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Black Lives in Early Modern Bridewell

LDBTH3 44 Quadrangle of Bridewell Hospital 1822 a

The Quadrangle and main entrance to Bridewell Hospital (from 1700s)

One of our regular academic researchers, Professor Duncan Salkeld, has created a spectacular and richly detailed resource (click here to link to it) from the minutes of the Bridewell and Bethlem Board of Governors which tracks black men and women in the Court of Governors’ Minutes.

Bridewell was originally a Royal Palace built by Henry VIII in the early 1500s, and was at least in part a project of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. From 1515 to 1523 it operated as Henry’s main London residence, though after Wolsey’s death it fell out of favour and was leased out to other occupiers. The northernmost point was located near where the Bridewell Institute is today and it stretched down to the river, where the Unilever headquarters are now, and for the time it was a large, impressive building, consisting of two courtyards and three stories.

After Henry’s death his son Edward passed it on to the Corporation of the City of London for the housing of homeless children and the reformation of ‘dissolute’ women. By 1556 the City had turned it into a large building known as ‘Bridewell Hospital’ that functioned as an orphanage, a workhouse, a prison, and a sort of remand home, and by the early 1600s the word ‘Bridewell’ had become synonymous with ‘prison’. Another prison at the edge of the City of London was even named ‘Clerkenwell Bridewell’ when it was built in 1615.

In the 1570s management of Bridewell and Bethlem, which had itself been acquired by the City in 1547, was bought together under the Court of Governors of Bridewell and Bethlem. This Court met every two or three weeks, and would decide various administrative matters relating to how to conduct both institutions. These records exist as a run of minute books which we hold at Museum of the Mind under the reference BCB, and which can be accessed digitally for free on our catalogue at https://archives.museumofthemind.org.uk/BCB.htm

This Court would make decisions about people in Bridewell that are recorded in the minutes, detailing why they were there and how they were to be governed or treated in Bridewell. Duncan Salkeld’s work concentrates on the period from 1577 to 1610, and he has picked out specific mentions of race in the records. Here at the Museum we think this is important work, as it not only illustrates a more diverse and multi-cultural London of the time than we think, but it also shows how the functions of the state treated those of different ethnic backgrounds.

The minutes may well contain reference to Black Londoners outside the date range that Duncan set for himself. If anyone would like to conduct research using records post-dating 1610, please get in touch with us here.

Bridewell’s function as a House of Correction ended in the mid-1800s, and the building, which had itself been rebuilt after the Great Fire of London was demolished in 1855. However this was not the end of its association with Bethlem as the Governors still offered a place of education for poorer children, in this case as a ‘House of Occupation’ on part of the St George’s Fields site occupied by Bethlem Hospital. This institution was later known as King Edward’s School, a residential school relocated to Witley in rural Surrey. The School still celebrates Bridewell Day every March at St Bride’s, Fleet Street.


LDBTH8 57 Pass Room Bridewell c 1808 b

Female inmates in Bridewell (in the early 1800s)