The Gruesome story of Newgate Prison

The name of Newgate is notorious in the annals of London’s history. Begun in 1188 during the reign of Henry II to hold prisoners prior to their trial before the Royal Judges. The name passed into infamy as a byword for despair from which the hangman’s rope was often the only way out.

In 1776 William Smith described Newgate Prison as a place where ‘riot, drunkenness, blasphemy and debauchery, echo from the walls, sickness and misery are confined within them’.

Newgate Prison was located on Newgate Street in the City of London, on the site where the famous court, The Old Bailey, now stands.  Conditions in prison were appalling. Prisoners were kept together in large dungeon-like rooms and were not separated by gender or type of crime. Disease was rife, and many prisoners died as a result. It housed a range of prisoners, including men, women and children, from those convicted of minor offenders to those awaiting execution. 

A Grim View Inside Newgate Prison in the 1890s | Blog

Newgate incarcerated the capital’s wicked for over 700 years until they demolished it in 1904. In the late 1700s, they moved executions by hanging to Newgate from the Tyburn gallows, which were close to the current location of Marble Arch at the southern end of Edgware Road in present-day London. The executions took place on the public street in front of the prison, drawing crowds until 1868, when they were moved into the prison.

Newgate’s construction was ordered as far back as 1188 by King Henry II. Over the centuries it held every kind of criminal, from thieves to highwaymen, to cutthroats and murderers. Newgate was notorious for its overcrowding, unhealthy environment (lack of air and water, and epidemics). Prisons, Newgate included, did not supply their prisoners with bedding and clothing. These things had to be purchased from the keepers. They also needed to continue to pay money if they wanted any of the ordinary comforts of life. Then, when released, they were expected to pay yet another fee before they allowed them to leave.

Among the common criminals of London, many notable ne’er-do-wells spent time here at His or Her Majesty’s Pleasure. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was detained in contempt of court for allegedly refusing to remove his hat during a trial for being a Quaker. They imprisoned Daniel Defoe for writing anti-church pamphlets in 1702. Giacomo Casanova was held for bigamy, and the notorious pirate Captain Kidd was sent to the gallows from there.

Today the site of the once-fearsome prison is home to the Old Bailey, London’s principal Central Criminal Court, with nothing to remind passers-by of the infamous old prison other than a simple plaque on the Court wall.

But across the street, hidden in the depths of an old Victorian gin palace, are what’s rumoured to be the last remnants of the old jail cells. Originally built as a drinking den for the labourers working on the nearby viaduct bridge, they transformed it into one of London’s finest gin palaces in 1869. Glittering vast mirrored murals depicting the statues of Commerce, Agriculture, Science and Fine Arts were carved onto the Holborn Viaduct. Still today, drinking patrons can see at the back of the bar, an elaborately carved booth, where the landlady would sell gin tokens to customers.

Downstairs, you’ll find what’s believed to be some former Newgate jail cells. Dark and damp with rusted iron bars, the cramped rooms have the air of a centuries-old dungeon. It is said that there was once a tunnel that connected these cells with the main prison across Newgate Street. There are other rumours surrounding the Viaduct Tavern, such as an opium den being installed on the floor above the pub, and a brothel in the upper floors.

As London was the crime capital of England, so it was that Newgate was the execution capital and between 1783 and 1902, 1,169 people were put to death there or nearby. The total comprised 1,120 men and 49 women.  The last remnants of the “Bloody Code” as it was known remained in force up to 1836. Over 200 felonies were punishable by death in 1800, although in practice people were only executed for about 20 of them.

Conditions in Newgate in the early part of the 19th century were appalling and led to great efforts by early prison reformers such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry to improve things. Elizabeth Fry was deeply shocked by the conditions that they detained women under, in the Female Quarter as the women’s area was known, when she visited the prison in 1816. She found the place crowded with half-naked women and their children. The women were typically waiting for transfer to the prison ships that would take them to the Colonies. They brought women to Newgate from county prisons in the south of England to await transportation and kept there for weeks or months until a ship was available. Many of the ordinary women prisoners were drunk, because of the availability of cheap gin, and some were clearly deranged. 

Behind this door, beneath the Viaduct Tavern in Newgate Street, are the only remaining cells of Newgate Prison.

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