His book marks the 200th anniversary of the prison that housed the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lewis, and Bertrand Russell. Here The House on the Hill author Christopher Impey explains how he was inspired to write about HMP Brixton.
Around 2012, for no reason other than I loved history, I took out a subscription to the newly digitised British Newspaper Archive. I was working in HMP Brixton at the time, so started to search out some of its former residents. The first person I came across was Edward Dando, also known as The Oyster Eater.
Dando lived in early-Victorian London. His modus operandi was simple: he feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring the city’s eateries, consuming huge quantities of food – he had a weakness for oysters – then refusing to pay. He became a folk hero, but like many of his contemporaries, died in poverty. Dickens wrote fondly of him, imagining they “paved his grave with oyster shells.”
Dando’s story had been lost; I started to unearth the colourful lives of other Brixton alumni. They included the famous and infamous: Mick Jagger spent a day there on drugs charges; Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader, spent much of the war there; Bertrand Russell enjoyed two spells for his pacifist activities; John Lewis may have felt underwhelmed, if not undersold, by his few weeks inside in the early 1900s following a spat with the landlord of his store just off Oxford Street.
But I also discovered the prison itself had a tale to tell: it was the jail that popularised the treadmill and that became the first convict prison for women. It trialled the ‘silent’ and ‘separate’ systems – inhumane penal philosophies of the nineteenth century. And it was the remand centre for the whole of London for nearly ninety years. Dramatic escapes took place: two members of the IRA shot their way out in the early 1990s. At times it was a hell: come the millennium the appalling standards saw it labelled the worst prison in the country. Slowly, I pieced its history together the history of Brixton prison.
This year marks Brixton’s bi-centenary. It is the oldest prison in London. But despite its age, it is making a positive difference to some people’s lives. Anyone on the outside can book a meal in the esteemed Clink restaurant – where those who prepare, cook and present the food are serving prisoners. Others work in the Bad Boys’ Bakery, which supplies bread and cakes to cafes on the outside. The Bounce Back charity runs an award-winning painting and decorating course. Some inmates present on National Prison Radio which – from its studios under the chapel – broadcasts life-changing information to over 80,000 people in more than a hundred jails.
Like the story of prison itself, Brixton’s past has been a troubled one – but at least those who come through its doors today are given some opportunity for change, and hope. Writing its story has taken time, but it is one that I am proud to have been able to tell.
The House on the Hill: Brixton, London’s Oldest Prison is out now from Tangerine Press (9781910691427, p/b, £12.99)
- Guest post by Christopher Impey