“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…
Another fascinating blog – thank you 🙂
Could you clarify what you are daring us to do? I’m thinking that I could take my camping stove up to Newgate Street and poach a rabbit. On the other hand stealing an heiress sounds strangely appealing. I do remember having to eat cold rabbit stew sandwiches once, so can well understand why this should carry the highest penalty.
Oh – that kind of poach!
Very funny, John. But seriously, I don’t think you would have made it past 23 back in those days…!
Probably not, despite me being still immature and unworldly at that age. But I suppose that’s the point… people were judged absolutely, not relatively – no allowances made.
And I know that I made light of things in my post but that doesn’t mean the story didn’t impact on me – although I assume you realise that. But, on the other hand, I am strongly tempted to take a picture of me walking past number 23 Newgate Street just to show I could have made it past it, if you see what I mean 🙂
But the reason I’m writing this is that I’ve just watched episode 7 out of 8 of “Michel Roux’s Service” where he’s taken a group of young people, hoping to show them how they might become top restaurant service staff. Some of them hadn’t ever been in a restaurant and were surly and resentful of the class system, but the lovely thing is that they are all now realising that service doesn’t imply inferiority, and that their personalities and potential give them the means to define their own futures.
In my mind this immediately connected me back to your blog: you have to wonder how many people that the penal system has destroyed could have found new opportunities to shine, had they only been given that chance.
I always think that the moment you judge someone, you stop listening to them and deny them the chance to demonstrate their innate and natural potential.
Wow – this piece has left me wondering who I know who wouldn’t have been sent to the gallows or burnt at the stake by now! Keep ’em coming Steph – I love your London Insights xx
Keep the e-mails coming . . . they are so interesting, particularly those about the bits of London that people seem to forget still exist.
This is definitely a hidden attraction of London. Will pop here on my next trip to London.
Good article and cant wait to read your upcoming articles.
I am doing a “project” on the “old” (ish) Newgate Prison between c. 1700 and 1750, ie well before notions of reform had got anywhere. As far as I can tell, the Viaduct Tavern is NOT on the site of the Old Sessions House (which was further down the Old Bailey under the south end of the present Old Bailey Law Courts) but over the north wing of Newgate Prison, on the far side of the street-straddling New Gate. In the early part of the 18th C the ground floor of this wing was used as a holding cell for women felons who had been convicted and sentenced to transportation to the American Plantations (as bond servants for terms of 7, 10, 15 years or life – “life” in those conditions was often shorter than 15 years ( (:-))
The “Cellar” underneath this wing was a recreational area – a bar – for the women where they could buy gin and other refreshments at very inflated prices. They also had a small barred hatch opening into the footpath through the Gate from where they could beg money from passers by – and their language was said to be extremely indecent…..
As the prison got more and more overcrowded at the 18th C progressed (the population was rising as were the number of inditeable offenses) I suspect the Cellar was taken over as cells and stopped being the women’s common room. What I see in your pictures looks remarkable like the “Barrack beds” I have read about (at this time a “bed” was either a free-standing four-poster or else a feather or flock matress.) So these pictures are remarkable valuable for me. How long ago did you take them ? I quite fancy a visit myself.
I do think, however, that these were regular cells, not just the day-time accommodation of prisoners awaiting trial – it is quite the wrong location, and anyway, in the 18th C the front of the Sessions House was open to the elements in order to reduce the smell and the risk of infection spreading from the prisoners to the Bench. Unless the prisoners could bribe their way into being held in cells underneath the Old Sessions House, they awaited trial OUT IN THE YARD with no protection from the weather !!!! And they could stand there waiting to be tried for anything up to two and a half days (although presumably they were taken back into Newgate overnight.) Are we surprised that more prisoners died of sickness than went to the gallows – and there were plenty of them! From between 2 and 15 convicted felons at each or any of the eight Hanging Days per year. (And local shops closed on Hanging Days so that the apprentices could go to Tyburn and see the fun, er, see vice reaping its just reward, and also because shopkeepers kept their shutters up in case the assembled mob fancied a bit of looting …
On second thoughts I don’t think these are Barrack Beds. I suspect they are post 1770 shelving from when Newgate was rebuilt as a smart modern Prison by Mr Dance, the gate was demolished and the site to the north of Newgate Stree would have been redeveloped. (See some of your illustrations.) Can you give me some idea of scale ? If the gap between the bars is less than say 5ft 6ins they I am pretty sure they are not after all beds – which is disappointing for me.
Barbara, thank you for your insights. The Old Bailey’s current building surveyor believed the Viaduct Tavern WAS the rough location of the Sessions House. I don’t think, however, it goes as far back to the days that you are researching about though. Each caged area is about 1 metre wide and deep. Yes we have to remember that people were a fair bit smaller in those days but the room resembles a kennel for large dogs, which is in a way a reflection of the sentiments for the prisoners. A person could not have slept in this space – it can only have been an area that prisoners were awaiting trial. The food shafts in the ceiling just below the pavement also corroborates this, – why would they be there if it was just a storage room? Interesting ideas put forward. I keenly await the developments of your progressing research.
I’ll get back to you properly when I have had a chance to trawl through my notes but my gut reaction is that either you misunderstood the surveyor or that he / she has not done his / her homework!
AFAIK the Sessions House has ONLY EVER been on the one site (from the late 16th C when one was first built for London-and-Middlesex – before that they hired pubs and / or churches /or other large buildings as and when required) and that site was always approx half way down the Old Bailey under what is now the south end of the present Criminal Court. (see 1720 map by Strype and 1746 map by Racque) There WAS another prison in Giltspur Street between 1791 and 1853 and it was on the same side of the road as the Viking Pub but it was further north and was for debtors only. I do not think in 1790 they would have built a NEW prison with unventilated underground cells! Even for felons. Certainly not for debtors.
The plot thickens.
But I am as certain as I can be with the information I have to date that THIS cellar was under the north wing of the Old Newgate. And was part of THAT prison. It probably predates the Great Fire (1666) in which Newgate Prison was badly damaged but not destroyed and quickly rebuilt. Cellars have a habit of surviving fires as I know, being old enough to remember the Blitz!! So the cellars may date from the 16th C or even the 15th. It really needs an urban archaeologist – someone from the London Museum – or English Heritage – to give it the once-over.
A couple of points: A structure that old was probably used for different things at different times, ie even between say, 1590 and 1770, they could have been cells for a variety of different categories of prisoner, storage, recreation area. ALL the ascriptions may be true.
Secondly, a structure that is occupied by sentient creatures but has no windows needs some form of ventilation. Might not the holes in the roof be for THAT purpose instead of / as well as / providing access for food ? These holes look to be too small to drop a body down – this is no oubliette! – so there MUST always have been access by way of stairs and doors. So why not Food in, jordans out, in the usual way.
I’ll try to find the 1709 account of the women prisoners in the cellar and their outrageous behaviour. (Mind you, I suffer mildly from claustraphobia so I think MY behaviour would have been “outrageous” in such a situation!!!!!!)
To be fair, the building surveyor is knowledged in ‘The Old Bailey’ and not ‘Newgate Prison’. It is not essentially his job to know where all the old sections of the prison were. He has also probably accumulated rumours and half-truths over the years, so you probably have a much better idea than most. I look forward to hearing your progress. Regards.
A description of the part of Newgate which is now the cellars under the Viaduct Tavern by “Jack Hall.”
Jack Hall was a notorious criminal finally hanged for a multiplicity of crimes at Tyburn on 17 December 1707.
“The Memoirs of the right villainous Jack Hall, penn’d from his mouth some time before his death,” published in 1708 and reaching its fourth edition by 1714, was actually no such thing, using the saleability of his name to top and tail a highly generalized parody of the conventions of the true-life crime genre. – DNB.”
It is a fascinating document full of useful facts about conditions in Newgate in the first decade of the 18th century, but it is also written in a fanciful, allusive and sophisticated style that makes getting the point sometimes a bit of an effort. Apart from the quotation from the Dictionary of National Biography ‘s entry for “Jack Hall” cited above, all the other comments are my own unless referenced.
(This is my transcription from a digital copy I downloaded. The editing is mine. I have kept the original spelling but filled out some hard-to-read words and other lacunae. The notes are mine.)
But now I am arrived to the Woman Felons Apartment in the Common-side,(1) where there are a troop of Hell-cats lying Head and Tail together, in a dismal, nasty, dark Room, having no where to divert themselves but at the Grate, admitting to the Foot passage under Newgate, (2) where Strangers may with Admiration and Pity hear them swear Extempore, (3) being shamefully versed in that most odious Profanation of Heaven that Volleys of Oaths are discharged through their detestable Throats whilst asleep. And if any of their Acquaintance gives them L’argent, (4) then they jump into their Cellar to melt it, (5) which is scarce so large as Covent-Garden Cage, (6) and the stock therein not much exceeding those peddling victuallers, who fetch their Drink in Tubs every Brewing Day. (7) As for the Suttler (8) there I have no more to say of her, than that her Purity consists in the Whiteness of her Linen;(9) and that the Licentiousness of the Women on this side is so detestable, that it is an unpardonable Crime to describe their Lewdness. (10)
Barbara’s explanatory notes (I hope I am not telling you the obvious!)
(1) Newgate Prison was at that date divided into the Common Side and the Master’s Side. Those imprisoned in the Master’s side could afford to pay for their food, drink, hire of bedding, &c at the VERY inflated prices charged by the Keeper and his underlings. (The Prison was run as a private enterprise.) The Common Side was for prisoners who were destitute – or nearly so. A charity did provide them with some food but they had to survive by begging, robbing other prisoners or (in the case of the women) prostitution. The Ward on the ground floor of the block immediately to the north of the Gate proper was the main accommodation for these pauper women.
(2) The “Grate” – ie a grating – was a small barred window that looked out from the Women’s Ward into the covered public pedestrian way that passed under Newgate on the north side, joining Hart Row Street to Newgate Street. It would seem to have been the only window of any kind for this Ward which must have been very dark even in full daylight. (The equivalent pedestrian passage on the south side had been bricked up and converted into the Male Condemned Hold – at least until 1726/28 when a fine new block of fifteen individual condemned cells were built on the east side of the Press Yard. After that it was used to store fetters and to intimidate new arrivals .)
(3) The women prisoners would attract the attention of the pedestrians by calling out. They would also be holding small containers through the bars in the hope of getting money. Charitable people did sometimes drop a coin or two in. Those who went past without contributing would naturally get a mouthful of abuse. The woman holding the can would have to fight to keep her contibution.
(4) = “silver” in French. He means money of course.
(5) Here is the reference to the Cellar, where the “silver” is “melted” ie the money is spent – on booze. Probably gin. Does “jump” refer to the speed with which the women prisoners go to spend the money once they’ve got it or is it a reference to the way they got into the cellar ? Through a hatch ? Down a steep flight of steps ? I don’t know. It is tantalising!!
(6) A Cage was a temporary lockup consisting of a structure made of bars and it was out in the open (not inside a prison.) A criminal could be condemned to be locked in a cage for so many hours – rather like the pillory. (A punishment for a minor offence.) Since Covent Garden was one of the major centres of prostitution at this date, those sentenced to stand in the Covent Garden Cage would probably be whores who had been drunk and disorderly or who had robbed their customers of items of insignificant value. Many of the inhabitants of the “Woman Felons Apartment in the Common-side,” would have been familiar with the Covent Garden Cage from the inside.
(7) I am not quite sure what this reference is unless it is to the sale of home-brewed gin – which was a very popular small time money-spinner – and quite unregulated by law An attempt to control gin in 1736 was unsuccessful; it was not until 1751 that legislation reduced the free-for-all, – ” Gin in the 18th century was produced in pot stills, and was somewhat sweeter than the London gin known today. In London in the early 18th century, gin sold on the black market was prepared in illicit stills (of which there were 1,500 in 1726), and was often adulterated with turpentine and sulfuric acid” – Wikipedia article under “Gin”.
(8) The Random House Dictionary defines a SUTLER as “a person who follows an army and sells provisions to the soldiers.” In this context she will be a “trusty” who is deputed to run the cellar as a drinking den – and her mark-up on the booze will be outrageous.
(9) Again I am not sure I have interpreted this correctly. He may be saying that the woman is filthy both morally and personally ie her habits are as dirty as her underwear (which is probably what he is saying) but you might interpret this to mean that while her underwear is actually quite clean, she is an immoral person – a whore and a cheat.
(10) What a pity! I for one could have done with some more details …..
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My 4xgt grandfather was held at Newgate for a total of 19 weeks (!) awaiting trial for attempted murder (they had to wait for his victim to recover enough to testify). Looking at these pictures and hearing about the place makes me so sad for him.
I hasten to ask the outcome of this story…but it gives a real tangible edge to the story. Thank you.
His trial at the Old Bailey (much to my surprise and I expect very much to his!) subsequently found him not guilty on grounds of provocation. He walked 😉
Serendipitous: I found your blog today when researching the pet cemetery in Hyde Park, and then spotted this post which is also a subject close to my heart as I discovered a few months ago a skeleton in our family closet: A first cousin of my great-great-great grandfather, a soldier named Thomas Fuller Harnett (1793-1820), was in Newgate for forgery. Sadly, unlike Acer’s ancestor, Thomas was hanged by Hangman James Foxen at Newgate Prison on 5 December 1820 but this was all airbrushed out of all the official family records which simply say “dsp” (died without any descendants). I did a bit of Googling and found the entire report from the marvellous Old Bailey online website. Here it is:
We know that Thomas’s own father – who had been left lots of land in Ireland by a great uncle – died when he was a baby and his mother married again. Was he left to run wild? Interesting that the prisoner was apprehended in bed at the Bull and Bush in Hampstead, a pub still going strong today. He also is an abuser of laudanum (tincture of opium) originally given him for pain, so a drug addict too! Is this why he ran out of money? I guess we will never know.
The others who were hung at Newgate that day were convicted variously of Highway Robbery, Sacrilege, and “Uttering.” Do you or your correspondent Barbara happen to know what “uttering” means?
Apparently “uttering” is related to forgery. Forgery was the crime of making a false document and uttering was the publication or use of that false document with intend to defraud. I guess often the crimes went together, but strictly speaking a person could obtain a forged document from somewhere else and used it separately.
“Uttering” was passing a forged or counterfeit something. It might be a document but it might just as well be coin. Until about the end of the 19th C, gold and silver coins were supposed to contain the correct value in precious metal that was engraved on the surface. ie a “guinea” contained twenty-one shillings worth of gold, and the monarch’s head on the coinage was supposed to be a guarantee that this was so. Thus if you made up counterfeit coins – say shillings with a mix of pewter and silver – and stamped the king’s head on it – you were committing treason (a “Royal” offence.). If you passed on these coins knowing them to be fake, you were guilty of “uttering” which was a felony. Both felonies and royal offenses were capital, ie carried the death penalty. AS the 19th century progressed, things were softened and crimes were regraded. Where counterfeit coin was concerned, it was often easier to get a conviction for “uttering” than it was for the actual counterfeiting. I suspect that the man who was hanged along side your uncle may actually have been part of a counterfeiting gang. But isn’t there an account of his trial in the Old Bailey transcripts ?
Just as a footnote, during the eighteenth century (which I know more about than the 19th) men who committed treason were “only” hanged, although they might be handed over to the surgeons for public dissection afterwards, and in the 19th C I think some were also beheaded in public but also only after they were dead. The old sentence of being “Drawn, Hanged and Quartered” had become er, unfashionable. But they were still “drawn”, that is towed to Tyburn on a sledge instead of having the (relative) comfort and less indignity of riding in a cart. Even after the executions were moved to Newgate, they were still “drawn” about the inner courtyard there as part of the sentence. However. It was considered indecent to “quarter” a woman, since the body had to be stripped naked before the hangman could get to work. (Women had to submit to the indignity of being drawn on the sledge.) So as a concession to modesty, women who committed High Treason (eg made counterfeit coins) or Petty (Lesser) Treason (eg murdered their husbands) were – wait for it! – burned at the stake. I think the last woman to be burned for coining was executed outside Newgate in about 1793. However, during the 18th C they were usually strangled by the hangman before the fire was lit.
It is an interesting example of standards that making counterfeit coins was considered a worse crime than murdering your husband …..
Wow, thanks for all the info guys!
I forgot to emphasise that putting the king’s head on a counterfeit coin was tantamount to making the king a liar and that is lese majestie!!! All modern coins are by this standard counterfeit – they are no more than trade tokens.
To Barbara, I have read only the transcript of my relative’s trial, but will certainly check out the Old Bailey archive to see if they have anything on the two persons executed that day for uttering forged bank notes. (Note to self: Sarah Price age 43 and John Madden age 22)
Stumbled on this after googling Newgate prison having watched a documentary with my young son on the origins of frankenstien story, first body attempted to be brought back to life was of a guy who was framed then hanged at Newgate. To think Newgate and Bedlam were so close, what Londonium must have been like beggars belief.
Anyhow, thanks for a great read and the preceding comments 🙂
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01nj3c5/Inside_Out_London_22_10_2012/ Some of these scenes – including the Dead Man’s Walk – featured in the last ten minutes of last night’s Inside Out programme on BBC1 London. (Available to view only until 29th October)
Interesting but of course the Newgate they were talking about was the post 1780 Dance building not the earlier one I’m interested in – except that the conditions that Peter Ventue (Sp ??) described sounded a bit like the pre-1780 set up. Did anybody get his name and where he hangs out ? I’d quite like to contact him..
Dear Barbara, his name is Peter Berthoud and he has a blog called Discovering London. Here is his blog post concerning the journal of the Newgate Chaplain the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton, which the Inside Out programme was all about.
He also had a post about Inside Newgate earlier this year:
Hi Barbara, I was the chap in the recent BBC film that Teresa mentioned. During the filming of this piece Charles Henty, the Under-Sheriff and Secondary of London (the man at the top at the Old Bailey) was kind enough to show me Deadman’s Walk, The Birdcage and the Condemned cell.
He told me that these fragments of the Old Newgate were incorporated into the Central Criminal Court during the building. Modified a little, Deadman’s walk was tiled and the arches added and the Condemned cell had an additional window fitted for example but all these elements remain essentially the same and all in the original locations.
I have no reason to doubt a renowned expert on the building. He also showed me a stretch of Roman wall that the builders also incorporated into the “new” building which seemed to add weight to the idea that good solid foundations of any period were reused n the new structure.
London Historians are organising a member’s visit to the Old Bailey in March with Mr Henty leading the tour. If you would like to see it all for yourself the link is here http://www.londonhistorians.org/?s=events
As for there being “cells” in the Viaduct Tavern, I think this is nonsense. There are no cells in the Morpeth Tavern either, nor to my knowledge in any other pub that stands near an existing or former prison. We can guess the motives of landlords in creating these myths though! I posted a feature disproving the fanciful idea here http://www.peterberthoud.co.uk/2012/05/there-no-cells-at-viaduct-tavern/
Thank you. I’ll be in touch.
Does anyone know what happened to the bodies of the hanged people who had been buried within Newgate Gaol when the prison was finally demolished?