Life Inside Newgate Prison, London, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Life Inside Newgate Prison, London, UK

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Newgate prison
The hellish noise, the roaring, swelling and clamour, the stench and nastiness [...] an emblem of hell itself.
- Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe
An abominable sink of beastliness and corruption.
- Sir Stephen Jansen

The Building

The Central Criminal Court in London stands on the original site of Newgate Prison1. There has been a prison on this site since the 12th Century, if not before. It was rebuilt a number of times - Dick Whittington2 left a bequest to rebuild it, and, in 1422, a licence was granted to the executors 'to re-edify the gaol of Newgate'. At the end of the 16th Century it had to be 'new fronted and new faced'; it also had to be rebuilt after the Great Fire in 1666. It was considered a bottleneck a century later, and was demolished (including the gateway) in 1770. It took eight years3 to rebuild. The Gordon rioters set fire to Newgate in 1780, and the interior was reconstructed for the final time.

When the rebuilding was finished in 1672, the difference between the inside and the outside could not have been greater; it was a magnificent structure. Facing Snow Hill was a statue of Dick Whittington and his cat, underneath the emblematical figures of Liberty, Peace, Security and Plenty. On the east side there were statues depicting Justice, Fortitude and Plenty.


Those who refused to plead4 would be taken to the prison and pressed until they changed their mind or died. This involved being tied, spread-eagled, to the floor wearing virtually nothing, and having a board laid on the top. Weights were added each day, and the prisoner given nothing but water and a few scraps of bread for days. If they managed to stay silent until they died, they could not be found guilty, and the crown could not confiscate their estates. Prior to 1426, the punishment for refusing to plead was starvation, but the method was changed because too many prisoners were allowing themselves to die.

Life Inside

With over 350 crimes punishable by death5 in the 18th century - and transportation, branding and other forms of public penance taking care of many of the rest - long prison sentences were almost unheard of. However, many stayed in prison until they died, despite receiving a short sentence, or no sentence at all. With no police force, catching criminals was very difficult. Execution was supposed to deter other would-be lawbreakers.

Of the 150 prisons in London, Newgate was the largest, most notorious and the worst. It had room for between 40 and 50 prisoners at various times. Because prisons were privately run, any time spent in prison had to be paid for by the prisoner; gaoler in those times was a lucrative position, and one that had to be paid for. 'Garnish' had to be paid on arrival, payments for candles, soap and other supplies had to be made. Heavy manacles - often painfully constricting - were attached to prisoners and then secured to chains and staples in the floor. The prisoner could pay to have lighter manacles fitted ('easement of irons'), or have them removed entirely. The freedom to walk around could also be bought, if enough money changed hands. Prisoners were also housed according to their ability to pay, ranging from a private cell with a cleaning woman and a visiting prostitute, to simply lying on the floor with no cover and barely any clothes. Lice were everywhere, and only a quarter of the prisoners survived until their execution day. Infectious diseases like typhus - the so-called 'gaol-fever', which was spread throughout the prison by lice and fleas, killed far more people than the gallows.

Food was provided by the authorities, and by charities to those who could not pay, but cooking wasn't included and so it was often eaten raw. Drink was also available - the prison had a bar - although the prices were extortionate. Leaving prison was not simply a matter of finishing a sentence and walking out. A departure fee had to be paid and, until it was, prisoners could not leave. Those who died inside had to stay there as a rotting corpse until relatives found the money for it to be released. The stench was unimaginable, and unavoidable for the incarcerated. Nearby shops were often forced to close in the summer because of the unbearable smell. It wasn't unusual for children to be conceived and born inside the prison, for men and women freely mingled, and the women found that they could swap sex for food; if they became pregnant they could 'plead the belly' in an attempt to avoid hanging. Surviving children were taken to the workhouse, where their chances weren't much better. Prisoners often had their entire families inside the prisons with them, including any family pets6.

Spiritual Life

Prison chaplains (called 'Ordinaries') held services inside the prison, although the chaos there often resulted in the Ordinary having to shout to be heard during a sermon. They also held the service for the condemned. Gathered around their coffins, the prisoners would listen to a lengthy sermon on the Sunday before they were taken to the Tyburn tree, with the fee-paying public in the gallery.

Ordinaries also attended the condemned in the prison on the eve of their execution. Supposedly bringing them spiritual peace of mind, they were usually more interested in getting prisoners' stories so that they could sell them as broadsheets at huge profit on the way to Tyburn.

The tenor bell in the bell tower at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate was rung on mornings when there was an execution. The 'execution bell' was a hand bell that was rung for other services concerning condemned prisoners; it was also rung outside the condemned cell at midnight. The bellman would repeat the following verse three times as he paced outside the condemned cells. A merchant taylor, Robert Dove, gave £40 to the parish in 1604 to ensure that this was done, in the hope that the prisoners would seek redemption.

All you that in the condemned hold do lie
Prepare you, for tomorrow you will die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near
That you before th'Almighty must appear
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not t'eternal flames be sent;
And when St Sepulchre's bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord have mercy on your souls!

Newgate Prison acquired its own bell in 1783, and the tenor bell was no longer used on execution mornings.


When executions were stopped at Tyburn, they moved to Newgate, and public burnings7 and hangings were carried out in the open area in front of the smoke-blackened prison until 1868. Hangings were carried out on the 'new drop' – a portable gallows with a collapsible platform. Intended to break necks and bring death more quickly, this unfortunately depended on the hangman making sure that the rope was the right length, and very few got it right, if they even bothered to try.

After 1868, hangings were carried out within the walls of the prison. 'Dead Men's Walk' was the burial ground for those executed here, under the stone flags of the corridor that connected the prison with the adjoining courts. Suspended over a pit in the prison yard, the gallows were built so that they could hold three prisoners at a time. This was also intended to break necks, but most of the prisoners continued to slowly strangle to death

After Newgate Was Demolished

When Newgate prison was finally demolished in 1902 the gallows were moved to Pentonville Prison, where more criminals were executed than at any other British prison up to the last execution in July 1961.

The male prisoners were also moved to Pentonville, and the women moved to the recently-renovated Holloway Prison for women.

The Central Criminal Court next door was also knocked down with the prison. Building began on the site in 1903 (using as much of the prison stone as possible), and three years later the new Central Criminal Court (The old Bailey) was finished.

Fascinating Facts

  • Last execution at Newgate was in May 1902.

  • Newgate prison occupied the site of the main west gate into London in Roman times.

  • The last triple execution at Newgate was 19 May, 1901.

  • The Debtors' Door of the prison is now on display in the Museum of London, along with other relics.

  • The phrase 'Black as a Newgate's Knocker' (meaning very black indeed) refers to the door knocker on the entrance to the prison.

1The court is more commonly know as 'the Old Bailey', after the street in which it stands. The name comes from the situation of the original building in the bailey - the area inside the wall, which provided the first line of defence - of the City Wall.2Not just a pantomime character but real life, three times Mayor of London.3The Sessions House next door was finished in 1774.4Prisoners could not be tried without their consent, so staying quiet was a way of avoiding a trial.5By 1861 only treason, piracy, mutiny and murder were capital offences.6Dogs were allowed inside until 1792. Pigs, pigeons and poultry were not banned until 1814.7For those women condemned for treason or for murdering their husbands.

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