Newgate Prison

The name is a misnomer, arising from the mistaken belief that the mediaeval gatehouse which served as a jail in the reign of Henry IInd was a later addition to the four Roman city gates. Early 20th century archaeological excavations revealed that Newgate had Roman origins and probably lined up with Watling Street.

The first prison at Newgate was built in 1188 on the orders of Henry 11. It was significantly enlarged in 1236, and the executors of Lord Mayor Dick Whittington were granted a license to renovate the prison in 1422. The prison was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, and was rebuilt in 1672, extending into new buildings on the south side of the street. This building fell into disrepair. Parliament granted £50,000 towards the cost and the City of London provided a piece of ground to enlarge the site of the prison and to build a new sessions house. The work was begun in 1770 to the designs of George Dance the Younger. The new prison was almost finished when it was stormed by a mob during the Gordon Riots in June 1780. The building was gutted by fire, and the walls badly damaged. The cost of repairs was estimated at £30,000. Dance’s new prison was finally completed in 1782.

The new prison was constructed to an “architecture terrible” design intended to discourage law-breaking. “Reinforced walls almost without windows, a deliberate inelegance, and overt symbolism such as carved chains over entrances were all designed to instill terror in those who saw it”. The building was laid out around a central courtyard, and was divided into two sections: a “Common” area for poor prisoners and a “State area” for those able to afford more comfortable accommodation. Each section was further sub-divided to accommodate felons and debtors.

Many mediaeval punishments did not involve prison at all. Fines, humiliation, mutilation and the payment of blood money to victims were all more common ways of dealing with misdemeanours. As society became more complex prisons served to prevent people absconding and were usually meant to be used for relatively short periods of time and to act as discouragement to others. The warehousing of humans was and is an expensive business.

According to medieval statute, the prison was to be managed by two annually elected Sheriffs, who in turn sublet the administration of the prison to private “gaolers”, or “Keepers”, for a price. These Keepers in turn were permitted to exact payments directly from the inmates, making the position one of the most profitable in London. Inevitably, the system offered incentives for the Keepers to financially exploit the prisoners, charging them for everything from candles, fuel, food, the removal of shackles and even discharge from prison if found innocent. On entering Newgate most prisoners were put in the condemned cell and then rapidly sorted into masters and commoners. Masters were those who could afford better accommodation. Not only was payment demanded by the jailers but also by the steward (the longest serving prisoner). The newest arrival (the constable) was responsible for sweeping floors and keeping the place clean. Those who could not afford to pay were stripped, beaten, chained and kept in the darkest filthiest cells.

The water supply was inadequate, the ventilation almost non-existent and the stench appalling. There were frequent outbreaks of gaol fever, a virulent form of typhus, which not only killed more inmates then executions but during1750 was responsible for 43deaths including two judges, the Lord Mayor and several jurors. Judges still process to court carrying a posy of flowers as it was believed that disease was spread by foul smells. Dr Hale’s ventilating machine, a sort of small windmill on the roof, was installed after this event.

Over the centuries, Newgate was used for a number of purposes including imprisoning people awaiting execution, although it was not always secure. The famous thief Jack Sheppard escaped from the prison twice before he went to the gallows at Tyburn in 1724.

Prisoners for execution at Tyburn made their painful journey from Newgate on a Monday morning usually on the back of a cart and sometimes sitting on their own coffins. The journey could take up to two hours with a stop at St Sepulchre without Newgate for a blessing followed by a pause for a last drink of ale (one for the road) at the Angel Tavern in St Giles. In 1783 the site of London’s gallows was moved from Tyburn to Newgate, by this time London’s main prison. Public executions were held outside the prison on a specially built platform in Newgate St and continued to draw large crowds. The condemned were kept in narrow sombre cells separated from Newgate Street by a thick wall and receiving only a dim light from the inner courtyard. Until the 20th century, future British executioners were trained at Newgate. Michael Barrett was the last man to be hanged in public outside Newgate Prison (and the last person to be publicly executed in Great Britain) on 26May 1868.

In total 1,169 people were executed at the prison. Public executions at Newgate were witnessed by enormous crowds and every window overlooking the scene was filled with people, many of whom paid extremely high prices for their places.

In 1840 two young writers, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray attended the hanging of the Swiss valet Francois Courvoisier who had been sentenced to death for the murder of his master Lord William Russell. The event had a profound effect on both writers. Six years after the event Dickens wrote in the Daily News ‘I did not see one token in the immense crowd of any one emotion suitable to the occasion ;nothing but ribaldry, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice’ Thackeray wrote afterwards ‘I have been abetting an act of frightful wickedness and violence…I pray that it may soon be out of the power of any man in England to witness such a hideous and degrading sight’

For executions inside Newgate prisoners were led from the condemned cell through ‘Dead Man’s Walk’ – the last few steps from the court to the gallows. The prisoner had to go through five archways and each was made narrower than the one before it until the prisoner had to squeeze through the last. The walk leads to an open area known as ‘The Birdcage’ where the convict would catch his last ever glimpse of the sky before walking to the scaffold.

It was also possible to visit the prison by obtaining a permit from the Lord Mayor or a sheriff.

During the early 19th century the prison attracted the attention of the social reformer Elizabeth Fry. She was particularly concerned at the conditions in which female prisoners (and their children) were held. After she presented evidence to the House of Commons improvements were made. In 1858, the interior was rebuilt with individual cells.

The prison closed in 1902, and was demolished in 1904. The Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey after the street on which it stands) now stands upon its site. A door from the prison is preserved in the Museum of London. The original door from a prison cell used to house St Oliver Plunkett in 1681 is on display at St Peter’s in Drogheda, Ireland. The original iron gate leading to the gallows was used for decades in an alleyway in Buffalo, New York, USA and is currently housed in that city at Canisius College.

The prison appears in many novels and by writers such as Dickens, Chaucer, Defoe, Cornwell, Gay, MacDonald Fraser.

Famous prisoners at Newgate include:

Giacomo Casanova – Venetian Libertine, imprisoned for alleged bigamy

Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders (whose protagonist is born and imprisoned in Newgate Prison). In prison for seditious libel.

Lord George Gordon – UK politician whom the Gordon Riots are named after

Ben Jonson – playwright and poet, imprisoned for the 22 September 1598 killing of his fellow actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel. Freed by pleading benefit of clergy.

William Kidd – the infamous pirate and privateer – known as Captain Kidd – was taken to Execution Dock, Wapping and hanged in 1701.

Catherine Murphy, an English counterfeiter who became the last woman to be officially executed by burning in England and Great Britain in 1789.

Titus Oates – anti-Catholic conspirator

William Penn the younger – the Quaker who founded the state of Pennsylvania

Jack Sheppard – thief, escapee

Mary Wade – Youngest female, (11), convict transported to Australia

John Walter Sr. – Founder of The Times, for libel on the Duke of York

Catherine Wilson – nurse and suspected serial killer. Last woman hanged publicly in London





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