Q. We recently uncovered this print in a storage closet at Boalt. Is it something valuable? –LF, Berkeley
A. What you’ve located is a fairly rare 1803 engraving of a painting by William Hogarth which shows a Parliamentary inquiry being held in Fleet Prison. The subject is of particular interest to Boalt Hall, as it interweaves themes of prisoners’ rights, poverty law and anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic prejudice in the penal system. But can we pay off our construction debt by pawning it? Don’t call Sotheby’s quite yet.
In 1728 Thomas Bambridge was appointed Warden of His Majesty’s Prison of the Fleet, setting off a reign of corruption and misery such as London’s Fleet Prison had rarely known. Prisoners able to provide Bambridge with a sufficient bribe were allowed to “escape.” Others were forced into nearby “spunging houses” owned or leased by Bambridge, where their level of discomfort depended on their ability to pay. Hanging over them was the threat that when the flow of cash into Bambridge’s pocket ceased, they would be thrown into the dankest reaches of the prison itself.
The warden was eventually indicted for extortion and murder. Painter William Hogarth attended the interrogation of Thomas Bambridge that was held in Fleet Prison, creating an on-the-spot oil sketch from which he later produced a more formal composition. The figure on his knees at the center of the scene is believed (because of his darker skin) to be Jacob Mendez Solas, a goldsmith who was one of the more pitiable victims of Bambridge’s cruelty. Solas was sentenced to Fleet Prison for debt. His tragic story became a source of public outrage with the publication of A Report from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the State of the Goals [sic] of England:
“Jacob Mendez Solas, a Portuguese, was, as far as it appeared to the Committee, one of the first Prisoners for Debt that ever was loaded with Irons in the Fleet; The said Bambridge one Day called him into the Gate-house of the Prison, called the Lodge, where he caused him to be seized, fettered, and carried to Corbett’s, the Spunging-House, and there kept for upwards of a Week, and when brought back into the Prison, Bambridge caused him to be turned into the Dungeon, called the Strong Room of the Master’s Side.
“This Place is a Vault like those in which the Dead are interr’d, and wherein the Bodies of Persons dying in the said Prison are usually deposited, till the Coroner’s Inquest hath passed upon them; it has no Chimney nor Fire-place, nor any Light but what comes over the Door, or through a Hole of about Eight Inches square. It is neither Paved nor Boarded; and the rough Bricks appear both on the Sides and Top, being neither Wainscotted nor Plastered: What adds to the Dampness and Stench of the Place is, its being built over the Common-Shore, and adjoining to the Sink and Dunghil where all the Nastiness of the Prison is cast. In this miserable Place the poor Wretch was kept by the said Bambridge, Manacled and Shackled for near Two Months. At length, on receiving Five Guineas from Mr. Kemp, a Friend of Solas’s, Bambridge released the Prisoner from his cruel Confinement. But tho’ his Chains were taken off, his Terror still remained, and the unhappy Man was prevailed upon by that Terror, not only to labour gratis for the said Bambridge, but to swear also at random all that he hath required of him: And the Committee themselves saw an instance of the deep Impression his Sufferings had made upon him; for on his surmising, from something said, that Bambridge was to return again, as Warden of the Fleet, he fainted, and the Blood started out of his Mouth and Nose.”
Warden Bambridge was charged with the death of a prisoner named Robert Castell, who had been sent to Corbett’s Spunging-House even though an epidemic of smallpox was raging there. Castell had never suffered the disease and therefore had no immunity, so he begged to serve out his sentence in Fleet Prison instead. The warden sent him to Corbett’s, where he died within a few days.
Despite the vivid and disturbing testimony against him, and a nearly non-existent defense, Thomas Bambridge was found not guilty. He was, however, disqualified by Act of Parliament from ever holding another government position. He eventually committed suicide by cutting his own throat.
In 1729 William Hogarth painted The Gaols Committee of the House of Commons, greatly refining his original sketch. (The painting is now part of the collection of Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.) The subject of London’s prison system was a deeply personal one for Hogarth: his own father had been incarcerated for debt in Fleet Prison. Engraver Thomas Cook later created a copy of the Hogarth painting which he retitled Bambridge on Trial for Murder by a Committee of the House of Commons, and sold copies through G. & J. Robinson, Paternoster Row, London.
Though many interpretations of Hogarth’s painting were made over the years, Boalt owns a copy of the earliest known engraving, from 1803.
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