Brixton Prison is London’s oldest jail and celebrates its bi-centenary next year. Chris Impey is writing about its history from the time when it was the Surrey House of Correction, holding men, women and children from the county for minor offences. Since then it has been a prison for female convicts, a military prison, and for most of the 20th century the remand prison for London. Today it is a ‘resettlement prison’, helping those coming to the end of the sentences prepare for life back in the community.
Here he writes about some of the unusual stories he has unearthed.
John Dando’s insatiable appetite frequently earned him a stay in Brixton.
His modus operandi was simple: He feasted on what he couldn’t afford, touring London’s eateries, consuming huge quantities of food then refused to pay.
He was committed for a month in April 1830 charged with devouring, at a coffee shop, “3lbs of animal food, a half-quarter loaf, sundry eggs and washing down the whole with upwards of a dozen cups of coffee.”
But old habits died hard and the governor, Mr Green, had him placed in solitary confinement for having robbed other prisoners of bread and beef.
Oysters, though, were Dando’s weakness. They were a staple of the 19th century poor, heaved up the Thames from the beds in Essex, offloaded at Billingsgate and taken away in their barrel loads to be hawked around London, usually on street stalls from where they were eaten straight from the shell.
Dando was reputed to have consumed 30 dozen large ones in a single sitting with a proportionate amount of bread and brandy.
And his appetite for them was always sharpened by a diet of prison gruel.
On the evening of his release from Brixton, he walked straight into a shop and devoured 13 dozen washed down with five bottles of ginger-beer.
He took the latter as he was ‘troubled with wind in his stomach.
But once again his bill went unpaid. For seven or eight years he served a string of sentences punctuated by what he liked to call “blow-outs” at oyster shops.
So prolific a thief was he, that the newspapers published a description for the benefit of the oyster-dealers and the public in general.
They said “He stands five feet seven inches in height – 29 years of age, and is lame in the right foot. “His hair is brown – complexion fair – and he generally wears a gaol dress.”
In 1831, after another feat of unpaid-for gluttony, the magistrate inquired about this peculiar clothing.
To laughter in the court he replied: “The jacket came from Brixton, the waistcoat . . . was bestowed to me at a similar establishment at Guildford; and the trousers I know I acquired by hard servitude in your Middlesex House of Correction.”
But while romanticised by the newspapers, to the beleaguered costermongers he was a shameless thief.
He was frequently seen around town with a black-eye, and claimed no one in London ever had so many dreadful beatings.
But he apparently cared little for them, with the exception of one from a man he had defrauded in Kennington. For not being able to pay for a paltry three dozen oysters, he was dragged through a horse pond, rolled in the mud, and so belaboured with cudgels that his bones ached for a month after.
He made a vow never to go near Kennington again, and he kept his word.
Dando died in the cholera epidemic of 1832 after returning to London from a tour of the oyster-sellers of Kent – and its prisons.
He had quickly found himself in Coldbath Fields, where, on a Tuesday afternoon, he was taken sick, passing away within a few hours.
There was an affectionate obituary in the Morning Chronicle.
It said: “Dando used to pride himself that he was no thief, and said he considered it hard to be committed to prison for getting into debt without the means of paying, a thing which was done every day with impunity by those much better off than himself.’
Charles Dickens also wrote fondly of Dando, imagining: “He was buried in the Prison Yard and they paved his grave with oyster shells.”
A street ballad was sung to honour Dando. One day he walk’d up to an oyster stall, To punish the natives, large and small; Just thirty dozen he managed to bite, With ten penny loaves – what an appetite! But when he had done, without saying good day, He bolted off, scot free, away; He savag’d the oysters, and left the shell – Dando, the bouncing seedy swell.
The Life and Death of Dando, The Celebrated Oyster Glutton (Street Ballad)
Chris Impey would like to hear from anyone who has a story about HMP Brixton which they would like to share.
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