Poultry Compter

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Poulty Compter. Illustration based on a print of 1813.

Poultry Compter (also sometimes known as Poultry Counter) was a small compter, or prison, run by a Sheriff of the City of London from medieval times until 1815.

It took its name from its location on a section of Cheapside called Poultry, from the produce that was once sold in street markets along the thoroughfare.

History[edit]

In 1580 the Catholic printer William Carter was held in Poultry Compter before being transferred to the Tower of London and executed on charges of treason against Queen Elizabeth I.

The compter was used to house prisoners such as vagrants, debtors and religious dissenters, as well as criminals convicted of misdemeanours including homosexuality, prostitution and drunkenness.

On 1 August 1772, for instance, The Craftsman reported that "a well dressed man was detected, near Lombard-street, in an unnatural crime, and immediately committed to the Poultry Compter."[1] On 5 July 1799, a Friday evening, at 7 o'clock, a naked man was arrested at the Mansion House and sent to the compter. He confirmed that he had accepted a wager of 10 guineas (equal to £873 today) to run naked from Cornhill to Cheapside.[2]

The prison became notorious for its poor conditions. A contemporary account describes the prison in the late 18th century:

"the mixture of scents that arose from mundungus, tobacco, foul feet, dirty shirts, stinking breaths, and uncleanly carcases, poisoned our nostrils far worse than a Southwark ditch, a tanner's yard, or a tallow-chandler's melting-room. The ill-looking vermin, with long, rusty beards, swaddled up in rags, and their heads—some covered with thrum-caps, and others thrust into the tops of old stockings. Some quitted their play they were before engaged in, and came hovering round us, like so many cannibals, with such devouring countenances, as if a man had been but a morsel with 'em, all crying out, 'Garnish, garnish,' as a rabble in an insurrection crying, 'Liberty, liberty!' We were forced to submit to the doctrine of nonresistance, and comply with their demands, which extended to the sum of two shillings each."

Certainly, the state of the prison was giving considerable cause for concern and, in 1804, an official report said the prison was:

"in such a state of decay, as to become inadequate to the safe custody of the debtors and prisoners therein confined, and extremely dangerous, as well to the lives of the said debtors and prisoners as to other persons resorting thereto."[3]

This report was contained in a preamble to the London Debtors' Prisons Act 1804 enabling the City's authorities to move inmates to another City prison (Giltspur Street Compter), although this purpose was not achieved until 1815, following the passage of the Debtors Prison for London and Middlesex Act 1815. The Poultry Compter was eventually demolished in 1817.

The fight against slavery[edit]

The Poultry Compter was connected with early struggles against the slave-trade; several slaves released by Granville Sharp were confined in the compter. For example, in 1765, Sharp helped a mistreated and abandoned slave, John Strong, recover from serious injuries and found him employment with an apothecary. Strong's owner sought the help of John Ross, keeper of the Poultry Compter, and William Miller, an officer under the Lord Mayor of London, to kidnap him, and Strong was then imprisoned in the compter and subsequently sold for £30. Sharp appealed to the Lord Mayor, Robert Kite, and Strong was released on the grounds that no warrant had been issued for his arrest and confinement.[4]

Notable inmates[edit]

References[edit]

Coordinates: 51°30′49″N 0°05′26″W / 51.5137°N 0.0906°W / 51.5137; -0.0906