Milbank Prison

Written by Johanna Lemon and Peter Daniel

Millbank takes its name from the mill that belonged to Westminster Abbey and stood on the isolated marshy foreshore that linked Westminster to Chelsea. It was demolished around 1736 by Sir Robert Grosvenor, who built a house that stood on the site until 1809, when the land was set aside to build London’s largest prison.

Millbank Penitentiary was completed in 1821 and cost £500,000 to build, an immense sum at the time. Initially it was hailed as the greatest prison in Europe because of its pioneering ‘panopticon’ design. This had been devised by Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and philanthropist. At its centre was the Governor’s House, which allowed prison guards to keep watch over 1,500 transportation prisoners housed in separate cells in the surrounding pentagonal blocks. There were three miles of cold, gloomy passages: the turnkeys invented a code of chalked directions to stop getting lost in the maze!

From above, it was like a vast six-petalled flower of dirty yellow brick, a multi-turreted fortress with bars at the windows. Surrounding it was a stagnant outer moat, enclosing over 16 acres of cold, damp squalor. It provided the perfect conditions for cholera to flourish. It was soon notorious enough for Dickens to include it within his novel David Copperfield. He described the area as 'a melancholy waste … A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy land.'


Up to 1868, everyone sentenced to transportation was processed through Millbank to determine their ultimate grim destiny: around 4,000 people each year were transported to the far side of the world. Millbank had been intended to replace the notoriously unhealthy 'hulks' as a staging post for convicts sentenced to transportation. However, Millbank Prison was to do nothing to improve the health of those awaiting exile. Indeed, the design and location of the prison was to ensure that it was to be devastated by the cholera pandemic of 1849.

When the 1849 outbreak of cholera first attacked the prison, a majority of the inhabitants were so affected that they had to be removed and sent to different prisons all around London. When a further outbreak occurred during the pandemic of 1854 the government planned to temporarily house 700 Millbank prisoners in the army barracks at Dorchester, Dorset until the disease had abated. When news of this transfer reached Dorchester the local inhabitants reacted furiously. They were terrified not so much at the prospect of some of London’s notorious criminals being deposited into town but the idea that the killer cholera would soon be in their midst. After the prisoners arrival the local vicar, The Rev Henry Moule took his protest as far as Albert the Prince of Wales. He described the means he believed had helped to spread the disease from the prisoners to his parishioners in a letter to the Prince:

‘On Thursday August 24th I found that two women residing in Holloway Row(Dorchester) had contracted to wash for the convicts; and that the dirty clothes with some articles of bedding for 700 men averaging five articles a man, had just arrived, and were packed into their two cottages. I endeavoured through the Mayor to obtain the removal of these things, expressing my fears of cholera -- but in vain. Now up to this time there was no appearance of the disease. The health of the parish had been remarkably good, so that in the month of August there had previously been only two deaths out of the whole population of 3,000 souls. But within a few days, a child in a cottage about 60 yards from these two cottages is attacked with cholera, and on the 30th he dies. Since that day twenty-five more have fallen: and four of these cases have been within forty yards of the lower of these two cottages, and in the houses between which the wretched gutter that conveyed all the soap-suds of this washing to the river slowly finds its way. The public has been told that new clothes were given to the convicts on their leaving Millbank. But I find that the bedding and blankets had been used there. Nay, your Royal Highness and the public should know that the body linen of these men had been worn in prison, and that little, if anything more than their woollen clothing appears new.’

The problems cholera created for Millbank Prison drew the attention of Dr John Snow who compared its terrible death rate to other prisons in London. The prison provided him with a perfect means of exploring his hypothesis that cholera was water borne. He made a study of Millbank, Tothill Fields and Newgate prisons, which were all north of the River Thames, and thus supplied by different sources of water. In his book, ‘Communication of Cholera,’ he made a special mention of the prison as the high death rate at the prison seemed to contradict the care that the prison made to provide clean drinking water for its inmates:

"The water used in Millbank Prison, obtained from the Thames at Millbank [next to the prison], was filtered through sand and charcoal till it looked as clear as that of the Chelsea Company; yet, in every epidemic, the inmates of this prison suffered much more from cholera than the inhabitants of the neighbouring streets and those of Tothill Fields Prison, supplied by that company. In 1849, there were forty-eight deaths from cholera in Milbank prison, amounting to 4.3 per cent, of the average number of prisoners. In Tothill Fields prison there were thirteen deaths among eight hundred prisoners, or 1.6 percent. The other prisons on the north side of the Thames are supplied either by the New River Company, or from pump-wells, and there was but one death from cholera in all of them; that death took place in Newgate [Prison]. In the early part of August last [1854], the use of the Thames water was entirely discontinued in Millbank Prison, and water from the Artesian well in Trafalgar Square was used instead, on the recommendation of Dr. Baly, the physician to the prison. In three or four days after this change, the cholera, which was prevailing to an alarming extent, entirely ceased."
‘Communication of Cholera,’ 1855, p. 9

At the time of its establishment in 1816, crime rates in London were on the rise and Millbank Prison was built close to the Thames to allow for transportation to the colonies. This proximity to the polluted river Thames proved to be its undoing. Its water supply, despite filtration, was directly drawn from the river. In contrast Snow discovered that some institutions that drew water from their own wells were hardly touched by the disease. This was particularly marked at one south London prison:

"... the Queen's Prison, Horsemonger Lane Gaol, and some other institutions, having deep wells on the premises, scarcely suffered at all from cholera in 1849, and there was no death in any of them during the part of the recent epidemic [1854] to which my inquiry extended.
‘Communication of Cholera,’ 1855, p. 92

John Snow’s investigation highlighted to the authorities the deplorable state of Millbank Prison. Sordid conditions and poor treatment of the prisoners enabled diseases such as typhoid, scurvy, and cholera, to run rampant within its walls. Other local prisons did not have the same problems that Millbank did because Millbank was the only prison that drew its water directly from the Thames. Although Snow’s comments had little immediate effect the prison was eventually demolished in 1892, barely seventy-five years after it had been opened. In its place came the Tate Gallery, and the Royal Army Medical College and Regimental Mess.