October 30, 2009 / 11:31 AM / 9 years ago

Eerie debtors' jail stars in London Museum revamp

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britons feeling the pinch in these hard times can take comfort from the fact that at least they cannot be jailed for owing money these days.

Nelson's sword of honour. The Corporation of London presented this honorary sword and the Freedom of the city to Admiral Lord Nelson in 1800. REUTERS/Museum of London

But before 1869, when imprisonment for debt was abolished, the outlook was grim indeed for the cash-crunched.

Just how grim is one of the themes in five new galleries opening next Spring in the Museum of London.

Curators have reassembled the original parts of a cramped wooden cell salvaged from the site of Wellclose Square debtors’ prison — also known at the time as “The Sly House.”

The structure was part of a small courthouse and house of correction used in the 1750s to the east of the Tower of London.

“People will be able to walk into it for the first time and experience what it was really like — prisoners scratched their names and pictures into the wooden walls,” said Hollie Turner, one of the museum’s curators.

The drawings include a hangman and street scenes thought to have been etched by inmates using pine cones.

An associated penal exhibit shows the original great iron doors of Britain’s most feared jail: Newgate.

Built not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral in the ancient city center and demolished in the 177Os, the notorious prison housed some of the country’s most infamous villains — many of whom ended up swinging on the end of a rope just outside its massive walls to the delight of baying mobs.

The Central Criminal Court, more commonly known as the Old Bailey, where most major trials for England and Wales take place, now stands on the site.

The new galleries span the period from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to the present and future and allow 7,000 more of the museum’s treasures to be displayed, some for the first time.

They include a sword presented to Admiral Horatio Nelson for services to the nation, a painting of Christ’s crucifixion by notorious East End gangster Ronnie Kray and an entire bronze lift used at one of London’s leading department stores, Selfridges, in the 1920s.

Other attractions being unveiled as part of the museum’s 20 million pound makeover include a recreation of a “Pleasure Garden.”

These were at their most popular in 18th century Georgian England and offered a welcome break from the often overcrowded and filthy streets of the old city.

Notorious East End gangster Ronnie Kray painted this startling image of Christ's crucifixion while in Parkhurst prison in 1972. REUTERS/Museum of London

The gardens boasted broad walks lined with decorative shrubbery, music and entertainments and even fireworks.

Beverley Cook, curator of the new galleries, said they aim to capture “atmospheres and moods” of particular periods of the city’s growth, combining more traditional ways of displaying artefacts with 21st-century technology and interactive exhibits.

“The old galleries were much more traditional and perhaps even a little sterile,” she said. “We hope that the new ones will dazzle the senses and really bring the story of London to life.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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