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London: Battersea: unexecuted competition designs for a prison for 300 women and a prison for 600 men (with drawings by George Dance), 1781-1782 (13)

Signed and dated

  • 1781
    Main Year
  • 1782
    Other Years


Unable to transport convicts to the American colonies after their Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776), British prisons became woefully overcrowded and the use of the hulks of de-commissioned ships to house convicts led to even worse conditions. The publication in 1777 of John Howard's The State of prisons in England and Wales, with preliminary observations ... of foreign prisons was timely. Howard's argument for a more humane treatment of prisoners was to inform new penal legislation that, among else, provided for the construction of two prisons or 'penitentiary houses'. Eventually, a competition (advertised on 23 August 1781) was held for the design of a prison for 600 men and another for 300 women on a site in Battersea fronting the south bank of the river Thames. The experimential nature of the exercise was conveyed in the instructions to the competitors viz.'As the penitentiary houses are intended to serve as a trial of a new mode of punishment, the supervisors are of opinion ... not to build the houses for males and females on similar designs; for which as well as other reasons, it is their intention to employ two architects: and therefore those, who chose to given in plans of both houses, are requested to make them different ...' (quoted from a broadsheet by P.du Prey, op.cit below, p.201).

The hand-in date for the competition, initially set for 1 November 1781, was moved to 1 January 1782. Floor plans, two elevations and at least one section, all to a scale of 1/8 inch to 1 foot were required.

Soane's Notebook 1 (SNB1) has six pages (datable to September 1781) of notes and sketches made from the second edition (1780) of Howard's The State of prisons .... They reveal Soane's interest in the radial planning and octagonal outline of the recently built Maison de Force near Ghent in Belgium. A sketch design in Soane's personal scrapbook (volume 42/122 verso, drawing 2 catalogued here) is remarkably close to the finished design for the men's prison, having a perimeter wall that is a six-sided or half-octagonal version of the plan of the Maison de Force as well as an internal arrangement that is partly radial. Two further sketch designs (volume 42/39 recto & verso, drawing 1 catalogued here), initially intended for the larger men's became (recto design) the basis for the women's prison. These sketch designs (drawings 1 and 2) have been attributed to George Dance. Three of the finished competition drawings that follow (Nos 10-12) were certainly made by George Dance. Whether they were part of Dance's own entry for the competition or were submitted by Soane is not known. From the surviving evidence it seems that Dance had a key role in the planning of both prisons and in the overall design of the men's prison.

Soane published two plans, three elevations and a section in his , Designs for public and private buildings, 1828 (p.44., plate XLI). He wrote that he was told unofficially by Lord Camelford that he had won the competition for the womens prison. However, the published results showed that William Blackburn had been awarded the premium for the mens prison and Thomas |Hardwick that for the womens prison.

Other of the drawings (3-9, 13) were made by Robert Baldwin, an architect as well as draughtsman and engraver. It is possible but unlikely that he made a design contribution to those drawings. A plan by him for a prison in Battersea (SM 58/1/2) showing 304 cells (presumably related to the competition) has a dull gridiron layout that is a pedestrian affair. Baldwin's own projects (given in H. Colvin, Biographical dictionary of British architects 1600-1840, 3rd ed., 1995) remained unexecuted and he never established a practice.

See also an unused lecture drawing of the men's prison: bird's eye view, dated 2 July 1799 (SM 13/1/19)

For related drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum: see P.du Prey, Sir John Soane, 1985, in series of 'Catalogues of architectural drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum', catalogue 26-28

Literature P.du Prey, John Soane: the making of an architect, 1982, chapter 10, 'The Competition for the first Howardian penitentiaries'; A.Brodie, J.Croom and James O.Davies, English prisons: an architectural history, 2002, chapter 2, 'Prisons in the late eighteenth century'; J. Lever, 'The Soane-Dance collaboration, 1771-1799, Architectural History, volume 53, 2010, pp.163-190; Survey of London: Battersea, volume 49, 2013, pp.89-90 ; K. Bailey, 'Battersea and "The National Penitentiary", in Aspects of Battersea history 1770-1910, 2010, Paper 18, p.10
Jill Lever, September 2008



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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 London: Battersea: unexecuted competition designs for a prison for 300 women and a prison for 600 men (with drawings by George Dance), 1781-1782 (13)