In 1553, King Edward the Sixth signed an order to convert an unused palace into a hospital. Bridewell Hospital, or Bridwell Prison, more accurately, aimed to reduce the growing number of idle persons in London by imprisoning vagrants and putting them to work. The social experiment quickly took off: by 1559, the courts within Bridewell tried 467 cases, by 1576 that number grew to 722 and by 1599 about two thousand people were passing through the prison annually. [i] Soon, other penal systems within the country began following Bridewell’s lead. Nearly two hundred such institutions sprang up in the British Isles, modeled specifically on Bridewell in London.[ii] By the close of the century, ‘Bridewell’ had been genericized to refer to any house of correction.

Bridewell Hospital: an aerial view.. [Bird’s-eye views. Engravings.]. Wellcome Collection.

While Bridewell itself began as a singular institution, it was merely the latest step in a series of legislative acts that has attempted to classify, codify and control the place of work in British society since the mid-fourteenth century. The founding orders for Bridewell stipulate that ‘no pension nor other reléefe to be given to any which are idle, being able to labor,’ thoroughly foreclosing other means of assisting the unemployed.[iii] Work was portrayed here as the first, and only, line of defense against vagrancy, as though the only thing that led to the idleness was a lack of occupation. In providing such work, Bridewell put an end to idleness in the most literal sense. In fact, Bridewell imagined itself to provide a twofold solution to the problem of idleness, by both punishing vagrancy and eliminating the state of idleness through laborious activity. 

As the orders describe Bridwell as the proposed site of compelled labor, they delineate the scope and intention of Bridewell Prison as a place ‘For releefe of the poore, and for setting to worke of vagaraunt people’ where ‘there are to be set vp in Bridewell certaine artes, occupations, workes and labours’ for the prisoners to engage in.[iv]  Work was not an incidental or supplementary part of life at Bridewell—it occupied the entire length of a prisoner’s day, six days a week (granting Sunday as a day of rest). [v] If the imprisoned men and women were already trained in a craft, they could practice it; those who did not know a trade were taught one of a large variety of labors, most of which produced material items ranging from gloves to knives to nails to shoes to tennis balls.[vi]

In official discourse, Bridewell was referred to with the euphemistic title of ‘Hospital’. This categorical label matches the rhetoric that imagined Bridewell as a restorative and recuperative space, curing vagrants of their idleness, reforming the rogue into an honest worker. And yet, in a post-Foucauldian world, it is challenging to take Bridewell’s valuation of activity, rather than surveillance and punishment, as the true goal of a social institution which clearly surveilled and punished. The insistence that the labour performed by the prisoners was ‘for the releef of the poore’ chafes against our ethical contestations to the less savory byproducts of such social structures.  Bridewell may have resulted in a heightened state of discipline and surveillance, yes, but it was always also interested in something more.  For one, if punishment was the primary goal, then why not send the offender to another penal institution, and why insist on the work activity that occurred at Bridewell? Bridewell’s mission of putting the idle to work gave it a function distinct from that of other institutions. While a variety of punishments did occur within Bridewell’s walls, they were supplementary to the labour; importantly, the labour itself was not figured as a punishment. [vii]   Instead, it was figured as transformative: ‘such as shall neede… shall be brought for theyr reformation and not for perpetual seruitude’. [viii] 

Furthermore, despite Nicholas Ridley’s claim that the prison will increase the ‘profit and commodity of the commonwealth of the City’ of London, Bridewell was not a financially profitable enterprise. The goods produced were not sold at a competitive rate and expenses were constant: by the time the prison paid for tools, bedding, apparel, food, ‘stocke and stuffe for the occupations,’ and masters to oversee and teach the disciplines, Bridewell prison was in fact losing money.[ix] At the end of the day, while I heed the ethical call not to confuse the narrative of Bridewell with the actual treatment of its inhabitants, I am primarily invested in the narrative that surrounded Bridewell, a narrative of improvement through occupation, and the way that Early Modern Londoners perceived and perpetuated the myth that Bridewell was, at the end of the day dedicated ‘to the Intent they may be well and honestly ordered and provided for’.[x] Pretense or not, it is precisely this narrative of Bridewell—replacing the potential for crime with a potential for productivity, civility, and activity—that secured Bridwell’s place in the fabric of English society.

Margo Kolenda-Mason is an Assistant Professor of English- Literary Studies at Hendrix College. She earned her PhD at the University of Michigan in 2022. Her current research project, “Fruitless Labor in Premodern English Literature examines alternative versions of labor as a literary reaction to economic and social preoccupation with work in fourteenth- through sixteenth-century England. She claims that English writers turned toward work that somehow wasn’t working—the fruitless, impossible, failed, and displaced– in order to grapple with the unstable definition and valuation of work during this long historical moment. 

[i] Benjamin Nelson, Bridewell’s Fall: Summary Justice in London, 1730-1800. (Master’s Thesis, Iowa State University, 2017). 11.

[ii]Edward Geoffrey O’Donoghue. Bridewell Hospital: Palace, Prison, schools, from the earliest times to the end of the reign of Elizabeth. Vol 1.  (London: John Lane the Bodley Head Limited, 1923). 5.

[iii] Anon, Orders appointed to be executed in the cittie of London, for setting roges and idle persons to worke, and for releefe of the poore. (London, 1587).

[iv] Orders Appointed.

[v] Paul Griffiths, ‘Contesting London Bridewell, 1576-1580’, Journal of British Studies 42.3 (2003): 283-315. 18.

[vi] Orders Appointed,

[vii] Orders Appointed.

[viii] Orders Appointed.

[ix] O’Donoghue, 185-6; Orders Appointed; Alfred James Copeland, Bridewell Royal Hospital, past and present: a short account of it as a palace, hospital, prison, and school, with a collection of interesting memoranda hitherto unpublished. (London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co, 1888). 49, 92-7.

[x] Copeland, 23.