It looked promising, nestled in a corner of one of my favorite London areas. I approached The Clink Museum from London Bridge way and passed through Borough Market and its big bad self, although less big and less bad now. After years of discussions and delays a railway bridge is being built above the renovated Victorian glass roof and when it is finished no one is quite sure what will have survived. The capital’s oldest market dates back to 1014.
I steered away from the food and drink with some difficulty and headed to Clink Street. On the cobblestones I ran into a young man dressed in Victorian costume, but not a very good one - shabby and inauthentic, poor fellow. His horror makeup was more clownish than Hammer and he appeared to be bored rigid. A second non-scary creature took my money, mumbled instructions to “listen to everything and read everything”. All righty then.
A groaning waxwork man hangs in a cage at the entrance to welcome visitors to the basement level. Don’t be concerned; it’s not at all gruesome.
The museum tries to recreate the conditions of the notorious prison. The exhibition features a handful of prison life tableaux, and dwells on the torture and grim conditions within. One theory goes that the name of the prison comes from the 'clinking' of the prisoners' chains, though a more likely explanation is that the word comes from the term for rivets or nails used to fasten the restraints.
The floors are scattered with sawdust, the piped-in stories heard somewhere near the wax statutes are less than evocative; the loop repeats too quickly and there’s a bit of bad acting. I read that this small museum is arranged into a series of cells, but frankly, I didn’t get it.
I was on my own and remained the only person in the museum for the entire visit. I expected to cringe a bit, maybe pick up an eerie vibe, but at no time did I feel a prison-like atmosphere, even in the company of a whipping post, torture chair, foot crusher, and other torture implements. Signs urge one to have a go with the ball and chain, or why not pop a scolds bridal on your head?
I picked up a chastity belt made of iron. Applause for any woman who walked Bankside in wilting heat or bitter cold with that thing under her skirts. It was curious to see a sign next to the beheading block that encouraged one to place their head upon it for a photo op.
The biggest challenge in the Clink is that it’s so very dark, made so by black painted walls and poor lighting. I struggled to read many of the display boards, which held huge paragraphs of text.
In this little black dungeon’s defense, it would be impossible to recreate the conditions of the Clink. If they had succeeded, there would be no visitors.
The history is as intense as you’ll ever find. The origin of the Clink can be traced back to Saxon times and was owned by a succession of powerful Bishops of Winchester who resided on the South Bank of the Thames. In 860 a Synod ordered that there must be a place to keep bad monks and friars. The Clink was attached to Winchester Palace, the home of the bishop, where at that time it would have been only one cell in a priests’ college.
From the 12th century the Clink housed prostitutes and their customers. The Southwark area of London was home to the red-light district where brothels, usually whitewashed, were called "stews" because of their origins as steambath houses. The bishop licensed brothels and regulated their opening hours. Joining the ‘whoores’ were thieves, rogues, vagabonds, drunkards and fiddlers. Yes, fiddlers.
By the 13th century, torture and horrendous mistreatment of prisoners began, thanks in part to the knights and soldiers returned from the First Crusade where they picked up a few nasty torture tips.
Outside the Clink, the prison whores, bared to the waist and with shaven heads, were whipped at the bloodstained whipping post. The Ducking Stool was used for punishment of scolds, ale-sellers and bread-sellers, who sold bad or underweight goods.
By the time Shakespeare moved into the area with The Globe around the corner, the entire cast of one of the other theatres was “thrust into the Clink for acting obscenely.”
Remember those Puritans who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs? Several of the men who were to become the Pilgrim Fathers spent years in the Clink before their voyage on the Mayflower.
So unless one walked through a display of fettered humans amongst stink and squalor, blood, death and illness, corrupt jail keepers and extortionists, there’s not much chance of hearing, smelling or seeing an authentic medieval prison. Understood.
The ruins of Winchester Palace stand oddly alone across the cobblestones from the Clink. All that is left is the west gable of the Great Hall and its gorgeous Rose Window.
You can’t miss the Clink or the Rose Window. They make up the middle of a triangle between Starbucks, Pret A Manger and Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Maybe we should be grateful there’s a museum there at all…