Bridewell prison, located close to Fleet Street and the banks of the river Thames, had served multiple functions since its foundation in the sixteenth century, operating as a house of correction for the disorderly, a hospital and a place of training for poor parish apprentices. The regime there was famous for the harsh and monotonous punishments it inflicted on its hapless inmates, particularly the daily whippings conducted in front of the general public and the implementation of hard labour (such as the beating of hemp for use as ships’ caulking). By the late 1700s, however, Bridewell had been subjected to significant reforms. Prisoners lodged there were segregated by their sex and the nature of their offences, and were cared for by physicians who regularly inspected inmates for disease.
Pictured here is the pass-room of Bridewell in the early 19th century, which depicts the rudimentary conditions which were nevertheless still in evidence there. This image shows a female ward for single mothers waiting to be ‘passed’ on to their parishes of birth (many of whom were most likely prostitutes), some of whom are shown lounging in stalls with nothing more than straw for bedding.
Background to the Microcosm of London collection of prints
The Microcosm of London was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810 as a result of an ongoing collaboration between publisher Rudolph Ackermann, cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson, architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin, engravers John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sunderland, John Hill and Richard Bankes Harraden, anonymous hand-colourists and authors William Henry Pyne and William Combe.
The Microcosm of London tapped into the demand for highly-coloured prints of real-life subjects that proved something of a publishing sensation during the Regency period. As such, the prints stand as a fascinating historical record of London life in the early years of the 19th century. While Pugin’s fine architectural drawings capture the size and shape of the capital’s principal buildings (both externally and from within) Thomas Rowlandson’s keenly observed figures depict the sheer colour and vitality of late Georgian society, rich and poor alike.