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The What in the Where now?

Entrance to the Compter in the Poultry (1805) – British Museum

That was my reaction the first time I came across this place-name in the state papers. Turned out it used to be a prison in London’s west-end.

The Poultry refers to a street between Cheapside and Cornhill, which was the centre of the poultry trade in the city.

Compter is a term for a prison, deriving from the French compter, to count (counter was also commonly used in the records). It must be that the counter was literally a table on which a prisoner counted out his due money to secure release from custody.

So the Compter in the Poultry was an old prison for debtors, run by the sheriff.

It was first mentioned in the records in 1477 – Le counter in le Pultree – but that gives no indication of the antiquity of the place. The prisoners were delivered there from the civil side of the law, rather than the criminal – mostly debtors, but also religious dissenters and rowdy drunks. I guess a good night’s sleep was rare. The prison had one quirk in that it was the only place within the city for the custody of Jews, probably because of its proximity to Old Jewry.

In 1603 John Stow mentioned the prison in his, A Survey of London (pp.258-276)– (bottom of link):

Counter in the Poultrie; Chappell of corpus Christi.

Some foure houses west from this Parish Church of saint Mildred, is a prison house pertaining to one of the shiriffes of London, and is called the Counter in the Poultrie. This hath beene there kept and continued time out of minde, for I haue not read of the originall thereof.

And the Tudor connections? Many – some notorious, but here are a couple of ordinary examples from the diary of Henry Machyn in 1560:

The same day [5 January] was a gentleman arrested for debt. And there was divers gentlemen and servingmen, Mr. Cobham and others, and took him from the officers and carried him into the Rose Tavern [in the Poultry]. And there was a great fray that both the sheriffs were fain to come. And so they came to the Rose Tavern and took all the gentlemen and their servants and carried them to the Counter.

The thirteenth day of August was a great robbery done within Clement Inn without Temple Bar by one Mr. Cutt and three more. And three of them was taken: one led into Newgate and another in Wood Street Counter and another in the Counter in the poultry.

In 1604 the playwright Thomas Middleton referred to the prison in his play The Phoenix (pdf) IV.i p.74 – during the arrest of an indebted knight by two officers of the law, one of them makes the following observation:

Argo. Nay, we have been scholars, I can tell you; we could not have been knaves so soon else; for as in that notable city called London, stand two most famous universities, Poultry and Woodstreet, where some are of twenty years’ standing, and have took all their degrees, from the Master’s side down to the Mistress’s side, the Hole, so in like manner …

In 1817 the Compter in the Poultry was demolished after an official report condemned it as a danger to the prisoners.

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More of the prison’s history in Old and New London (1878) vol.1, pp.416-424, with an interesting insight on the 18th century protest against slavery.

For tourists, a googlemaps search – close to Bank tube station – and a few attractions in the area. Plus a view of The Poultry today:

from markhillary – wikimedia commons

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