A London hanging evoked by Rowlandson; the children in the crowd seem delighted by the spectacle, and a mother carries her infant without the least disquiet. It was often said, by foreigners, that Londoners did not fear death.
Within four years of the Great Fire Newgate Prison was near to completion, rebuilt with a design which the London Encyclopaedia describes as one of “great magnificence” and “sumptuousness.” It was, in a sense, the very symbol of London. It had stood on the same site since the twelfth century and was, almost from its beginning, an emblem of death and suffering. It became a legendary place, where the very stones were considered “deathlike,” and it has inspired more poems, dramas and novels than any other building in London. Its role as gateway also created elements of myth, since it was the threshold from which prisoners left the earthly city and were dispatched to Tyburn or Smithfield or the gallows just beyond the walls of Newgate itself. It became associated with hell, and its smell permeated the streets and houses beside it.
In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries Newgate Prison had begun to decay and to collapse upon itself; sixty-four prisoners died in an epidemic of “gaol fever” in 1419, while the various keepers were regularly charged with afflicting torture and unjust punishment upon the inmates. Jews falsely accused of circumcising Christian children, clippers and coiners, and murderers, were placed within deep underground dungeons where they were loaded with chains or confined in stocks. A bequest of money by Richard Whittington ensured that the prison was completely rebuilt in 1423 but it soon reverted to its natural state of gloom and horror. Approximately three hundred prisoners were confined within the space of half an acre, in a building divided into three sides—the Master’s side for prisoners who could pay for food and drink, the Common side for impecunious debtors and felons, and the Press Yard for “prisoners of note.” It can be inferred, then, that the Common side was the site of hardship and indignity.
The keepers of Newgate had always been notorious for their violence and intemperance. In 1447 James Manning left the body of one of his prisoners in the thoroughfare “causing a nuisance and great danger to the King who was passing there”; when he refused to remove it after several warnings, and after his wife had spoken “shameful words,” they were both taken to the compter. Two years later his successor was also imprisoned for “a dreadful assault” upon a female prisoner. So the keepers snuffed up the contagion of brutality as well as that of gaol fever. Perhaps the most famous of these gaolers, in the years before the Fire, was Andrew Alexander who in the reign of Mary I hurried his Protestant inmates to the fires of Smithfield with the words “Rid my prison! Rid my prison!” One favoured prisoner who played the lute for Alexander and his wife, who “do love music very well,” was granted the best lodgings in the prison. But the conditions of the gaol could not be escaped— the “evil savours … threw the poor gentleman into a burning ague.” Alexander offered to keep him in his own parlour “but it was near the kitchen, and the smell of the meat was disagreeable.” The smell is pre-eminent in these accounts from The Chronicles of Newgate while, in the dungeons themselves, “there was turbulence, rioting, disorders.”
Those who could afford liquor were continually drunk on “sherry sack … amber-coloured canary or liquorish Ipocras” while those imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs raved amid their shackles. “There are seditious preachings by fifth monarch men at Newgate,” according to the records “and prayers for all righteous blood,” while the prison was so overcrowded that the majority of prisoners had “an infectious malignant fever.” It was “a place of infamy and great distress” where lice were the prisoners’ “constant companions.” One inmate was forced to lie in a coffin for a bed, while another spent fourteen days “without light or fire, living on half penny worth of bread a day.” Here in 1537 eleven Catholic monks “were left, standing and chained to pillars, to die of starvation.”
It was in this period that there first emerged the legend of the “Black Dog”—“a walking spirit in the likenesse of a blacke Dog, gliding up and down the streets a little before the time of Execution, and in the night whilst the Sessions continued.” Some believed the creature to be an emanation of the miseries of twelfth-century Newgate, when famine compelled certain prisoners to cannibalism. Others surmised that it was a being which walked “in the Name of Service and Office”; that it was, in other words, a phantom created by the wickedness of the gaolers. By the early eighteenth century, however, “Making The Black Dog Walk” was the phrase used to designate “the prisoners’ brutal treatment of new inmates.” The present ivy-covered wall at the bottom of Amen Court, close to the old Sessions House yard, is supposed still to be the haunt of this malign spirit.
In the sixteenth century, however, the Black Dog was only one of the many terrors of Newgate. An underground dungeon, known as “Limbo,” was described as being “full of horrors, without light and swarming with vermin and creeping things.” This was the condemned hold beneath the gates which was “a most fearful, sad, deplorable place … They lie like swine upon the ground, one upon another, howling and roaring—it was more terrible to me than death.” This is the constant refrain of those who had entered Newgate—“being more full of horror than death”—which of course marked one of the entrances to London itself. When one prisoner, imprisoned for his religious beliefs, cried out: “I would not change my chain for my Lord Mayor’s great chain” he was in his agony making the connection between the sufferings of Newgate and the oppression of the city.
An anonymous drama of the early seventeenth century, Dick of Devonshire, contains the plea of a man as “loaden with gyves shackles & fetters” as any thief that lay in Newgate, confirming the notion that it was a prison from which it was impossible to escape. But it also became a symbol of brotherhood among thieves—“bothe shakeled in a fetter”—or, as Bardolph says to Falstaff, “Two and two, Newgate fashion” and, in Dekker’s Satiro-mastix:
we’ll walk arme in arme
As tho’ we were leading one another to Newgate.
It is in part a symbol of defiance under oppression and the prospect of death. That is why one cry of the rogue or thief was “Newgate or Victory!” The prison becomes the central token of authority and thus, as we shall see, the first object of London rioters who were determined to destroy the order of the city. In that capacity, too, it has often been the object of fire and flame, with the Great Fire itself as a notable token of wrath or vengeance.
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So it rose again in 1670, embellished and decorated in a manner appropriate to one of the city’s greatest public monuments. There was even a bas-relief model of Richard Whittington’s cat, and for a while the prison was known popularly as “the Whit”; no more lucid demonstration could be given of its intimate connection with London. It rose five storeys, spanning the entry to Newgate Street from Giltspur Street and the steep incline of Snow Hill. There were now five “sides” for various felons and debtors, together with a newly designed press room (the object of “pressing to death” was to extort confessions), condemned holds, a chapel and “Jack Ketch’s kitchen.”
On arrival the prisoners were fettered and “ironed,” passing under the gate to be led to their appropriate dungeon; they passed, on the left, the keeper’s house beneath which was the “hold” for those condemned to hang. A prisoner confined in this subterranean area, which did not perhaps differ very much from the dungeon before the Fire, is quoted in Anthony Babington’s The English Bastille as saying that there were “some glimmerings of light … by which you may know that you are in a dark, opaque, wild room.” Entered by a hatch, it was entirely constructed of stone with an “open sewer running through the middle” which diffused a “stench” that entered every corner. Fastened into the stone floor itself were hooks and chains to castigate and confine those who were “stubborn and unruly.”
Immediately to the right of the gate was the drinking cellar. This was run by a prisoner who was allowed a profit on sales. Since it was also below ground it was lit by candles “placed in pyramidal candlesticks made of clay”; those inmates who could afford the prices were allowed to drink themselves into senselessness day or night, with gin variously known as “Cock-my-Cap,” “Kill-Grief,” “Comfort,” “Meat-and-Drink” or “Washing-and-Lodg-ing.” One prisoner recalled that “such wretchedness abounds there that the place has the exact aspect of hell itself.” Beyond this cellar tap-room, going along Newgate Street, were located a “stone hall” for common debtors and a “stone hold” for common felons. These were “virtually unlighted dungeons” strewn with “unutterable filth.” “Trampling on the floor, the lice crawling under their feet made such a noise as walking on shells which are strewn over garden walks.” The rest of the prison rose upward, for “master” prisoners and female prisoners.
So these were the quarters which greeted each new arrival, a place which no physician would enter. In the 1760s Boswell noticed the cells, “three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined.” These “dismal places” stayed with him all that day, “Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud.” Casanova, briefly imprisoned there, described it as an “abode of misery and despair, a hell such as Dante might have conceived.” Wilhelm Meister, crossing the Press Yard on a tour of inspection, was “attacked as by a swarm of harpies and had no means of escaping but to throw a handful of half-pence amongst them for which they scrambled with all the fury of a parcel of wild beasts” while others “who were shut up, stretched forth their hands through the iron bars, venting the most horrible cries.” This is the yard to which Daniel Defoe consigned Moll Flanders in his narrative of her adventures; since the author himself spent some time incarcerated in Newgate in 1703, his account bears the mark of genuine remembrance. It is “impossible to describe the terror of my mind, when I was first brought in, and when I looked round upon all the horrors of that dismal place … the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful afflicting things that I saw there, joined to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.” In more than one passage, however, it is emphasised that the inmates by degrees grow accustomed to this hell so that it becomes “not only tolerable but even agreeable” with its inhabitants “as impudently cheerful and merry in their misery as they were when out of it.” “‘It is natural to me now,’ one female prisoner declares, ‘I don’t disturb myself about it.’” This is of course an astute observation of Newgate manners, but it might perhaps be construed in the wider context of London itself. In the company of this “crew” Moll herself “turned first stupid and senseless, and then brutish and thoughtless” until she becomes “a mere Newgate-bird, as wicked and as outrageous as any of them.”
Some inmates were far from “thoughtless,”however, and contrived many ingenious plans of escape. The great heroes of London have often been those who freed themselves from the constraints of Newgate. The greatest of them all, Jack Sheppard, escaped from confinement on six separate occasions; for two centuries he remained a type or symbol of those who elude the practices of oppression with effrontery and bravery as well as skill. It is worth noticing, for example, that a report of the Children’s Employment Commission in the 1840s remarked that poor London children who had never heard of Moses or Queen Victoria had “general knowledge of the character and course of life of Dick Turpin, the highwayman, and more particularly of Jack Shepherd [sic], the robber and prison breaker.”
Jack Sheppard was born in White’s Row, Spitalfields, in the spring of 1702, and then placed in the Bishopsgate workhouse—built on the perimeter of the city, like Newgate itself—before being apprenticed to a carpenter in Wych Street. He broke free of his apprenticeship after six years of industry, even though he was within ten months of completing his terms, and turned to theft for his trade. In the spring of 1724 he was first imprisoned in the St. Giles Roundhouse, but was free within three hours after cutting open the roof and lowering himself to the ground with sheet and blanket. There “he joined a gathering throng” and made his escape through the lanes of St. Giles. A few weeks later he was arrested again, for a pickpocketing offence in Leicester Fields, and was incarcerated in the New Prison of Clerkenwell. He was taken to the “Newgate Ward” there and pinioned with links and fetters of great weight; he sawed through the fetters and somehow cut through an iron restraint before boring his way through an oaken bar some nine inches thick. The severed chairs and bars were afterwards kept by the prison authorities “to Testifie, and preserve the Memory of this extraordinary Event and Villain.”
For three months he was at liberty before being found by the notorious criminal and “thief-taker,” Jonathan Wild; Sheppard was now escorted to Newgate and, after being sentenced to death for three robberies, was consigned to the condemned hold. Even within that dreadful place, by some means or other, he managed to smuggle in a “Spike” and with that began to carve an opening in the wall (or perhaps ceiling); with the help of accomplices on the other side he was dragged out. It was the week of Bartholomew Fair, and he made his escape through the crowds of those going up Snow Hill and Giltspur Street into Smithfield. From there he travelled eastwards into Spitalfields, where he stayed at the Paul’s Head; on an eighteenth-century map, like that of John Roque, it is still possible to track his route. It is in any case a potent image—of a prisoner almost miraculously escaping from incarceration to join the crowds celebrating their own temporary liberty among the booths and shows of Bartholomew Fair.
During the next few days, according to Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, he was seen by a “cobbler in Bishopsgate and a milkman in Islington.” In Fleet Street he entered a watch-maker’s shop and addressed the apprentice there, bidding him “stick to his Tools, and not use his Master to such ill Habits of working so late.” He promptly robbed the premises, but was pursued and taken. Then, once again, he was led to Newgate and in a secluded gaol was “fastened to the floor with double fetters.” Everyone came to see him, and everyone talked about him. He had become a true London sensation, the people “Mad about him” at a time of the greatest “idleness among Meckanicks that has been known in London.” They had all gone to the taverns and ale-houses, in other words, to discuss the prodigy. When certain reverend gentlemen visited his cell he declared that they were “Ginger-bread Fellows” and that “One File’s worth all the Bibles in the world.” The pagan temper of the Londoner is here revealed. “Yes, sir, I am the Sheppard,” he said while in confinement, “and all the jailors in the town are my flock.” A file was found upon him and he was removed to the “Stone Castle” on the fifth storey where he was chained to the floor, his legs secured with irons and his hands cuffed. These instruments were inspected daily, and Sheppard himself was under regular supervision.
And then, wonderfully if not miraculously, he escaped again. Somehow he managed to slip his hands through his handcuffs, and with a small nail managed to loose one of the links in the chains about his legs; like some “posture master” from Bartholomew Fair he then squeezed through the great chains which held him. With a piece of this broken chain he worked out a transverse bar from the chimney and climbed upwards into the “Red Room,” “whose door had not been unbolted for seven years.” With a nail he freed its bolt in seven minutes and got into a passage which led to the chapel; then with a spike from one of the interior railings he opened four other doors which were all locked and bolted from the other side. On opening the final door he found himself on the outside of the prison, with the roofs of the city below him. Then he remembered his blanket. He had left it in his cell. He returned all the way to the “Stone Castle,” through the chapel and down the chimney, in order to retrieve it. He returned to the outer air and, with the blanket spiked to the stone wall, slid down quietly.
Over the next few days, he disguised himself as a beggar and as a butcher, the two most familiar London types, while the streets around him were filled with ballads and broadsides proclaiming his latest escape. In the disguise of a foot porter he visited the printer of those “Last Dying Speeches” which, as he knew or guessed, would accompany his own journey to the scaffold. He robbed a pawn-broker in Drury Lane and, with the proceeds, bought a fashionable suit and a silver sword; then he hired a coach and, with that innate sense of theatre which never seemed to desert him, he drove through the arch of Newgate itself before visiting the taverns and ale-houses of the vicinity. Recaptured on that evening, two weeks after his escape, he was taken back to the prison from which he had effected such a remarkable exit, and constantly watched; when he was led to the court where the punishment of death was again pronounced, he was surrounded by “the most numerous Croud of People that ever was seen in London.” He was sentenced to be hanged within a week. There were reports that he would break away at Little Turnmill along Holborn—and on the road to Tyburn a penknife was taken from him—but there was to be no reprieve from what Peter Linebaugh has called his “final escape.”
It is an intensely private as well as a very public London story. We may infer that his youthful experience in the workhouse of Bishopsgate prompted his obsessive desire for escape, while it is likely that he somehow acquired his extraordinary skills while working as a carpenter’s apprentice; certainly he would have learned the uses of files and chisels while practising upon wood. He was a violent and dishonest man, but his series of escapes from Newgate transformed the atmosphere of the city, where the prevailing mood became one of genuine collaborative excitement. To escape from the most visible and oppressive symbol of authority—that “black cloud” which pursued Boswell—was in a sense to be freed from all the restraints of the ordinary world. We might then equate the experience of the prison with the experience of the city itself. It is indeed a familiar and often an accurate analogy, and the history of Jack Sheppard suggests another aspect of it. He hardly ever left London, even with the opportunity and indeed the pressing necessity of doing so; after three days “on the run” in Northamptonshire, for example, he rode back to the city. After his penultimate escape from Newgate he returned to Spitalfields, where he had spent his earliest days. After his final escape he was determined to remain in London, despite the pleas of his family. He was in that sense a true Londoner who could not or would not operate outside his own territory.
He possessed other urban characteristics. After his escapes he disguised himself as a variety of tradesmen, and generally behaved in a thoroughly dramatic fashion. To ride in a coach through Newgate was a mark of theatrical genius. He was profane to the point of being irreligious, while his violence against the propertied interests was not inconsistent with the egalitarianism of the “mob.” After one of his escapes a pamphleteer declaimed: “Woe to the Shopkeepers, and woe to the Dealers in Ware, for the roaring Lion is abroad.” So Jack became an intrinsic part of London mythology, his exploits celebrated in ballads and verses and dramas and fiction.
In 1750 the smell of Newgate had become pervasive throughout the neighbourhood. All its walls were then washed down with vinegar and a ventilation system was installed; seven of the eleven men working on that project were themselves infected with “gaol fever,” which suggests the extent of the pestilence within. Five years later, the inhabitants of Newgate Street were still “unable to stand in their doorways” and customers were reluctant to visit the shops in the vicinity “for fear of infections.” There were even directions for those who might come close to the criminals—“he should prudently empty his stomach and bowels a few days before, to carry off any putrid or putrescent substance which may have lodged in them.”
The prison was rebuilt in 1770 by George Dance, and was described by the poet Crabbe as a “large, strong and beautiful building,” beautiful, no doubt, because of its simplicity of purpose. “There is nothing in it,” one contemporary wrote, “but two great windowless blocks, each ninety feet square.” It was fired by rioters in 1780, and rebuilt two years later upon the same plan. It was in many respects now more salubrious and hygienic a prison than many others in London, but its ancient atmosphere lingered. A few years after the rebuilding, the new gaol “begins to wear a brooding and haunted air already.” The old conditions also began to re-emerge within the prison and, in the early years of the nineteenth century, it was reported in The Chronicles of Newgate that “lunatics raving mad ranged up and down the wards, a terror to all they encountered … mock marriages were of constant occurrence … a school and nursery of crime … the most depraved were free to contaminate and demoralise their more innocent fellows.”
The ministrations of Elizabeth Fry in 1817 seem to have produced some effect upon this “Hell above ground,” but official reports in 1836 and 1843 from the Inspector of Prisons still condemned the squalor and the misery. Immediately before the first of these reports, Newgate was visited by a young journalist, Charles Dickens, who from childhood had been fascinated by the looming gatehouse of the dark prison; by his own account in Sketches by Boz he had often contemplated the fact that thousands of people each day “pass and repass this gloomy depository of the guilt and misery of London, in one perpetual stream of life and bustle, utterly unmindful of the throng of wretched creatures pent up within it.” A “light laugh or merry whistle” can be heard “within one yard of a fellow-creature, bound and helpless, whose days are numbered” and who waits for execution. In his second novel, Oliver Twist, Dickens returns to those “dreadful walls of Newgate, which have hidden so much misery and such unspeakable anguish.” Here Fagin sits in one of the condemned cells—Dickens notes that the prison kitchen is beside the yard where the scaffold is erected—and an engraving by George Cruik-shank, drawn after a visit to one such “hold,” shows a stone bench with a mattress across it. Nothing else is visible except the iron bars set in a thick stone wall, and the blazing eyes of the prisoner himself. The young Oliver Twist visits the condemned cell, through “the dark and winding ways” of Newgate, even though the gaoler has said that “It’s not a sight for children.” Dickens might be revisiting his own childhood, since his most formative early experience of London was of attending his father and family lodged in the Marshalsea Prison of Southwark. Perhaps that is why the image of Newgate always haunted him and why, towards the end of his life, at night, utterly wearied and demoralised, he returned to the old gaol “and, touching its rough stone” began “to think of the prisoners in their sleep.”
Dickens was writing of a period when Newgate had ceased to be a general prison and was instead used to confine those who had been sentenced to death (as well as those waiting to be tried in the adjacent Central Criminal Courts), but a further refinement was added in 1859 when the prison was redesigned to house a series of separate cells where each inmate was held in silence and isolation. In a series of articles published in the Illustrated London News the prisoner awaiting a flogging is described as “the patient.” The prison becomes a hospital, then, or perhaps the hospital is no better than a prison.
In this manner the institutions of the city begin to resemble one another. Newgate also became a kind of theatre when, on Wednesdays or Thursdays between the hours of twelve and three, it was open to visitors. Here sightseers would be shown casts of the heads of notorious criminals, as well as the chains and handcuffs which once held Jack Sheppard; they could at their wish be locked into one of the condemned cells for a moment, or even sit within the old whipping post. At the end of their tour they were conducted along “Birdcage” walk, the passage from the cells of Newgate to the Court of Sessions; here also they could read “curious letters on the walls” denoting the fact that the bodies of the condemned were interred behind the stone. The name of the walk is strangely reminiscent of a scene from Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago where an infant visits her father “before a double iron railing covered with wire netting” at Newgate—“carrying into later years a memory of father as a man who lived in a cage.”
The last execution at Newgate took place at the beginning of May 1902, and three months later the work of demolition began. At a quarter past three in the afternoon of 15 August, according to the Daily Mail of the following day, “a piece of stone about the size of a foot fell on the pavement, and a hand with a chisel in it was seen working away in the breach. A little crowd soon gathered to watch the operations.” It was noticed, too, that the “old pigeons, rough and grimy as the prison itself compared with the other flocks in London,” fluttered about the statue of liberty on the pinnacle of the prison. These birds, at least, had no wish to leave their London cage.
Six months later an auction of Newgate relics was held within the prison itself. The paraphernalia of the execution shed sold for £5 15s 0d while each of the plaster casts of the famous criminals was “knocked down” for £5. Two of the great doors, and the whipping post for the “patients,” may now be seen by the curious in the Museum of London. The Old Bailey now lies upon the ancient site.