Arts & Culture History

HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs “Every birth a crime, every sentence life.”

  • September 30, 2022
  • 3 min read
HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs “Every birth a crime, every sentence life.”

by Sophie Pretorius

Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs lies at the southern end of the eponymous park, once named Wormeholte (Holt meaning woodland or forest and worm meaning snake) then Wormholtwode, before eventually becoming Wormewood. All of its names refer to a wooded thicket infested by snakes. Ironically, Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) itself, the grey-foliaged sub-shrub, common on wasteland, was traditionally used as a herb for the treatment of parasitic worms. ‘Scrubs’ refers to the land’s infertility and poor quality. An auspicious place to attempt the rehabilitation and punishment of those amongst us who dare transgress. 

The prison was based on the design of Sir Edmund Frederick Du Cane, prison reformer, who spent time in Australia (Kafka’s In the Penal Colony comes to mind). It was the first ‘telegraph pole’ plan prison in England and was perhaps based on the plans of hospitals in the Crimean war. The layout ensured that every cell received sunlight, which was considered a charitable development, to what would now be called the mental health of the prisoners. Construction took place from 1874-1891. In line with practices at the time, it was built using prison labour. The building was given grade II listed status in 2009. 

Since its completion, the building has been continuously criticised and threatened with closure. It has been called overcrowded and rat and cockroach infested. Its one time governor, John McCarthy, upon his resignation, described it at the time as a ‘penal dustbin’. It has housed some infamous and terrifying people, as well as holding a large number of men arrested for conscientious objection during WWII. At the time of WWII, it also became the headquarters of MI5, until it was bombed in 1940, after which MI5’s staff were relocated to the equally amusing locations of Woodstock and Blenheim Palace.

Famous inmates have included Horatio Bottomley, financier, journalist, editor, swindler, Member of Parliament, and newspaper proprietor who founded the Financial Times and John Bull;  the notorious ‘most violent prisoner in Britain’, Charles Bronson, who strangled the governor of Wormwood Scrubs during one particularly aggressive episode; musician and poet Pete Doherty, who made the papers for taking heroin while inside Scrubs; Leslie Grantham, the murderer and actor who played “Dirty” Den Watts in EastEnders; and centre of the Swinging 60s subculture, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins was jailed at Wormwood, ostensibly for allowing marijuana to be smoked in his residence, but probably as a disruptive measure to the subculture he was crucial to. 

The prison has woven its way into the oral culture of London and informed the wartime experiences of many of our most important 20th century creators. Poet Basil Bunting, from whose poem Briggflatts: An Autobiography are taken the lines that make up the subtitle of this article, was held at Wormwood due to his status as a conscientious objector. Bunting found his time in prison both transformational and traumatising, and when asked what had informed his life’s work, Bunting stated, “Jails and the sea, Quaker mysticism and socialist politics, a lasting unlucky passion, the slums of Lambeth and Hoxton …”


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