Behind Bars: Drinking in London's Former Prisons / by Thomas O'Malley

A piece for Gridskipper on London drinking establishments built on the site of historical prisons - a fun one to research.

Whatever your views on London as a world-beating capital, few rival cities can top our distinguished history of locking people up. Two hundred years ago, there were upwards of twenty prisons in the center, crammed with thieves, debtors, prostitutes, and the like. These institutions, mostly long gone, were rife with violence, gambling, and drunkenness. Rather apt then, you might think, that what few traces remain can be found in pubs. In terms of ambiance, this is undoubtedly of benefit for said establishments, because nothing evokes authentic old-London like the imagined wails of hapless prisoners serving their stretch. So prepare to get incarcerated (and inebriated) with our guide to jailhouse drinking.

Southwark Tavern


This popular pub stocks a vision-blurring range of European beers and bottled cider, and thanks to its proximity to Borough Market, sells above par food for the prices. It can get crowded after office hours, so head downstairs where (you've guessed it) you'll find a semicircular row of stone prison cells. Today converted into intimate candlelit booths, they're a popular spot for friends to drink and dine in cozy captivity. Admittedly most of the cells have had a modern refit, but take a look up at the discolored brick ceilings complete with narrow air vents, and you'll be in no doubt as to the authenticity of the setting.

Morpeth Arms


Just West from the Tate Britain on the riverside, this well groomed public house hides a similar dark secret in its underbelly -- a spooky row of stone prison cellsdating back to the 1840s. Supposedly haunted, the cells were part of the now extinct Morpeth Penitentiary, a transit prison for undesirables waiting to be shipped off to Australia. Come and enjoy a pint of Pride from the upstairs bar with commanding views of MI6 just across the Thames. Then at closing time, play out your prison fantasy by catching a riverboat from Millbank pier outside. This is the same journey that the pitiable Morpeth lags would have made, although you'll probably disembark at Embankment. Their voyage was just beginning.

Courthouse Hotel Kempinski


This hip hotel near Carnaby Street is a former Magistrates court, so call in for a rosemary vodka-infused martini in the chic bar, and take your seat in one of several private booths in the former holding cells. Should you decide to serve a longer stretch, you can book a night's stay in the judge's private rooms, complete with oak floors and original Robert Adams fireplaces. For fine dining in some truly unsettling surrounds, head downstairs to the Silk Restaurant, serving Thai-influenced international cuisine in a fully preserved courtroom. Order!

Viaduct Tavern


The street name says it all. This ornate Victorian boozer opposite the Old Bailey is built more or less on the site of Newgate prison, probably London's most notorious lockup. Inside, elbow past city workers and the odd high-court judge, and you'll be rewarded with a choice of 10 gins and some reputable cask ales. And if you ask nicely, Sidonie (the landlady) will show you round the cellars, which are built into the crumbling remains of a former 19th century debtors' prison. Make sure you seek out the tiny "family cell" complete with rotting wooden bunks on iron struts. Brrr.

White Tower @ Tower Of London

Tower Hill, Greater London, UK

Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, Rudolph Hess, Anne Boleyn, the Kray Twins. For a mere £12,000, you and a hundred or so friends can join this illustrious guest list by hiring out the White Tower for the evening and partying like it's your last. Without doubt this 1,000-year-old building is London's most famous place of imprisonment, torture, and execution, and for your cash, you get a tour of the Crown Jewels thrown in too. Don't try anything funny though, or you risk staying at the next place a little longer than planned...

Wandsworth Prison Visitors Centre

17 Heathfield Rd Wandsworth, Greater London, SW18 3, UK

Go directly to Jail. Do not pass go. Do not order a pint. If all this boozing is taking its toll, pop in to one of Europe's largest working prisons for what we promise will be a sobering experience. Open until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Visitors Centre at Wandsworth Prison sells coffee, cakes, and snacks, along with all the jail-related leaflets you can read. As you sit with your coffee and bun, remember that not too long ago in London, you could be banged up for bankruptcy, vagrancy, and even debt. Be thankful you're just visiting.