The Character of a Prison (1756)

Hall of the Old Tolbooth, c. 1795

Hall of the Old Tolbooth. 

Oil painting by William Clark, c. 1795.

Copyright, City of Edinburgh Council – Edinburgh Libraries.

Courtesy of Capital Collections,

Detail of Hall of the Old Tolbooth, c. 1795<br />
<br />

Detail from above.

   This short poem is included primarily due to the question of its authorship. The Digital Miscellanies Index rates the attribution of this poem to Pennecuik as "Confident." It is printed in five collections of Pennecuik's work (Digital Miscellanies Index, 2016). All of these collections include contributions from "others," but they were published over a span of three decades, in various locations, and with different contents, so the connection to Pennecuik specifically may have some strength. 

   According to an unattributed epigraph in Walter Scott's 1815 Guy Mannering (1999, 262), this poem is supposed to have been engraved outside of Edinburgh's Old Tolbooth (which housed a jail), a site of deep and meaningful memory in Edinburgh history. In 1933, Sir Frank Douglas MacKinnon found an abbreviated version of the poem inscribed outside of the Old Prison in York, dated 1820 (1940, 233) - no doubt taken from Guy Mannering, the popularity of which allowed this poem a wide circulation.

   The poem is also printed as an unattributed epigraph in the 1821 Edinburgh edition of the London law student Geffray Mynshul's (c. 1594-1668) Essayes and Characters of a Prison and Prisoners (iv), which has caused the poem to be attributed to Mynshul; however, neither edition of the work published in Mynshul's lifetime features the poem (1618; 1638). 

   If Pennecuik is the author, then this piece is another hint at his connection with Edinburgh's underworld. As noted in the introduction to this exhibit, he had spent some time in the Tolbooth as an accused accomplice to murder. He also apparently authored a missing poem titled "Ticket for the Tolbooth of Edinburgh" (Wilson 1767, 17). One of Pennecuik's short poems was composed upon the request of the Officers of the Canongate guardhouse, who "apprehend[ed]" Pennecuik "going Home to his Quarters being late" (1750, 64). Perhaps this poem was composed under similar circumstances . A truncated version of the poem is featured in William Clark's 1795 painting (above) of the Old Tolbooth, over the fireplace in the hall in which the guards sit. 


The Character of a Prison.

A Prison is a house of care,
A place where none can thrive,
A Touch-stone for to try a friend;
A grave to one alive;[1]
Some times a place of right,
Some times a place of wrong,
Some time a place for whores and thieves,
And honest[2] men among.


1 This rather generic line does echo Mynshul's work: "A Prison is a grave to bury men alive. . . " (1618, 3).
2 Honest was sometimes used as a code for Jacobite (Pittock 2013, 164), but here it is as likely to be used in its plain meaning.



Digital Miscellanies Index. 2016. "Prison is a House of Care." Leverhulme Trust and Bodleian Library's Centre for the Book. Accessed April 13, 2018.

MacKinnon, Frank Douglas. 1940. On Circuit: 1924-1937. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mynshul, Geffray. 1618. Essayes and Character of a Prison and Prisoners. London: Mathew Walbancke. Early English Books Online.

---. Essayes and Character of a Prison and Prisoners. 1638. 2nd ed. London: Mathew Walbancke. Early English Books Online.

---. Essayes and Character of a Prison and Prisoners. 1821. Edinburgh: W. and C. Tait.

Pennecuik, Alexander. 1750. "A Cliver Poem Made in the Cannongate Guard-House, at the Request of Several Officers Apprehending Mr. Pennecuik Going Home to His Quarters Late." In A Compleat Collection Of All The Poems Wrote by That Famous and Learned Poet Alexander Pennecuik. To Which Is Annexed Some Curious Poems by Other Worthy Hands. 64. Edinburgh: R. Drummond.

---. 1956. "The Character of a Prison." In A Collection of Scots Poems on Several Occasions, by the late Mr. Alexander Pennecuik, gent. and Others. 41-42. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Pittock, Murray. 2013. Material Culture and Sedition, 1688-1760: Treacherous Objects, Secret Places. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scott, Walter. 1999. Guy Mannering. Edited by P. D. Garside. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wilson, James. 1767. Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, on Several Occasions, by Claudero, [So]n of Nimrod the Mighty Hunter. [Edinburgh:] the author. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

The Character of a Prison