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King's Bench Prison, Bench Walk (now McCoid Way), Southwark, London: unexecuted designs for additions to the building and enclosing walls, 1773 (8)

Signed and dated

  • 1773


Taking its name from the law courts known as King’s Bench, the King’s Bench Prison was originally located on Borough High Street, Southwark, and dates from the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It was a public institution, run by the gaolers at private profit and expense, being, as Colvin explained, ‘more like lodging-houses than the penal institutions of today’. It was most regularly used as a debtors’ prison, and was often targeted during periods of unrest. It was not until 1758 that the old prison buildings were replaced at the expense of the Board of Works, half a mile away on a 2 ½-acre site near St George’s Fields. Although this was larger than many contemporary prisons, it was built to a poor standard, and quickly became dirty, overcrowded and lacking in adequate security. According to Colvin, the prison was designed to house a maximum number of 80 inmates, but owing to the increasing number of debtors being sentenced, there were 413 inmates by 1769. As a consequence of this, the Prison Marshal addressed a petition to the House of Commons requesting that the institution be enlarged and enclosed. Robert Adam submitted designs for the Prison in January 1773. These included an extension to the lodgings, and a new castle-style enclosing curtain wall to improve security. In the exhibition, Robert Adam's castles, Adam's choice of style for these designs was well explained by Astley: ‘The castle style was eminently suited to prisons, although in a reversal of the defensive role the walls were to keep people in rather than out,’ it is 'completely medieval in style, almost defensible, and suitably terrifying’. However, Adam’s designs were not executed, and instead the extension was erected under the supervision of William Robinson (c1720-75), succeeded in 1775 by Kenton Couse (1721-90). Within weeks of the completion of Couse’s work in 1780, a large portion of the prison was destroyed by fire in the Gordon Riots. This prompted Couse to rebuild the Prison to the same design in 1780-81, albeit making some improvements to the fabric. The Prison was finally closed in 1869 and sold for demolition in 1879.

A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index p. 41; Survey of London, Volume 25, 1955, pp. 9-14; H.M. Colvin, History of the King’s works, Volume I, 1976, pp. 350-357; S. Astley, Robert Adam’s castles, 2000, pp. 34-35; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, p. 53

Frances Sands, 2014



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

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Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

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Contents of King's Bench Prison, Bench Walk (now McCoid Way), Southwark, London: unexecuted designs for additions to the building and enclosing walls, 1773 (8)