The headline is not what you expect me to say about this notorious tourist trap, but actually, DO go to the Clink Prison Museum, for its reputation is ill-deserved.
Down a flight of stairs a costumed lady takes money through a grill – and an extra £2 for the rather thin guidebook, – and tells you that you are free to take photos and play with the torture devices — then slowly, very slowly, an automatic door opens to let you within.
A jailor with an axe greets you, and my visit was instantly improved by pushing open the wooden door and giving two ladies on the other side a massive fright.
I clearly need a visit to a beautician.
What you have down here is a dark low basement that’s been divided into rooms each telling a bit of the history of the Clink Prison, along with a few cabinets containing actual historical objects, and a rather cheesy series of waxworks dotted around the place.
Lots of moaning and groaning in the background soundtrack, and something the original occupants would never have had – fans to keep you cool blowing away the fetid atmosphere.
Initially, you’re thinking this is a sort of Tesco Value version of Madame Tussauds, but look around, there’s a lot of information boards on the walls, and that’s what fills the time on a visit – as there’s a genuinely interesting history here, and importantly, they’ve done a decent job of explaining it.
Although they repeat the unproven myth that the name of the Clink comes from the clinking of the prisoner chains, that’s an understandable aberration as the rest of the boards are honestly frank about dispelling myths and being honest about where there’s uncertainty about a piece of history.
The current site of the museum is not quite where the Clink Prison was when first built, as it’s had a few locations over its evolving history from early religious cell to full-blown prison. It’s also probably more famous than most for being not just one of the earliest, but also for housing lots of very high-ranking people — being controlled by the Bishop of Winchester, who had the job of dealing with treacherous lords.
For some, the torture implements will be the main attraction of a visit — and they are candid about some of the ones on display, such as the neck collar which turned out to be a later fake. The boot was fascinating to learn about having never seen one as a torture instrument before, and the Heretic’s Fork delivers a level of horror completely out of scale to its diminutive size.
Unlike modern prisons, it was the inmates who paid for their unwilling incarceration and if poor, they could often die of hunger as no money meant no food. The rich however could live relatively pleasantly, assuming they even stayed in the prison, as it was possible to pay someone else to do the time for you.
The display boards tell a lot about the people who are known to have stayed in the Clink, from unjustly accused prostitutes where records exist to the lords and rebellious clergy during the ear of the Reformation, and then the later anti-catholic riots.
Like the Clink Prison of old, they make a living from charging fees to go inside and sell wares to the visitors.
You leave via the rear fire escape.
Yes, it’s cheesy, but the admission price is fair, it’s fun, it’s quite informative, and I defy anyone to leave having not learnt at least one new thing about the history of London. Importantly, I didn’t feel ripped off when I left, which would have surprised past-me going in for the first time.
A lot of people will still decry it, but I had good fun and frankly, if the museum wasn’t here, this basement space would just be a seating area for yet another branch of Pret or Starbucks.
And that would be a chamber of horrors.