Voluntary Prison Chains

Though it may seen rather odd to many of us today, for a time during the Regency, the wearing of prison chains was a conceit in vogue among some members of the social elite of England. Of course, those popular chains were not full size, nor were they made of iron or other base metals, they were carefully crafted in silver, gold and even platinum. And such distinctive chains were more likely to be worn by gentlemen than by ladies.

When chains escaped the prisons of England. . .

Chains have been a form of personal adornment for millenia, dating back at least to the ancient Egyptians, if not earlier. They were also worn in both ancient Greece and Rome. It may be the fashion was acquired from the Romans by the Celtic peoples of Europe, either of which may have brought the fashion for wearing chains to the British Isles. Early chains were made from just about any malleable metal which artisans and craftsmen were able to procure.

Objects used for personal adornment, including chains, developed a wide array of symbolism through the centuries. Chains may well possess the most persistent and paradoxical symbolic associations. The links of the chain are frequently considered to signify the permanent and unbreakable bonds of love and/or friendship. In addition, the links, or the completed chain, were often believed to stand for the perfect circle of eternity or eternal love, with no beginning and no end. On the other hand, chains were also used to represent captivity or bondage, perhaps to love, but in other cases, to more sinister, less romantic concepts.

Silver and gold were the precious metals used most often to craft chains intended to be worn as jewelery from the late Middle Ages into modern times. As had been the case for centuries, silver and gold were used most often in the making of chain jewelry during the Regency. Gold was produced in a selection of different colors, all of which were used in the making of chains. Some chains were created using multiple colors of gold for a vari-colored effect. Platinum had been known in Europe from the mid-sixteenth century, but it was rare and extremely expensive. Small amounts of platinum were being employed in the making of jewelry in Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century. By the Regency, a very few items of jewelery made of platinum were available in England. These objects were made only for the most wealthy and influential customers, including the Prince Regent.

Long before the Regency, jewelers had devised an assortment of different patterns for the chains they made, to which they assigned specific names. Some of the best known chain pattern names in the early nineteenth century were anchor, cable, curb, Belcher, Lisbon, Venetian, Maltese, Damascus and Trichinopoly. Chains in most of these patterns could be made in any size or weight, based on the purpose to which they would be put. Ladies did sometimes use chains to suspend an etui, a chatelaine or a vinaigrette from their garments. However, the sturdiest chains were typically made to be used in suspending various items of male ornament from waistcoats or pantaloons, including watches, fobs, seals and even snuff boxes.

A number of Regency dandies had begun to hang numerous chains from their waistcoats, not all of which were used to suspend items of male ornament. These glittering and elaborately worked chains were crafted in both silver and the several colors of gold available at the time. As can be expected, Beau Brummell, who felt that the man should make the clothes, or the jewelery, was appalled by this new fashion. To distinguish himself from the dandy crowd, Brummell chose to wear a single, simple chain by which to suspend his watch from his waistcoat. He had his watch chain made as a miniature version of the chain which hung at the front of Newgate Prison. Still considered a leader of fashion, even after his estrangement from the Prince Regent, it was not long before other gentlemen of taste were having their watch, seal or fob chains made as miniature copies of the chains in use at Newgate, King’s Bench, Fleet, Marshalsea and other prisons in London. As the fashion spread, the distinctive chain patterns at some provincial prisons were also copied for use by fashionable society gentlemen.

Dear Regency Authors, might the watch, seal or fob chain in the distinctive pattern of a English prison chain, used by one of the characters in your story, serve your plot? Could it be that the villain, often imprisoned for debt, finds it ironic to suspend his watch from a chain made in the pattern of that of the Fleet prison? Or, perhaps a character has been imprisoned for writing articles critical to the government, or the Prince Regent, and now wears a fob chain made in the pattern of the chains used where he was formerly incarcerated? Then again, perhaps a young man, the son of a wastrel father, has chosen to wear a watch chain which is a miniature of the chains at the Marshalsea Prison, as a reminder of the consequences of debt.

There is no evidence that any ladies ever chose to wear chains made in the pattern of prison chains. Nevertheless, it is possible that some reform-minded young lady might have a necklace, bracelet or other form of jewelery made in the pattern of the chains at a prison she is hoping to reform or even close. Or, perhaps a young lady feels she is "imprisoned" by her wicked relations? Might her adoring suitor present her with a token of his love in the form of a chain bracelet in the pattern of a prison chain? A chain he promises to "break" when he is able to carry her off to Gretna Green?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Voluntary Prison Chains

  1. How wondrous – thanks for sharing. Is it known in which way those prison chains were distinctive? I don’t think I could tell one chain pattern from another.
    As for a plot-bunny, maybe we have Lord X who as permitted a minor crime in the past. He could hush things up, and grass has grown over the matter. However, somebody still remembers. When Lord X wants to become the MP for his borough, this sinister somebody send him a gift: Inside is a fob chain in the pattern of that from Tyburn prison…. Blackmail in a very special way….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was not able to find any information on the specific patterns of any particular prison’s chains. I think authors who want to use this concept will just have to tell their readers from which prison a chain pattern is copied.

      I like the plot bunny, but the target of the blackmail cannot be an English lord. The nobility were essentially immune from prosecution for just about anything but murder and treason. At that time, no lord ever stood for election for Parliament. If they were an English lord, a seat in the House of Lords was their birthright. The only folks who stood for election were running for seats in the House of Commons. Also, Tyburn was just a cross-roads where public gallows had been erected, there was no prison there, so there were no chains to copy.

      However, I can see this plot bunny working with some self-righteous fellow standing for a seat in the House of Commons who claims to be completely upright and proper. Yet he has been imprisoned in his younger days for some heinous crime.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Fascinating! I especially like the idea of using a distinctive chain pattern in a story. Thanks for sharing this information.

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