Around the year 1790 the authorities in Edinburgh became aware that the existing facilities for the detention of criminals was not at all in line with the image they wished to project; that of a modern, cosmopolitan, progressive, enlightened city. The main prison was the Tolbooth, a shambling, ancient building with perpetually overcrowded and insanitary conditions, and it was generally seen as a disgrace to the town. It was also incapable of housing the growing numbers of people who were being convicted for political 'crimes' in the wake of the outbreak of the French Revolution. This group posed a particular threat, in that in contact with other prisoners their dangerous ideas on liberty, equality and fraternity were capable of being spread. A solution was sought, and the eminent Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam was commissioned to draw up plans for a new building.
Adam produced a series of designs, the earliest neoclassical and conventional in style (illustration above). This was to have consisted of a bridge linking the Old and New Towns of the city. However, the ideas of Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher and social reformer, on the design of 'houses of correction' were passed on to Adam by the Tory politician Reginald Pole Carew. Bentham had hit upon a scheme which he called a 'Penitentiary Panopticon', a building of semi-circular form which allowed for the safe internment of a large number of prisoners who could be kept under the watch of a minimal number of prison staff located in a central gallery. Adam was impressed, describing the concept as "one of the most ingenious plans I ever saw", and set about producing his own version.
The illustration above is from Adam's improved design and shows the main Panopticon building. His plan was far more extensive than this, but in the end only part of the scheme was implemented, and much changed at that; Adam had conceived extensive exercise yards, a debtor's prison in one wing and a 'bedlam' in another. A less ambitious design was accepted and building was begun in 1791 on a site near the Calton Hill which is now occupied by the monolithic Art Deco bulk of New St Andrews House. Into the foundations were placed two time capsules made of glass and specially commissioned for the purpose, containing coins and copies of local journals, as well as (perhaps predictably) the names of the magistrates and councillors of the city. Presumably these capsules remain under New St Andrews House.
Building work was completed in 1795 and several illustrations have survived from this period. The two examples shown above date from 1837 and show that Adam's hemispherical design has been altered to one of more angular form incorporating twelve sides. The overall appearance is far less neoclassical than Gothic, and even seems to anticipate the Scottish Baronial school with its trademark crowstep gables and miniature corner turrets.
The Bridewell (as it became known, after London's more famous early prison) was Scotland's first reformed penitentiary and was a considerable source of civic pride. The institution paid for itself by the sale of the work of its convicts, and Edinburgh's ratepayers heartily approved of this innovation. It is worth noting that the concept of sending people to prison was relatively new. Prisons before this period had been places where people awaited trial, and punishments were more likely to be corporal or capital in nature, or else to involve forcible transportation out of the country. The growing tendency of judges to punish by imprisonment was in part fuelled by distaste for the alternatives, but also by the possibilities afforded by these institutions.
The purpose of the Bridewell was stated to be the detention of petty thieves, vagabonds and the like, whose crimes required punishment but for whom transportation or flogging seemed inappropriate. However, it is clear that from the first it was the social isolation afforded to inmates that attracted the authorities to the scheme, and that the imprisonment of radicals for lengthy periods, often after a mock trial with rigged jury, continued through the 1790s and early nineteenth century. This notion is lent weight by those parts of Adam's design which alluded to defensive walls, designed to foil "attack from outside". It remains an irony, therefore, that the visionary penitential reforms of Jeremy Bentham, a radical political thinker, were used to suppress those of his persuasion who came to the attention of the authorities during the 1790s and after.
Edinburgh's Bridewell was remodelled and rebuilt over the course of the nineteenth century, and was eventually demolished in 1935.