Save Wandsworth Prison Museum

20 Feb 2014

Susannah Henty writes:

“On a cold, windy February afternoon prison officer Stewart McLaughlin opened up a small outbuilding by HMP Wandsworth where he has dedicated the last 6 years of his free time to preserving the famous London prison’s history.  Education is an important part of that heritage as Prisoners' Education Trust (PET) discovered when we went to visit the small museum and marvel at its impressive collection of artefacts, photos and paraphernalia.

Sadly, as land is no longer owned by the prison this heritage could be lost if the museum doesn’t find new local premises. To help save Wandsworth Prison Museum, visit it, write to the Governor and spread the word and if you have a spare portacabin let us know ASAP! Here we describe our trip down memory lane and explain why saving this little bit of south London history is so important.

Dear Janet…

Whilst one of the largest items there is an original noose and chains and the walls are filled with grim doctors’ notes of executions and tales of grim crimes, there is more to Wandsworth’s history than the macabre.

Next to a prison-made toothbrush we spied an old education note book. On the front cover was a letter to his beloved ‘Janet’ asking her to be faithful while he was locked up. Fascinating black and white photos revealed groups of prisoners studying on the wings, sat at desks lined up in a row because they weren’t allowed ink in their cells, another a decade or two later shows three prisoners engrossed in a game of chess. After hearing from Stewart that for many years the prisoners wasted their time repairing post office bags that had been chewed to pieces by rats because they sat unused in a storage depot, we were pleased to discover a Governor in the 1960s had approved a day release scheme to rehabilitate prisoners.

A beautiful letter written with calligraphy, words framed with flowers on a vine by a prisoner thanks the Governor for letting them go out of the prison to study further education at a local college. It then goes on to ask for it to be reinstated. What happened, we asked? Stewart says after the press found out they followed the men and caught them eating McDonalds on a lunch break, the story was splashed over the red tops and the great scheme was soon cut short.

Nowadays, many approved prisoners do go out into the community and gain work experience or get a qualification on the Release on temporary license (ROTL) scheme, but despite its merits for slowly helping people to settle back into their lives on the outside it still faces the same controversy.

Inspirational speakers

Although for many years the prison didn’t have a specific section dedicated to education, Ian says the chapel arranged lots of inspirational speakers to come into the prison and motivate the inmates ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Charlie Boarman.

Stewart says “if you’re not productive you soon get up to no good” so he seeks to inspire prisoners during his shifts and encourages them to do courses or other positive activities. An Open University student in his spare time, he understands the challenges and demands of higher learning and is supportive of prisoners trying to study without half of the resources available outside.

Before we leave he tells us: “Education can lead to the guys thinking differently. Plenty need encouragement in the right direction. I do what I can.”

Save Wandsworth prison

Because Stewart volunteers outside of his working hours, visits to the museum are by appointment only. As it is under threat of closure, we would encourage you to visit it now and speak to Ian – who has a seemingly-limitless knowledge of everything remotely linked to the prison – while you still can. Stewart also needs all the help he can get to make sure the treasures he has preserved aren’t lost to storage; if you can help, he would be happy to hear from you.

Later this year, PET hopes to hold an event at the prison commemorating our own 25 years anniversary, as the charity was established in Wandsworth by David Burton, an Education officer who wanted to do more for the prisoners. We hope to hold the event during Wandsworth Heritage week in June – watch this space for more info.