Wormwood Scrubs

London, England

A London prison made famous by a Michael Caine film, a song by The Jam and a rooftop protest by the IRA, Wormwood Scrubs has had a turbulent history and remains in desperate need of reform.

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A pioneering model of prison reform when first built, Wormwood Scrubs has earned the opposite reputation over its 150 year history.

It's 1,000 man capacity has repeatedly been stretched to around 1,400 and, over the years, it has grown infamous for poor hygene, staff brutality and riots.

Wormwood Scrubs Side-View
- ©Julian Tysoe

Building Your Own Cage

The construction of Wormwood Scrubs was completed in 1891, 16 years after it started. Before this, there was a corrugated iron shelter on site- a temporary prison to hold the inmates whilst they constructed a more permanent confines.

A Multi-Purpose Prison

The inmates did such a good job that, during WW2, their successors were evacuated to other prisons to make way for the War Department. Between 1939-40, Wormwood Scrubs was the home of MI5.


Hints at the prisons' future notoriety first started to show in 1966, when George Blake, a Russian spy, climbed its walls and fled to freedom. It did not become truly infamous, however, until the tail-end of the 1970s.

Wormwood scrubs Side Entrance
- © Amanda Slater

'A Penal Dustbin'

In 1979, John McCarthy quit his role as Govenor, saying that he no longer wished to work in a system that did not encourage reform and calling the place a 'penal dustbin'.

Months later, IRA protesters took to the rooftop to campaign for more visiting rights. This was only the beginning, however, of what would soon become a bitter struggle of many years.

Wormwood Scrubs Riot

In August of the same year, a peaceful sit-in was organised by 60 D-wing inmates. All they wanted were some decent toiletries: toothpaste that didn't rip your mouth to shreds, stuff like that, but the prison officers showed little sympathy. They adopted a regime of zero tolerance. Tensions simmered for a fortnight.

Then boiled over into riot.

60 inmates and several prison officers were injured. A 1982 report found that poor prison management had magnified the riot's effects. And things didn't get better from there.

In 1983, there were six hostage situations in just as many months. Another riot broke out, since described as a running battle between inmates armed with dustbin lids and bedheads, and truncheon-wielding prison officers. And a handful of prisoners smeared excrement over the walls in a dirty protest.

Staff Brutality

Things continued in much the same vein for the best part of 20 years. In 1989, it was reported that the prisoners were more likely to reoffend on release.

Across the 90s, a grand total of 27 prison officers were suspended for brutality. Six of these were charged for assault, and more likely would have been had HM Prison Service not spent in excess of £3 million on out of court settlements with aggrieved ex-prisoners.

The prison was told to improve or close. It is still open today. One would hope that this is because it really has gotten better, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Wormwood Scrubs 1902

Problems To This Day

In 2014, inspectors found Wormwood Scrubs to be filthy and took note of a failure to address suicide and self-harm.

In 2017, the prison was reported to be over-crowded and infested with cockroaches and rats.

In 2018, an inmate was forced to spend two days in a showerless room without prescribed pain medication. This ended with him taking his own life.

Reports like these make it hard to believe that the prison really has improved.


Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Treasure Hunts in London - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of London.

Read more about England's prisons in our article on Strangeways Prison and on penal institutions further afield in our Fremantle Prison, Old Melbourne Gaol, Cockatoo Island, Conciergerie and Abbotsford Convent posts.

One More Thing...

Wormwood Scrubs prison has featured as a set in many films, including the 1969 classic The Italian Job. And it has been referenced in songs too, such as The Jam's Down At The Tube Station At Midnight, and Pete Doherty's Broken Love Song, which tells of his own experiences serving time as a prisoner there.


What you need to know

Wormwood Scrubs
169, Du Cane Road, London, UK
Tips before you visit