Newgate prison

Posted by Tamsin Wilde on

Due to lockdown, I ended up doing some digging into my family history, as there is literally nothing else to do at the moment. There’s the usual family fun – pig farming, illegal gambling parlours, hookers and gin – a heritage to be proud of. Anyway, heading back to 1776 I discovered my 4x great grandmother, Sarah Edwards. At age 27 in 1803 she had at some point travelled from the green, rolling hills of Shropshire to travel to London… Where she managed to end up banged up in Newgate prison. I manged to locate a copy of the “Middlesex commitments” detailing those locked up at that time and why. Sarah’s read; 
“Sarah Edwards, From Toothill-fields Bridewell, committed by H. J. Pye, Esq. on oaths of Robert Lyons, and others for stealing a gold watch, and other articles, his property. Dated August 8. 1803”
However, a section below details the crime of Job Lewis, again from the same area who had been arrested “on the oath of Edward Harle, for having feloniously committed sodomy upon the body of him, the said Edward Harle. Dated August 22, 1803. I would love to know what happened with that one. Anyway, I digress. The reason I’m waffling on about my grandmother is the fact she was locked up in Newgate, which was known for being notorious with terrible conditions, until it was demolished in 1904. 
The prison was originally built on the site of ‘Newgate’, a gate in the Roman London wall, on the corner of Newgate street and Old Bailey opening in 1188. In the 12th century, king Henry II had instituted reforms to allow the crown more control over how justice was administrated, so as part of Assize of Clarendon of 1166 – this being the act that led to trial by jury being the norm, getting rid of prior systems for deciding the winning party which included probably significantly more amusing, if not horrendous trials by ordeal, by battle or by compurgation to an evidentiary model (basically, swearing an oath you were innocent, followed by getting a group of your mates – usually 12, to also swear you didn’t do it.) However, due to these reforms, somewhere was needed to house the accused while awaiting trial. After being extended in 1236, new dungeons and adjacent building that would remain largely unaltered for the next 200 years, however by the 15th century, Newgate was falling apart. The building itself was crumbling, many prisoners were dying due to the overcrowding, rampant disease and terrible sanitary conditions – indeed it wasn’t until 1406 that officials built a separate tower for female prisoners after coming under fire from reformers who had discovered the original woman’s quarters had been far too small and lacked their own latrines, forcing the women to walk through the men’s quarters to reach one. Conditions were so bad, in one year 22 prisoners died from “gaol fever” and in 1419 the situation was so dire that city officials temporarily shut the place down. 
In 1422, the executors of Lord Mayor Dick Whittington were granted a licence to renovate Newgate, so they pulled down the gaol and the gate. When rebuilt, there was a new central hall for meals, a chapel, additional chambers and basement cells with no light or ventilation. This new building had 3 main wards, the Master’s side, for those who could pay for their food and accommodations, the Common side for the poor and a Press Yard for ‘special prisoners’. At the time, the King often used Newgate as a holding place for heretics, traitors, and rebellious subjects brought to London for trial. By the mid-15th century, Newgate could accommodate around 300 prisoners, both male and female separated into wards by gender. 
Newgate, like much of London, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, being rebuilt in 1672 by Sir Christopher Wren, extending the complex into new buildings on the south side of the street. In 1770, the prison was granted £50,000 (which would be over £9 million in today’s money) to enlarge the place and add a new sessions house. This new work followed the designs of architect George Dance the younger, who also designed All Hallows on the Wall church (1765), Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1804) amongst many others. He constructed the new prison to an ‘architecture terrible’ design, that was intended to discourage lawbreaking. This style of architecture was advocated by French Architect Jacques-Francois Blondel, where the form of the prison itself would proclaim it’s function therefore serving as a deterrent, and so achieving a “repulsive style” of heaviness, that would “declare to the spectators outside, the confused lives of those detained inside, along with the force required for those in charge to hold them confined.” So long story short, they were built to show you from the outside, just how horrendous it was inside, and indeed Newgate was a fine example of this style, with its reinforced walls almost without windows, a deliberate inelegance and overt symbolism such as carved chains over entrances were all designed to instil terror in those who saw it. Indeed, if you look at a lot of Victorian prisons for instance, you can very much tell from a distance the intended use of the building. The now closed Dana prison in Shrewsbury is a good example, and you can even go for a tour to see just how dire the layout is. 
The new prison was laid out around a central courtyard and was divided into two sections, a “common” area for the normal folk, and a “state” area for those able to pay their way into more comfortable accommodation, and again it was then separated down into felons and debtors. In the June of 1780, the almost complete construction of Newgate was stormed by a mob during the Gordon riots*, meaning the building was gutted by fire and the walls badly damaged, causing around £30,000 of damage, meaning opening was delayed until 1782. 
(*The Gordon riots of 1780 were several days of rioting motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. Things had been…. Turbulent between Catholics and Protestants since the days of Henry VIII so, this was not that new.
However, the riots began with a large protest in London against the Papists act of 1778, that was intended to reduce official discrimination against Catholics enacted by the Popery Act 1698 - this act basically intended to address the alleged growth of Roman Catholicism by ensuring the existing anti-Catholic laws were more strongly applied, giving a reward of £100 to any person who apprehended a “Popish Bishop, Priest or Jesuite” who was then prosecuted for “saying Mass or exercising any other part of Office or Function of a Popish Bishop or Priest within these Realmes” (aka, getting caught doing catholic stuff). The rest of the act expanded on this meaning if a Catholic priest took mass, etc, as above, or if any Catholic clergy, or layperson ran a school or “take upon themselves the Education or Government or Boarding of youth” (aka, anyone teaching anyone about Catholicism) then they were, on conviction, liable to “Perpetual Imprisonment” at the discretion of the King. Although this is harsh, it was to some extent a mitigation on the severity of the Jesuits, etc. Act 1584, that basically gave the death penalty to any priest who filed to leave England within 40 days of being told to do so. The Popery act also disallowed Catholic schooling, inheritance and purchase of land. Obviously, this is ridiculous, so the Papists act 1778 exempted those taking the oath under that act from some of the provisions of the Popery act, and the sections as to taking and prosecuting priests was repealed as well as the penalty of perpetual imprisonment for keeping a school. 
So, basically, Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant association, argued that the Papists act would enable Catholics to join the British Army, therefore becoming a ‘dangerous threat’ as the act absolved Catholics from taking the religious oath when joining. Now, taking into account at the time, the British military forces were spread pretty fucking thin as it was , seeing as the American war of Independence was going on (we all know how that ended), as well as conflicts with France and Spain, the recruitment of Catholic folks would of actually been a significant help in addressing the shortfall of manpower…. But obviously old Georgey-boy over here couldn’t see past his ignorant nose and violence commenced. On the 2nd of June, 1780, a crowd estimated to be between 40,000 to 60,000 people marched on the Houses of Parliament, many carrying flags and banners proclaiming “No Popery!” and wearing blue cockades that became a symbol of the movement, increasing in number as they moved through the city. They tried to force their way into Parliament, failed, but dickhead Lord George, petition in hand swaggered into the Commons and presented it to the house. Outside, a riot had begun, members of the House of Lords were attacked as they arrived, carriages were vandalised and destroyed, despite this, the petition was overwhelmingly dismissed by a vote of 192 to 6. After a detachment of soldiers were called in to cool off the violence outside, the government thought they were in the clear and the worst of the disorder was over. They were very wrong. That evening a crowd gathered and attacked embassies and streets known to house rich Catholics. On June 3rd, a crowd had gathered in Moorfields, and by nightfall went on the rampage and it was at this point Newgate, where rioters arrested the day before were held, was attacked and largely destroyed, as was The Clink (but there’s a prison museum there now. It was possibly the oldest prison in England until it’s destruction). The 7th of June was the climax of the riot, being nicknamed “Black Wednesday”. An attempt was made on the Bank of England, that was narrowly averted when a combination of the London Military association and regular troops repulsed rioters resulting in heavy casualties. The long and the short of this tale is that due to a group of people not wanting another group of people to have equal rights because they had a different invisible friend – for literally no other reason than they thought differently, led by an idiot with a piece of paper resulted in 8 days of heavy violence and destruction, destruction of embassies, homes and prisons causing millions of pounds of damage and more importantly, the deaths of between 300-700 people and countless injured. Unfortunately, society hasn’t developed much.)
During the early 19th century, the prison attracted the attention of the social reformer, Elizabeth Fry. Her concerns around the conditions in which prisoners were kept, particularly female prisoners and their children. So, after presenting evidence to the House of Commons, improvements were made, and in 1858 the interior was rebuilt with individual cells, however the prison was closed in 1902 and demolished in 1904. 
During its use, Newgate held all manner of criminals, some committing petty crime and theft, breaking and entering, highway robberies etc but going up all the way to serious crimes like rape and murder. Generally, upon arrival in Newgate, prisoners were chained and led to the appropriate dungeon for their crime, with those who had been sentenced to death kept in a cellar below the keeper’s house which was essentially an open sewer lined with chains and shackles to encourage submission. Otherwise, common debtors were taken to the “stone hall” whereas common felons were taken to the “stone hold”. The dungeons were unsurprisingly, dark, dirty and so depraved physicians would not enter. These conditions didn’t really improve. Those who could afford it, would purchase alcohol from the prisoner-run drinking cellar and just remain perpetually drunk. Newgate was about as horrendous as you may imagine, with prisoners chained to the walls to languish and starve, lice and rodents abound. There’s a legend of the “Black Dog”, an emaciated spirit thought to emphasise the brutal treatment of prisoners. To add to these conditions, the guards were notoriously cruel. According to medieval statue, the prison was managed by two annually elected sheriffs, who would then sublet the administration of the prison to private “gaolers” or “keepers” who would in turn exact their payment from the inmates themselves, charging them for everything from entering the prison, to having their chains put on or off and often inflicting punishment on prisoners before their sentences even began. The guards, who’s income would partially depend on extorting their wards, would charge them for food and bedding etc, but to earn extra money, they would also blackmail and torture prisoners, and it was only in 1393 that a regulation was created stopping gaolers charging for lamps or beds. It was only in 1431 that the prison was reformed creating regulations that freemen and freewomen were separated into the north and south chambers respectively, while keeping the rest of the prisoners in underground cellars, and ‘good’ prisoners not accused of serious crimes could use the chapel and recreation room at no extra cost. However, the conditions never really improved that much, and the prison remained notorious for its harrowing and horrifying conditions. So even while my Grandmother was imprisoned there in 1803, this would if been before Elizabeth Fry got involved, meaning she would of likely been held within a group cell, crammed with god knows how many other women.
Newgate was also home to the famous English pastime of public executions. Nothing Londoners love more than a day at the gallows… Anyway. London’s gallows were originally based in Tyburn but were moved to Newgate in 1783. These public executions drew thousands, and spectators would line the streets to see these events, with people renting out their windows for the view. These events were so popular, that in 1807 dozens died at an execution, when part of a 40,000 strong crowd collapsed into a human crush. As of 1868, public executions were discontinued and executions were carried out on a gallows inside Newgate, originally with the same mobile gallows used publicly in the Chapel Yard, but later inside a shed built near the same spot. Dead Man’s walk was a long, stone flagged passageway, partly open to the sky and roofed with an iron mesh (also known as the Birdcage Walk). Executed criminals were buried beneath it’s flagstones and their initials engraved into the stone wall above. There are photos online claiming to be Dead Mans Walk, but it’s actually brick arches within the Old Bailey site, as Dead Man’s Walk was demolished with the rest of the prison in 1904. Until the 20th Century, future British executioners were trained at Newgate, the last of which being John Ellis, who began training in 1901. In total, 1,169 people were executed within the prison walls, including the last 2 men executed for sodomy James Pratt and John Smith in November of 1835. The Last man to be hanged in public outside Newgate, and indeed the last public execution in the UK was Michael Barett on the 26th of May 1868. The last man to be hanged in Newgate’s shed was George Woolfe on the 6th of may 1902. 
Over it’s long history, Newgate has had some quite notable prisoners (apart from my grandmother), including Thomas Neill Cream, a doctor and blackmailer who was tried, convicted and hanged in 1892 for poisoning several of his patients as the “Lambeth Poisoner”. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Moll Flanders was given to me by my then English teacher, who didn’t like me much saying “you’ll enjoy this, I’m sure you’ll relate to it” – It’s about Moll, who is born and imprisoned in Newgate Prison. I was 14… But, she was right, it’s a brilliant book, but I’m still somewhat offended, however, given my grandmother was actually in there… She was annoyingly correct. Fuck you, Miss Sands.
Other notorious inmates include Amelia Dyer, born in 1837 she became known as the “Reading baby farmer”. Amelia trained as a nurse, and after being widowed in 1869, she turned to baby farming, the practice of adopting unwanted infants in exchange for money to support herself. Amelia had 2 children of her own and at first, she cared for the children legitimately, but, whether intentionally or not, a number of them died in her care leading to a conviction for negligence and was sentenced to 6 months hard labour. It should be noted Amelia was committed to several mental asylums throughout her life and although there were suspicions of her feigning illness, it’s recorded that she survived at least one serious suicide attempt. However, on her release, she turned to just straight out murdering the children in her care, strangling at least some of them before disposing of the bodies to avoid suspicion. Amelia’s downfall came when the bagged corpse of an infant was found in the Thames, with the evidence leading back to her. She was then arrested on 4th of April, 1896 and she was tried for the murder of the infant Doris Marmon and she was hanged on 10th June 1896. At the time, a handful of murders were attributed to her, however there is little doubt she was responsible for many more similar deaths, possibly 400 or more. She was dubbed the “Ogress of Reading”, inspiring a popular ballad and her case led to stricter adoption laws.
Another female serial killer, well, suspected in this lady’s case is Catherine Wilson, although hanged for one murder, it was generally thought at the time she had committed 6 others. She worked as a nurse and poisoned her victims after encouraging them to leave her money in their wills, she was described privately by the sentencing judge as “the greatest criminal that ever lived”. However, the way she had been busted was that she was nursing a Mrs Sarah Carnell, who had rewritten her will to favour Catherine, and soon afterwards had Catherine brought her a “soothing draught” saying “Drink it down, love, it will warm you”. However, taking a mouthful, Carnell spat it out, complaining it burnt her mouth, and later it was noticed a hole had been burned into the bed clothes by the liquid. The drink she had given to Carnell turned out to contain enough sulphuric acid to kill 50 people. Catherine claimed this had been given to her by mistake by the pharmacist who prepared the medicine. She was tried for attempted murder, but somehow was acquitted, although the judge, Lord Bramwell, in the words of Catherine’s lawyer, Montagu Williams, “pointed out that the theory of the defence was an untenable one, as had the bottle contained the poison when the prisoner received it, it would of become red-hot or would have burst before she arrived at the invalids bedside.”. Even with this taken into account against her and probably to the astonishment of almost everyone in the court, she was found not guilty. That said, when she left the dock, Catherine was immediately rearrested as the police had continued their investigations and had exhumed the bodies of some former patients. She charged with the murder of 7 former patients, but tried on just one, Mrs. Maria Soames, who died in 1856. Catherine denied all charges. However, she was tried again on 25th of September 1862, and it was alleged that seven people whom Catherine had lived with as a nurse had died after re-writing their wills to her favour, but this evidence wasn’t admitted, but almost all had suffered from gout. Evidence of colchicine poisoning was given by toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor, the defence being that the poison could not be reliably detected after so long, however, Catherine was found guilty and sentenced to hang. A crowd of 20,000 turned out to see her execution at Newgate on 20th October 1862 and she was the last woman to be publicly hanged in London. 
On a less murderous note, the writer Oscar Wilde, author of The picture of Dorian Grey and The importance of being Earnest was briefly held at Newgate in 1895 before transfer to Pentonville.  


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published