A History of Wandsworth Common



Thursday 8 July 2021

And the Oscar goes to . . . Wandsworth Prison / Part I

The personal is historical

The Main Gate, 1950s

Gangster Johnny Bannion (played by Stanley Baker) leaves Wandsworth Prison at the start of Joseph Losey's classic The Criminal (1960).

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I'VE RECENTLY BEEN EXPLORING the phenomenal REELSTREETS website for visual evidence of change in our area — particularly the roads and open spaces around Wandsworth Prison.

Reelstreets is devoted to the locations used in films, and includes innumerable stills. It has an excellent search function, which makes it potentially very useful for local historical research. (I grew up literally in the prison's shadow, so there's a touch of nostalgia involved too.)

"Reelstreets is the study of commercially distributed cinema and television films with outside, recognisable, built-up locations and the changes that time, war or development may have occasioned. We are looking for location identifications, comparison shots, information, anecdotes or references to fill our pages and will mention anyone who helps, giving full credit to all contributors."

The Criminal (released in the USA as The Concrete Jungle) (1960)

Perhaps the finest dramatic use of the physical presence of the prison — particularly of the prison's gates — occurs at the start of Joseph Losey's stunning neo-noir The Criminal, released in 1960. Its full-on depiction of the violence of life inside led to bans in some countries.

Thanks to YouTube, you can view some of these (literally) opening scenes her (highly recommended):

(Click on image or here to play the scene in YouTube)

The Criminal, whose cast includes Stanley Baker, Sam Wanamaker, and Jill Bennett, can be summarised baldly as: "An ex-con gets caught after taking part in a robbery at a racetrack but he won't tell his fellow gang members where he's stashed the loot." But that says nothing about its explosive visual language and sensibility. Or indeed its interest for the Wandsworth historian.

Here, for example, is a series of stills ("captures") from an early sequence:

Stills from Joseph Losey's The Criminal, 1960, showing captions from the Reelstreets' site.

Views of the "wings" (cell blocks radiating from a central rotunda) — Tight-lipped Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker) is released from prison through a series of doors and gates — He pointedly ignores uniformed prison officers on the way — Now outside but still close to the prison wall he is surprised by a dodgy associate (Sam Wanamaker) — They walk together in front of a row of austere Victorian houses.

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The director, US-born Joseph Losey, knew the area well — he had already featured the prison (and the officers' quarters around the back of the prison) in his 1957 film Time Without Pity (on which more below). Blacklisted as a Communist by Hollywood in the early 1950s, Losey had moved to London to work. But mustn't grumble: Hollywood's loss, Wandsworth's gain.

The scenes filmed around the prison — the gate, the high wall, and houses in Heathfield Square — are of great interest to me since I lived in the Square until the age of 8 (when I moved round the corner to Heathfield Road, even closer to the gate). My home in the Square was in one of the Victorian blocks seen behind the figures in Capture 8:

Sixty years later, the houses look surprisingly similar. Except of course for the cars (and the the satellite dishes):

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Capture 10 is particularly evocative, because this is where my bike was crushed and I nearly lost a leg when a prison laundry lorry turned into the door of the garage (below, right-hand edge):

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This garage has since been demolished and replaced with a house more or less in the same style as the originals on either side):

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Curiously, this particular accident (I had quite a few) occurred at much the same time that The Criminal was being made.

It may help you to see the prison, and some of the specific locations, in a modern aerial view:

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The radial cell blocks of Wandsworth Prison are enclosed within a continuous high wall. At the centre, where the "wings" meet, is a high rotunda. (The smaller 3-wing building nearby was originally a woman's prison.)

The prison gate is at the centre of circle A, at the head of Heathfield Avenue. Now just a cul-de-sac with no access to Trinity Road, until the late 1960s the Avenue (of lime trees) was the main approach to the prison:

The prison gates and Heathfield Avenue from Trinity Road

The Trinity Road end of the Avenue has been grassed over and is once more part of Wandsworth Common. I'll say some more about this in another post.

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Behind the prison is the prison estate I've talked about above — almost another world then, and rather remote-feeling even now. It is not itself enclosed but is cut off by the railway line and cemetery to the west and south, and tennis courts and a former builders' yard to the east.

This estate (always known to us as "the Quarters") included a sports field ("the Green") and homes originally built solely for housing prison officers but now possibly entirely privately owned. These are the houses seen The Criminal (circle C).

Losey didn't use locations in Circle B in The Criminal, but they're prominent in the earlier Time Without Pity (1957).

Time Without Pity (1957)

"On the day before a man is to be executed for committing murder, his father arrives from Canada and tries increasingly desperate measures to prove his son's innocence."

The cast includes Michael Redgrave, Ann Todd, Peter Cushing, Leo McKern, Renee Houston, Paul Daneman.

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Here are some screen captures from the Reelstreets site. Captures 9 and 10 are in circle B, the northern corner of the prison estate.

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(Incidentally, the sequence in effect reverses reality. The car seemingly on its way to the prison (captures 11 and 12, circle A) is in fact driving away (captures 9 and 10, circle B). But hey, it's a film. As long as it works narratively for the viewer, you can cut and paste as much as you like.)

In capture 9, notice the railway bridge on Heathfield Road and the backs of houses on Windmill Road:

In capture 10 (below), see the row of pre-fab bungalows on the right (sandwiched between the prison wall and the railway line). These happy homes lasted longer than most prefabs in the area (for example those on Wandsworth Common which went in the mid-1950s, but were demolished in the (late?) 1960s. The site was cleared and used for many years as a (very ugly) car park.

The tall "turret house" seen at the end of the road in capture 10 (which can also be seen in The Criminal capture 7) was one of several massive houses built wherever the prison's curtain wall turned a corner.

All gone now, these looked much like the turrets that still flank the gates today. A couple were destroyed by a V2 rocket-powered bomb in 1944, and the others were eventually abandoned, fell derelict, and then demolished.

In the fairly recent past blocks of flats have been built:

Here's a nice irony. Capture 10 is exactly where the "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs escaped in 1965, by climbing the wall and jumping onto a removal lorry parked beneath. I lived at the time in a flat on Heathfield Road overlooking the prison, and newspaper photographers hung out of my bedroom window to take moody shots over the wall. The fact that this was quite the other side of the prison didn't seem to trouble them. But all very interesting for a mid-teenager.

Newspaper photographs of the scene of Ronnie Biggs's escape from Wandsworth Prison in July 1965 (Getty Images and Alamy).

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That's quite enough for now. But since such a large number of films feature the prison — particularly its gate — I'll probably discuss a few more, as well as wider aspects of the prison's history and cultural significance, another time.

Philip Boys ("HistoryBoys")

July 2021

Some links

— Reelstreets: The Criminal

— Wikipedia: The Criminal.

— YouTube: The Criminal, the original trailer.

— YouTube: The Criminal, review of the BluRay re-release in 2020 (includes scenes on Wimbledon Common).

— YouTube: buy or rent The Criminal.

— Reelstreets: Time Without Pity

— Wikipedia: Great Train Robbery.

— Wikipedia: Ronnie Biggs.

— Wikipedia: Bruce Reynolds.

— Any more suggestions, anyone?

Almost entirely irrelevant footnote

To add to the general weirdness of this whole story, Bruce Reynolds, said to be the "criminal mastermind" who planned the "Great Train Robbery", often stayed in his grandmother's flat less than a mile away at 38 Buckmaster Road, Battersea, so the police raided the flat as part of their investigations.

38 Buckmaster Road, Battersea, photographed in the early 1960s (Shutterstock).

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Send me an email if you enjoyed this post, or want to comment on something you've seen or read on the site, or would like to know more — or just want to be kept in touch.

Philip Boys ("HistoryBoys")