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Bridewell, Edinburgh: designs for a group of prison buildings, 1790-91, executed in part (33)

The idea of a purpose-built prison in Edinburgh was first made official by an act in 1782 led by Lord Provost David Steuart and the sheriff-depute of the county, Archibald Cockburn. This was following raised concerns over the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of the Tolbooth on the High Street in the Old Town and the House of Correction near Bristo Port. No further progress was made until 1791 when an Act of Parliament was passed for building a Bridewell and Correction House on the south flank of Calton Hill. The site was chosen for its ‘air, dryness and healthiness’ as contemporary studies such as John Howard’s 1777 book The State of Prisons considered the significance in building location and design on the prevention of the spread of disease and vices. This was often provided for through courtyard-plan sites with additional laundries, washhouses and infirmaries, as well as the strict segregation of sexes and classes of prisoners. The act also included provision for the building of a gaol for debtors and felons adjacent to the Bridewell, though this project would not be realised until c.1815.

Markus states that Adam’s involvement came from winning a competition in 1791. However, correspondence between Adam and his clerk of works in Edinburgh, John Paterson, reveals Adam’s knowledge and ideas for a Bridewell well in advance of the passing of the Act. As early as February 1790, Paterson was discussing with Provost Stirling the potential new Bridewell and Adam’s idea for a bridged approach from Princes Street to the proposed site. This is discussed further in another scheme (see: Calton Bridge, Edinburgh).

Adam made at least six different sets of designs for the Bridewell in Edinburgh. Within this, are a group of classical-style designs and three groups of variant castellated-style designs. Nearly all of these variants include ranges for an infirmary and a bedlam. The bedlam did not form part of the parliamentary brief but provision for ‘lunatics’ had become a matter of public debate in Scotland at the time.

The first design must have been inspired by William Blackburn’s radial prison designs and comprised a central tower and rooms arranged in an octagon, with four radiating wings containing cells (SM Adam volume 21/224). There are no other known drawings relating to this design.

The classical scheme and a variant plan appear to have been inspired by existing prison designs published by Howard, such as the House of Correction in Milan and Newgate Prison, London. Adam’s designs comprised a group of buildings arranged into cloisters enclosing individual courtyards with a free-standing chapel. There is also a sketched perspective of a classical-style Bridewell in a separate scheme for Calton Bridge (SM Adam volume 2/50).

The three variant castellated schemes comprised a central prison building with a governor’s house, adjoining blocks for a Bedlam and Infirmary, a guardhouse, and radiating yards divided into different sections and bound by a continuous wall with bastions. The layout of the cells were based on the Panopticon, a planform established by the philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bentham, who attempted to use architectural design as a method of control. He was inspired by his brother's work on utilitarian architecture in Krichev, Belarus (formerly the Russian Empire).

Bentham published a treatise entitled Panopticon or Inspection House in 1787, detailing the origin of the panopticon concept, its social implications, and its use for a variety of institutional buildings including prisons, workhouses, hospitals and schools. This was followed by three volumes of Panopticon: postscript which he published in 1791 which was entirely focussed on a penitentiary panopticon. The basis of this panopticon design was a circular building with a central inspection tower which allowed one-way views onto the open space and into each cell for day and night surveillance.

In 1791, Bentham sent Adam his postscripts along with plans, elevations and sections of his own proposed panopticon prison, together with a Russian design, in the hope that Adam would offer his input. Adam wrote to Bentham on 7 June 1791, confirming that he had received them (and that they were ‘lying at my sister’s house’) and that he hoped to make further designs that include the panopticon layout in his Bridewell designs but he would have to wait until enough money had been raised, which would probably be the summer of 1792. He also wrote that he hoped to have a model of the Bridewell, using the panopticon layout, made in London for Bentham. It is not clear if this model was ever made. Adam was characteristically suspicious of his panopticon ideas for the Bridewell being leaked and at the end of the letter he requested that it should be committed ‘to flames’ after it had been received.

The first castellated scheme comprised a central panoptical semi-circular prison building with flanking wings terminating in rectangular blocks for the bedlam and infirmary which contained internal panoptical-style cell layouts. There was an additional inspection ‘lodge’ to the rear of the main prison building and bows in the walls of the bedlam and infirmary to provide surveillance over their respective yards. The main prison building adjoined a governor’s house, elaborately decorated, with three stepped gables.

The second castellated scheme omitted the flanking wings, though they remained in outline and the panoptical semi-circle of cells comprised a plain arcade with no architectural treatment of the columns.

The third castellated scheme included the infirmary and bedlam as free-standing blocks, no longer panoptical, with corner turrets, arranged around double-square central courtyards. The cells in the main block were doubled, to provide cells for both daytime and night-time. The elevational treatment is similar to the first castellated scheme, though the central gable was omitted and the guardhouse was raised an additional storey.

Despite Adam’s concerned letter in June 1791, he must have shown his plans soon after as the foundation stone was laid in November 1791. This last scheme was constructed in part, and is shown in the 1852-54 Ordnance Survey map, and in engravings such as Thomas Shepherd’s various prints of Edinburgh of 1829. It was Adam’s only public building constructed in the castle style. The main cell block was constructed, along with the gatehouse, outer wall and bastions. The Governor’s house was omitted, and the flanking blocks and individual yards were not built. The introduction of separate night and day cells prevented full surveillance and meant that this scheme did not follow Bentham’s Panopticon principles. Indeed in 1792, during construction, Bentham had written to James Adam, who had taken over the project after Robert’s death in March, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the additional cells and loss of surveillance.

A new jail was built to the west of the Bridewell in 1815 to the designs of Archibald Elliot, making it the largest prison in Scotland at the time. A series of alterations to the Bridewell, and additions to the site, were proposed by an unknown architect but do not appear to have been carried out. In c.1881, the Bridewell was demolished for a new central prison block which kept only Elliot’s west block. This was demolished in the 1930s, leaving Elliot’s Governor’s House as the only reminder of the custodial history of the site.

Literature: National Library Scotland: MSS.19992-19993, Letters from John Paterson to Robert Adam, 1790-91; Electric Enlightenment Scotland (online), Letter from Robert Adam to Jeremy Bentham 7th June 1790; A.T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam, Volume II, Index, 1922, p. 11; A. J. Youngson, The Making of Classical Edinburgh 1750-1840, 1966, pp. 122-3, 135-6; T. Markus (ed.), ‘Buildings for the sad, the bad and the mad in urban Scotland 1780-1830’ in Order in space and society: architectural form and its context in the Scottish enlightenment, 1982, pp. 65-84; T. Markus (ed.), ‘Re-formation’ in Buildings & Power: Freedom & Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types, 1993, pp. 95-145; D. King, The Complete Works of Robert & James Adam and Unbuilt Adam, Volume 1, 2001, pp. 56-7; Volume 2, 2001, p. 54

With thanks to the Arts Society Fund and the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant which enabled archival visits in Edinburgh to support research for this scheme.

Louisa Catt, 2023
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