5.

 

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