The strangely combative history of Wormwood Scrubs

The strangely combative history of Wormwood Scrubs

Coming up on the south, look out for a large patch of land, known as Wormwood Scrubs.

From swords to pistols to chains

It’s an area with a strangely combative history. For Wormwood Scrubs was once the principal duelling ground of London, where in the 19th Century even the royal Duke of York settled a quarrel.

In the Victorian era the War Office used it for military exercises. Then from the late 19th Century it became the home of the famous Wormwood Scrubs prison – which you can see at the end of the open patch of land.

This prison, with its foreboding and towered brick gatehouse has become a mainstay of British culture, appearing in films, TV series, album covers – you name it. The gatehouse is visual shorthand for ‘a life inside’.

MI5 takes up residence

But what was surprising to me was the role the prison played during the Second World War. Because in the safety of this impressive building were stationed British Military Intelligence, MI5 – right alongside some its prisoners.

The officers had a cell each and secretaries were two to a cell. And it sounds like they had a tough time of it. Because as well as prison toilets, the female secretaries were sometimes mistaken for prison prostitutes. Many staff would also get accidentally locked in their cells.

“The name’s Bond (again)”

And if you’ve already listened to our other Blip on James Bond, here’s a fun fact: also working from the prison during this time was John Masterton, who ran MI5’s famed double agent program, Double Cross.

Bond’s author, Ian Fleming, was also involved in wartime intelligence, and is said to have paid homage to Masterton by naming one of his characters after him, in his James Bond novel ‘Goldfinger’.

But back to today. Nowadays Wormwood Scrubs prison is again housing only prisoners. It’s architecture means it’s listed as a historic building too, protected from future works or destruction.

The fate of the wider area is not so assured though; Wormwood Scrubs remains one of the largest open spaces still close to central London, and as such it’s always under threat of development.

(Image by Chmee2)

~ For the travellers ~