June and July 2022: Wandsworth Prison Museum
Wandsworth Prison Museum was built on the 150th Anniversary of the opening of the prison, in 2001. The museum was re-opened in its current location in 2017 by HRH Prince Michael of Kent whose father had been the prison’s first Royal visitor in 1935. The museum is one of very few attached to a fully operational prison and the only one in London. As it is located just outside the prison on prison property and run by one volunteer, it is open by appointment only. It does however, open for two weekends for the Wandsworth Heritage Festival (May 28 until June 12 this year) and London Open House during September 2022
The collection contains over 460 objects, from the earliest days to the early 2000s. There are original documents signed by the architect, Daniel Hill, who also designed Lewes Prison. Contained in the collection, there are stories of staff and prisoners, along with objects. The Museum does not attempt to re-create any prison scenes. Richard Onslow was the first Governor of the prison, and a photograph shows him looking very dignified. There is also a complaint to the Secretary of State about short, sentenced prisoners.
A staff photo from the 1870’s shows Warder George Rivers, who was in the Crimean War and part of the Charge of the Light Brigade, with copy medals on display. There is also a register entry for a young female prisoner, as the prison housed women until the 1880s and a small display on Oscar Wilde who was at the gaol during 1895 and was looked after by the Medical Officer, Dr R F Quinton, who had gone to the same school as Oscar.
The darkest side of the Museum is the display on capital punishment, of which a full box of execution equipment can be seen. Three more open display are props from the film, “Pierrepoint” with Timothy Spall playing Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most prolific executioner in the 20th Century. A life mask of his face and hands are on display. Later executioners, including the last executioner, Harry Allen are also identified with objects on display.
Some of the cases covered in this section include John Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, his execution notice is on display and 19-year-old Derek Bentley, also executed and who had his conviction for murder quashed after a long campaign by his family. The Wandsworth gallows remained operational until 1993, when it was finally dismantled.
Of high-profile prisoners, James Earl Ray, the assassin of US Civil Rights Leader, Dr Martin Luther King was held in the prison in 1968 and there some original documents on display. Arthur Griffith, the president of Sinn Fein was also held after the Easter Rising of 1916.
There is information about the gaol during world Wars One and Two, explaining war time conditions faced by the staff and prisoners. Extracts from the minute book of the Prison Officers’ Association (Trade union) are to be viewed. There are also items from the last executions for treason, noting William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, who broadcast for the Nazis.
The collection also displays come prisoner letters from the 1950’s and 60’s, showing how every line was filled so not to waste space. Some items from traditional prison workshops include mailbags and brushes. Staff uniforms from the 1950’s to the 2000’s, along with prisoner dress, show the change in style over the years.
Of prison escapes, there are the Governors journals showing the mass escape of 1961, when 10 prisoners got over the wall, which gained the prison an entry in the Guinness book of record, also displayed. The other, Ronnie Biggs of Train Robbery notoriety, escaped in 1965, original documents are on display and cop of a book he left behind about the Robbery.
With over 171 years of history, the Museum covers a lot of ground and visitors are most welcome. Enquires can be made by emailing the museum at email@example.com.