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Panopticon - Millbank

Millbank Design
Millbank Design

Millbank was built to reflect the design of Jeremy Bentham's 'Panopticon'. It cost £500,000 and was finished in 1821.

About Millbank

Millbank was the largest prison in London for a while. The prison walls formed an irregular octagon and enclosed 7 acres of land. The wheel-like layout had the Governors house in the center, with 6 buildings radiating out to the outer wall turrets forming the spokes. It had a maze of gloomy passages that stretched 3 miles.

The prison was intended to house up to 1000 transportation prisoners at any one time. Each had a separate cell and were forbidden to talk to one another. The prisoners were put to labour making shoes or mail bags.

The average stay was about three months which allowed staff time to assess where the prisoner should be transported to. All Great Britain and Ireland transportation prisoners were processed through Millbank, at one time, with about 4000 passing through its walls each year.

Unfortunately built near the Thames, from which it took its water, the prison suffered from epidemics of cholera and scurvy. In 1843 it was converted to house general prisoners and later held military prisoners. It was pulled down in 1902.

The Panopticon
The Panopticon

The Panopticon

The Panopticon was designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. This prison design was all about observation and surveillance.

It was intended to allow the prisoners to be observed without them knowing if or when they were being watched. Bentham described it as "a mode of obtaining power of mind over mind". It was intended to be cheaper than other prisons, as it required fewer staff.

The design incorporates a tower central to a circular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen.

Bentham devoted a large part of his life and fortune to promote the construction of a prison based on his scheme. He was not successful in his lifetime in achieving this. However, many modern prisons built today are built in a "podular" design influenced by the Panopticon design, in intent and basic organisation if not in exact form.

Cambridge County Gaol and House of Correction built 1802-07, for example, was designed by G. Byfield on 'Benthamite' principles.