Cold and intimidating, Wandsworth Prison has stood for more than 150 years, its faded Victorian frontage giving little away as to the goings-on inside.

But if buildings could talk, few would have more interesting tales.

Through its dark doors have passed every walk of life. It has been a temporary home for a raft of notables - including Oscar Wilde and the assassin of Martin Luther King - and a final home for 135 people executed there.

During the wars it was sequestered by the military and it has been at the heart of at least two films - Let Him Have It, the story of David Bentley, who was wrongly executed for murdering a policeman in the 50s, and Pierrepoint, a portrait of Albert Pierrepoint, the most prolific British hangman of the 20th century.

Ronnie Kray served time there in the 50s and Frank Bruno, Elton John and Michael Parkinson have also been inside - albeit as visitors.

It has also been the scene of audacious getaways, which along with the executions, form the backdrop to a thoroughly riveting Wandsworth Prison Museum.

Stewart McLaughlin, a serving officer at Wandsworth for 19 years, is author of several prison books and the museum's honorary curator.

"We created a display of the prison's history to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebrations in 2001 and decided to make it permanent," he said. "It has taken a few years but last week the Duke of Kent officially opened the museum."

The museum itself is little bigger than a prison cell, but the intimate venue adds spice to stories of prison life seen through the eyes of inmates and wardens.


The centre piece display is a replica of the gallows and hangman's rope - which were actually used in the Pierrepoint film.

The gallows offer visitors a morbid peek into the dark past, but for Stewart the mechanics and development of the hanging technique hold historic value.

Before an execution, a prisoner's weight was taken and calculated into a formula to ensure the prisoner's death was as humane as possible.

The inmate's weight determined the speed at which the prisoner dropped.

Trap doors below the condemned opened and the drop, stopped only by the length of rope, caused the rope to sharply tighten around the neck, snapping the spine between the second and third vertebra.

Stewart tells me the technique was still being perfected in the 18th century. "In one famous case in Lincoln, the calculation was wrong and an inmate was decapitated after falling too quickly."

In Wandsworth, the first execution was that of Thomas Smithers, the Battersea Murderer, on October 8, 1878.

The Reverend John Pitkin was working at the jail at the time. He recalled: "A sense of gloom pervaded all the corridors and wards of the prison.

"The prisoners heard the tolling of the bell, and imagined all that was taking place in the courtyard below.

"The death sentence was carried out without a hitch and the lifeless body, after a coroner's inquest, was buried within the precincts of the prison."

The only woman to be executed was Catherine Webster after murdering her elderly boss in 1879. Today she is known as the "grey lady" and some believe she still haunts the prison.

During the First World War a number of so-called deserters were executed, but the execution of spies was more expedient during the Second World War. The famous German propoganda broadcaster Lord Haw-Haw was executed at Wandsworth and one German spy, Karl Richter, saw the gallows and put up a fight with Pierrepoint after slipping out of one of his wrist straps.

Richter was eventually overpowered and executed and Pierrepoint was given the strap as a souvenir - during his career he was estimated to have executed 433 men and 17 women, including 200 Nazi war criminals after World War II.


In 1949 John Haigh, the "acid bath murderer" was executed after being convicted of dumping one victim in sulphuric acid to destroy evidence.

About 1,000 protesters massed at the prison the morning of Bentleys' execution on January 28, 1953.

Controversially, Bentley was executed for his part in the murder of police officer Sidney Miles. His accomplice, who actually shot Miles, was Christopher Craig. Craig was only 16 - too young to be executed.

In 1993 Bentley was pardoned for the sentence - 40 years too late - and today the famous double-meaning in the "let him have it Chris" is still controversial.

Other than punishment for capital crimes, corporal punishment, including lashes with a birch wood across the buttocks, was also carried out at the prison.

Punishment and reform have come a long way since and the museum goes on to catalogue how prisons have moved from a system of detention to reform.

It wasn't always the same. In the early days inmates wore veils to conceal their identity and were made to do hard labour turning a wheel which recorded the amount of revolutions made.

There was no final product to the work, it was pointless, and the level of difficulty at these wheels could be altered by prison guards - which apparently is where inmates' affectionate term "screws" comes from.

The museum succeeds in bringing alive that 150-year history - from playwright and satirist Oscar Wilde who was a prisoner in 1895 before being transferred to Reading (he was reportedly spat on at Clapham Junction station as he was transported) - to prisoner 059184, a certain R G S Sneyd, known also as James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King in 1968.

More recent inmates include Coronation Street actor Craig Charles and Graham Rix, ex-manager of Chelsea.

Ronnie Biggs

And of course with prisons there are famous tales of escape. When 11 men found freedom under a wall in 1961, it was the largest ever escape from a British prison - they were all recaptured a few weeks later.

But the most notorious escapee was a certain Ronnie Biggs.

1964 saw the last hangings in Britain and was the year Biggs was sent to Wandsworth for 30 years following his part in the Great Train Robbery.

Officers will have chuckled as Biggs was set to work sewing postbags - but he would have his turn.

On Thursday, July 8, 1965, he and co-escapee Eric Flower were exercising on D yard just before 3pm when a red removal van positioned itself by the prison wall near officer houses.

A trap door in the van's roof opened and an extending scaffold was raised.

A ladder was put over the wall into the yard and both men began running for it. Two opportunist inmates tagged along.

Officers were prevented from catching them by other inmates and after transferring to a green Zephyr car, the group sped off towards Trinity Road before turning on to Bellevue Road. Biggs later poked fun at authorities by sending postcards back to the UK.

He eventually surrendered to authorities in 2001, proving that today the arm of the law is indeed long, but better than it has been in the past - by a neck.

  • The museum is open by written appointment only and parties are advised tours will take one hour, which includes a 30-minute slide show. Enquires should be addressed to: Wandsworth Prison Museum c/o POA Office, HMP Wandsworth, Heathfield Road, SW18 3HS. Books covering the prison's history are available from the museum.