Argyle Street Bridewell: Walking the beat with Liverpool’s nineteenth–century police force

Beth McConnell, Department of English and Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University

When we visited the welcoming pub, L1 Bridewell, it was difficult to believe we were sitting in what were once the holding cells for Victorian prisoners. Known in the nineteenth century as Argyle Street Bridewell, it was one of ten police stations in the Liverpool district as each station could not be more than 1.5 miles apart. In one of the original cells, we did a close reading of an excerpt from ‘Liverpool Life: Police, Prisoners and Prisons’ published in 1857 in the local paper, Liverpool Mercury, by journalist and publisher, Hugh Shimmin.

Hugh Shimmin was a very well-known journalist amongst nineteenth-century Liverpudlians and published his own local satirical magazine, Porcupine, which in the 1860s and 1870s was highly critical of the city’s police force, “constantly poking fun at the poor quality of the force’s recruits and their ill-conceived training” (Archer, 2011: 223). By contrast, the articles he published for Liverpool Mercury’s ‘Liverpool Life’ series were generally sympathetic to the force and more concerned with expressing moral judgement towards the urban poor. One of the values of the articles, however, is that we get to see the whole police process from arrest to incarceration in the bridewells. Shimmin doesn’t discuss Argyle Street Bridewell, focusing instead on the busier Rose Hill Bridewell, but the trip certainly gave us an insight into the internal structure of the stations.

Left: The cells today

The excerpts we examined were taken from Shimmin’s account of the Rose Hill night shift as he leads us through Victorian Liverpool’s roughest streets where we encounter brothels, fights, robberies, and more on what would have been the police’s busiest shift- Saturday night through to Sunday morning. As John Archer has argued, “the ‘Liverpool Life’ series is the closest a twenty-first century reader can get to police duty in 1857, not just in Liverpool, but in any other major city in the country” (Archer, 2011: 223). The journalist’s often judgemental tone and use of moralistic discourse draws upon other contemporary observers of urban working-class life we have looked at on the module, in particular, Charles Dickens. We considered how Shimmin’s views reinforced dominant perceptions of gender, class and race.  He describes one scene at a brothel near Scotland Road, “the roughest of neighbourhoods” where “On his entrance on the occasion in question he found one of the young women, almost entirely undressed, reading the Bible to an absorbed circle of darkies sitting around!” (Liverpool Mercury, 10th August, 1857). We didn’t take Shimmin’s writings as authentic in its descriptions of the poor; rather the stories were sensationalized for a middle-class readership and reveal more about the values of the author than the inhabitants of the city slums.


Liverpool Mercury, 29th June, 1857

J.E. Archer, The Monster Evil: Policing and Violence in Victorian Liverpool (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2011)

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