Newgate Prison once stood on the corner of Newgate Street andOld Bailey, and was originally built in 1188. The prison was originally one of the seven gates of London Wall (six of which date back to Roman times) and it was extended and rebuilt many times during the course of its long (and somewhat grotty) life before it finally closed for business in 1902.
In 1782, the prison was redesigned in the hope of instilling terror into the hearts of would-be villains. The authorities hoped the prison’s new look would deter people from committing crimes. The bleak, soot-stained (from burning people at the stake outside the prison) almost windowless walls loomed over the residents as an ever-present reminder of where they would end up if they misbehaved.
Life inside the prison was a harsh affair. Considering there were over 350 crimes that warranted the death sentence, it was unlikely that your stay in prison would be a long one. Justice was nothing more than a myth in times gone by. If you refused to plead then you could be left in prison until you changed your mind or died, whichever came first. When too many people were dying rather than pleading (if you managed to avoid admitting guilt then the crown couldn’t get its grubby mitts on your estate) the justice system tried an alternative method of getting a confession out of you i.e. tying you to the floor with a board on your chest and slowly adding weights until you gave in and confessed… or died.
Depending on how well off you were, imprisonment at Newgate ranged from being a mild inconvenience to absolute hell. The prison was privately run, which meant you had to pay for the privilege of languishing within its cold stone walls. Being a gaoler at Newgate was good work if you could get it because keeping the gaoler sweet meant an easier ride for you as a prisoner. If you had enough money you could afford the luxury of having your heavy, ill-fitting manacles removed, have a private cell with someone to clean it and, if you were feeling a bit frisky, they would even sort out a prostitute to visit you too. If you were, on the other hand, sadly lacking in funds, then the best you could expect was a lice infested cell, nothing to sleep on but the dirty floor and very little in the way of clothing to keep you warm. If you were one of the poor unfortunates awaiting execution, chances were gaol fever (Typhus) would claim your wretched life long before the gallows did.
Alas, even in death you couldn’t be free of Newgate prison because a ‘departure fee’ had to be paid before the corpse was allowed to be taken away by relatives for burial.
In 1793 the infamous gallows at Tyburn was moved to Newgate. The Sunday before the condemned were due to die, they were forced to listen to a tedious sermon at Newgate Chapel. To add insult to injury, some bright spark thought it would be a nice touch to have the doomed convicts’ coffins sitting alongside them during the sermon as a somewhat unnecessary reminder of their impending doom.
Every Monday morning the condemned were forced to endure the humiliation of being dragged out in front of an enormous crowd so they could be executed. Hangmen of old weren’t well-known for their customer relation skills and they rarely bothered to calculate the correct drop which would cleanly break the condemned person’s neck. Instead, many people suffered the indignity and horror of slowly strangling to death. The last execution at Newgate Prison was carried out in May 1902.
Famous inmates of Newgate prison included Jack Sheppard. Jack, who showed promise of being a very good carpenter, only had about a year of his apprenticeship left to do before he took to a life of crime. He was arrested and imprisoned at Newgate no less than five times but he managed to escape time and again. Alas, justice finally caught up with poor old Jack and a fifth escape from Newgate never happened. He was hanged at Tyburn on Monday 16th November 1724. Jack made such a name for himself during the course of his short crime spree that even Bram Stoker refers to him in his famous novel ‘Dracula’. When describing the unfortunate Renfield he says:
“He is safe now, at any rate. Jack Sheppard himself couldn’t get free from the straight waistcoat that keeps him restrained, and he’s chained to the wall in the padded room.”
Sadly for historians (but fortunately for criminals), there is nothing left of Newgate prison these days. Or is there? The Old Bailey that stands on the site of Newgate prison today was built using as much stone from the old prison as possible. Perhaps the horrors that took place within the walls of Newgate are now deeply embedded into the walls of The Old Bailey instead.
©Nicola Kirk and http://www.nicolakirk.wordpress.com 2010