Historically the Bridewell is an interesting place. I say this partly because the Bridewell Taxis was an under-rated 1980s Leeds band, but I think I also say this for more significant reasons today.
For many years the central police station in Leeds was in the basement of the Town Hall and on a Friday night revellers who were getting out of hand were gently assisted into the back of a police van and given a lift in the Bridewell Taxi.
The name of the Central Charge Office of the Leeds Central Police Force is important because it takes its provenance from the small prison for vagrants and petty offenders in London, which was near the church of St. Brides, and also near a well, hence the name Bridewell.
Under the Bridewell Charter of 1864 (the same year the largest commercial retailer in Leeds was the Leeds Co-Operative Society) each prisoner was given “half a loaf of bread and a pint of ale together with sufficient straw for bedding”.
So why do I tell you all this. Well…not to put my head above the parapet at all, but here we go. It was not long after the opening of the Leeds Bridewell that people realised it was a really bad idea to treat people who were out of work and out of a home (vagrants) and people who had committed criminal offences (offenders) in the same way. Over the last few hundred years we have come to understand that homelessness, worklessness and criminal behaviour aren’t always the same. I think that if people are made to do community service for the wrong reason that might muddle the understanding it has taken us three hundred years to appreciate. So, in the light of the government’s announcement this weekend…I am passionately committed to any support or strategy which helps people find dignity through work. I think that when people don’t have a job that reality harms them and damages society but I think mandatory work offers as many problems as it offers solutions.
1864 was a good year in Leeds, the Bridewell Charter was fair, the Co-operative was transformative. I hope we learn the right lessons from history and don’t confuse those ideas it took us years to work out.