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In 2009, the skeleton of a young man was found behind this wall, which stands on Valmar Road, Camberwell. He had been imprisoned in 1836, had committed no crime, and was left to starve in his brick prison.
This site forms the earliest historical record of a traditional, if cruel, form of community justice. The youth's name was John Black, and he had committed no crime beyond "loitering". His bones were lamentably malnourished, and contained a high concentration of lead. From this, it may be presumed that he was a member of the newly-formed, indigenous urban poor.
Some have suggested an element of ritual sacrifice is present here. We present a more practical explanation. In this period, the relationship of the newly-industrialised poor of South-East London to the newly-formed Metropolitan Police Force was quickly assuming the distrustful, oppressive nature that characterises it to this day. Further, the booming population of Britain's cities was leading to a similar boom in Court fees. It is proposed that it is exactly these barriers to "official" justice that led the residents of Camberwell to develop such a cheap, quick, form of unofficial justice. As such, though no official record of such punishments exists, and it is therefore impossible to place the origin of such a practice, its rise may mirror that of the urban poor.
Yet, if it is not known when such youths began to be imprisoned in this way, it is clear that the practice continued. Brick was preferred, but other materials have also been used. In time, it became endemic; one merely has to walk the streets of Camberwell, Deptford, Rotherhithe, to be presented with innumerable bricked-up doorways. The photographs presented here represent less than 1% of the recorded examples. Each is a tomb, a relic of a ritual which began in desperation, was tolerated in apathy, and may never have ceased.
The turf presented here is no more than compacted earth and grass. Yet, in the countless tracks that cross its surface may be traced the movements of innumerable individuals.
Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, calls such paths "desire lines" - alternative routes that are created wherever the imposed road is deemed circuitous by the public. Such paths may cut 10 metres from a corner, or run for many miles across the countryside. They may be a weathered-hardened track or a hole through a hedge. They may exist for millennia, or disappear after a few days. Yet all of them are the result of innumerable individual decisions, of uncountable numbers of people deciding to walk them.
What makes them particularly useful for the historian is that they are created without pretence, almost subconsciously. The reasons for the continued survival of a particular path may be complex, and incorporate aspects of geography, desire, political organisation and aesthetic sensibility. Yet the populace that ensures this survival is largely ignorant to such factors – most individuals will walk such a path automatically, day after day, without stopping to question its existence or their own reasons for following it. Thus, precisely because it is a absurdity to speak of the "conscious" intent of such lines, they may be a far better indication of a society's aesthetic values and practical concerns than those it contrives to project.
The example presented here is a part of an ongoing study. Over the course of the current exhibition, the paths etched into the parchment lawn will be documented. It is hoped that the data collected will further illuminate the murky world of the inner-city resident, will give some insight into the priorities, thoughts and innermost desires of those who visit this space.
Further, it is hoped that in the difference between those paths which enter this space and those which exit, some ideogram of the panopticon may be created: those who enter are merely walking across grass, those who leave already know they are watched. It is expected that this realisation will produce forced disobedience, knowing unconformity, and conscious attempts to contaminate the results of the experiment.