“It was, almost from its beginning, an emblem of death and suffering… a legendary place, where the very stones were considered ‘deathlike’…it became associated with hell, and its smell permeated the streets and houses beside it.” (Newgate Prison by Peter Ackroyd, taken from ‘London, The Biography’)
I am standing on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey. Lady Justice presides over smartly attired bankers, phones lodged to ears as their urgent and brisk steps clatter over the polished pavement. The air smells of money. Like diamonds, the window panes of the surrounding high rises glint flirtingly with the occasional sun bursts. It is hard to fathom that this very location of our present-day Central Criminal Courts was once vilified not only for what lurked inside its prison walls but also for the fear of infections simply by standing in its vicinity. Famed for its dark squalor, overcrowded, lice-ridden dungeons and sadistic keepers, Newgate Prison served as the gateway and portal to the gallows. In 1750 the stench had permeated the whole district and of the 11 men ordered to wash down the walls with vinegar, 7 contracted ‘gaol fever’. (typhus) Such was the effects of disease, starvation and violence inside that many prisoners did not even make trial.
The idea of the day was that punishment should be a deterrent, hence the harsh penalties for what we now see as only minor offences. Barratry (spreading false rumours), vagabonding (impersonating a gypsy), money counterfeiting, stealing an heiress, throwing firecrackers and poaching a rabbit were all considered capital crimes. While trifling thieves were simply sent without haste to the gallows, a man accused of petty treason was hung and quartered. High treason resulted in being cut down from the gallows whilst still alive only then to be disembowelled, castrated, beheaded and quartered. A woman was exempt from this because being quartered involved nudity. Her punishment was burning at the stake. With many of the crimes being only trivial it is easy to see how London’s prisons became so overwhelmed.
The end of the 1600’s saw conflict between France and England which resulted in the embargo of Brandy and other French spirits. Further consequence followed with the Gin Craze in the early 1700’s and a huge rise in crime caused by the massive landslide of social morals within London. The parish of St. Giles (the present location of Seven Dials) was one of the most concentrated and destitute slum areas of London in its day. On average every fourth house was a gin house. It’s borders prophetically lined along Oxford Street, the road to the Tyburn gallows. With water being undrinkable, the choice was simple: drink beer if you want to live; drink gin if you want to die. William Hogarth satirised public opinion in 1751 with his famous prints ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane’. On the simplest level it shows the citizens of Beer Street happy, productive and nourished by their native ale, whilst Gin Lane shows people destroyed and left destitute by their gin addiction. Another illuminating series by Hogarth called ‘Industry and Idleness’ highlighted two stories of the good and the bad workman.
However, all the propoganda and harsh sentencing did nothing to deter criminal activity in London. Newgate went through many reincarntations since it was first used as a prison in the 12th century. It garnered a hell-bent soul and no matter how many times it decayed, crumbled and was eventually rebuilt it would always return to its infernal nature.
It added to its own performance in the 1850’s when paying visitors were allowed to be locked inside one of the condemned cells for a moment, view casts of heads of imfamous criminals or even sit within the old whipping post. The finale of the tour was the ominous ‘Birdcage Walk’, also known as ‘Dead Man’s Walk’, from the Court of Sessions House back to the cells of Newgate. Many prisoners are believed to have been buried beneath the walk. Such is the staying power of its folklore that even after the prison was completely pulled down in 1902 and rebuilt into the Central Criminal Courts of The Old Bailey that we know today does the ghost of Dead Man’s Walk linger. There is as section along the outside of the back wall that offers the sinister illusion of the walls getting smaller and smaller with the final arch immersed in darkness and impending gloom. Ian High, the building’s Senior Surveyor, assures me that this is definitely not the case, that the arches are merely arranged into the buildings confinements. At the time it would have been where the open sewer flowed. Nevertheless, he goes on to quip that people still give tours regardless, desperate to satisfy and realize the drama and eeriness of the place’s past lives. I quickly look over the original holding cells of its 1902 transformation. They are no longer in use but are a good way to judge the size of the original Newgate cells. In one resides a washing machine. It pretty much fills the whole space.
Across Newgate Street you will find The Viaduct Tavern pub. This was the original site of the Sessions House where proceedings were held. In the basement you will find the cells where convicts awaited trial still there, perfectly wretched and depressing. The thing that strikes you first is how small each hold is. It’s hardly big enough for a dog, so you can only imagine the worth of the prisoners. The holes in the ceiling served as shoots for food from relatives or sympathetic passers-by, since the prisons were privately run and inmates had to pay for their own food and drink. Five minutes of immersing myself in this dingy hole and I already feel agitated. I don’t stay long.
It’s interesting to see that conditions in prisons have only changed with the revised attitudes of our penal system. Severe punishment and repentance have been replaced with reform and rehabilitation. I cannot comment on whether our current penal system is any better or worse, since crime still and will always exist. I do, however, find it more interesting to see how the folklore of a place develops over time. The fact is that most London stories have been told and retold and twisted into something new is more telling about what the Londoner wants to hear regardless of whether it’s true or not. For anyone who has been on the Jack the Ripper walk will know that every house has been ripped down and every street name has been changed in an effort to eradicate its memory. But in the end, it has only made us yearn for the drama even more. Next time you’re passing the Viaduct Tavern on Newgate stree, I dare you…