The Parcels of Charles Griffin and Co. – Illustration blocks of Criminal Prisons.

If you follow us on social media, you may have recently seen a photo of some rather old looking, unopened parcels that we have upstairs in Room 19.


These are dated from around 1860 onward and contain numerous illustration blocks from the publishing company, Charles Griffin and Co. The majority of the engravings were made for educational publications, covering topics such as botany, anatomy, astrology and also social studies.

Charles Griffin and Co. was established in 1852 after Charles, the nephew of John Joseph Griffin, took over the publishing side of the family company. Prior to this acquisition, the business ran as a partnership, also providing chemical apparatus for the science industry.  The scientific side of the business was continued by his uncle under the name ‘J. J. Griffin & Sons.’.

We have dozens of these parcels that have remained untouched since they were obtained by the library. Only three have ever been fully opened.


One of the main reasons we haven’t opened every parcel we have in the archives is that each one must be approached meticulously and carefully. Every individual item must be cataloged and then sorted to ensure that it is preserved for the future. Even the simple, seemingly useless things inside are of value to us, as they provide extra information about the artefacts and also add a little bit more to the narrative.

IMG_0901These brown pages were wrapped around the blocks in numerous layers, turning our exploration into a game of pass the parcel – albeit with no music or screaming kids. One of the sheets was the front page of an English grammar book, titled The Heart’s-Ease, or, Grammar in Verse. This was written by the elusively named ‘A Lady Teacher’, and was likely to be a very exciting page-turner for the ‘very young children’ which it was made for. Interestingly, this book was published by Richard Griffin and Co. in 1854 – another fragment of the Griffin family tree. Maybe the choice of wrapping paper symbolises some sort of family rivalry?

The chosen parcel was labelled ‘Criminal Prisons’. Inside were a number of engravings, that were all used as illustrations for a publication called The Criminal Prisons of London : and Scenes of Prison Life. Written in 1862 by Henry Mayhew and John Binny, it was the final volume in a series of books which provided information on ‘the lower phases of London life’.

female convicts in brixton prisonDuring these times, photography was rarely used to illustrate books. The engravings therefore also provide a technological insight into publishing and how people were educated by print.

According to the preface, written by ‘Stationers’ Hall Court’, Mayhew’s book gives readers an understanding of London’s prisons at a significant stage in their history. It states that ‘Prisons were formerly hotbeds of vice’ and that ‘reformation was a thing unknown’. However, The Criminal Prisons of London was produced at a time when these institutions began to change their role and function. Prisons were now ‘places of punishment, where idleness was banished’. At the same time, they also became a place of labour, where a strong work-ethic was rewarded. You can actually see from the engravings how this balance became a fundamental aspect of the prison experience.

prisoner at work making shoes in seperate cell

In these images, we have also included prints that were used in the book. This should give you better idea of the technical skill on show.

returning to the hulks from their labour in the arsenal

the escapepage cannon balls

One of the most striking engravings inside the box was ofa bird’s-eye view of Millbank Prison (pictured below). Millbank first opened in 1816 as a National Penitentiary. The hexagonal structure also became a holding pen for prisoners before they were deported to Australia.

milbankMillbank was demolished in 1890. One reason for its demolition may be its architectural complexity. Some accounts state how even regular prison wardens would get lost among its many corridors. If you visit the prison’s location nowadays you will find the Tate Britain and Chelsea College of Art and Design.

chain room at millgate

We have dozens of these parcels that are still in their original packaging. They are not only visually pleasing, but also inherently fascinating, allowing us to understand more about publishing, illustration and Victorian educational writings.

Before we put the parcel back in the archives, we ran a quick proof in the workshop on our Dürer press. The block chosen was of the Wash house at Brixton Women’s Prison. Considering we have Wash House Poets returning to the Bridewell Bar on Monday, we felt it was rather appropriate.

brixton washouse print

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