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Pentonville Prison

June 09, 2006 ・ Blog

I walk past Pentonville Prison every day. It’s on the way to our boy’s nursery in the morning and then back from Caledonian Road and Barnsbury Station in the evening.

Its sits behind a squat white wall that runs along Caledonian Road. A row of severely pollarded lime trees inside the wall only recently showed any signs of green. Razor wire lends the impassive, white-painted classical entrance buildings a tawdry air. Behind lie taller brick buildings with barred windows that presumably hold the cells.

Pentonville Prison was completed in 1842 according to the “separate” design system as a model prison. Five wings radiate like spokes from a central hub. In each wing, cells are positioned so that they don’t face each other. The system, as the 1844 book, Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to its Sights, says, “prevents the possibility of intercourse between the wretched inmates, who, confined in solitary cells, and exercised singly between bare walls, so far from holding intercourse with, are never permitted to see each other.”

In 1902 Pentonville took over responsibility for executions in north London from Newgate. One-week courses for British trainee executioners were held there, teaching them essentials such as how to calculate and set up the drop distance. 120 men were hanged at Pentonville Prison until 1961, including Dr Crippen in November 1911.

I’ve never seen any people in or around the prison, except visitors waiting at the entrance a couple of times. Blank and impersonal, the prison holds a terrible fascination over me, just as did Ford Open Prison in Sussex. To me, being driven past on the way to my grandparents’ cosy old house nearby, Ford was a strange collection of low, distant buildings. Pentonville is up close, but is no less mysterious. Though I see it every day, all I know of it is its ugly shell from the street perspective.