Victorian London - Prisons and Penal System - Prisons - Newgate

    If Bedlam could be suddenly removed like another Aladdin's palace, and set down on the space now occupied by Newgate, scarcely one man out of a hundred, whose road to business every morning lies through Newgate-street, or the Old Bailey, would pass the building without bestowing a hasty glance on its small, grated windows, and a transient thought upon the condition of the unhappy beings immured in its dismal cells; and yet these same men, day by day, and hour by hour, 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 - nay, not even knowing, or if they do, not heeding, the fact, that as they pass one particular angle of the massive wall with a light laugh or a merry whistle, they stand within one yard of a fellow-creature, bound and helpless, whose hours are numbered, from whom the last feeble ray of hope has fled for ever, and whose miserable career will shortly terminate in a violent and shameful death. Contact with death even in its least terrible shape, is solemn and appalling. How much more awful is it to reflect on this near vicinity to the dying - to men in full health and vigour, in the flower of youth or the prime of life, with all their faculties and perceptions as acute and perfect as your own; but dying, nevertheless - dying as surely - with the hand of death imprinted upon them as indelibly - as if mortal disease had wasted their frames to shadows, and corruption had already begun! ...
    Having delivered our credentials to the servant who answered our knock at the door of the governor's house, we were ushered into the 'office;' a little room, on the right-hand side as you enter, with two windows looking into the Old Bailey: fitted up like an ordinary attorney's office, or merchant's counting-house, with the usual fixtures - a wainscoted partition, a shelf or two, a desk, a couple of stools, a pair of clerks, an almanack, a clock, and a few maps. After a little delay, occasioned by sending into the interior of the prison for the officer whose duty it was to conduct us, that functionary arrived; a respectable-looking man of about two or three and fifty, in a broad-brimmed hat, and full suit of black, who, but for his keys, would have looked quite as much like a clergyman as a turnkey. We were disappointed; he had not even top-boots on. Following our conductor by a door opposite to that at which we had entered, we arrived at a small room, without any other furniture than a little desk, with a book for visitors' autographs, and a shelf, on which were a few boxes for papers, and casts of the heads and faces of the two notorious murderers, Bishop and Williams; the former, in particular, exhibiting a style of head and set of features, which might have afforded sufficient moral grounds for his instant execution at any time, even had there been no other evidence against him. Leaving this room also, by an opposite door, we found ourself in the lodge which opens on the Old Bailey; one side of which is plentifully garnished with a choice collection of heavy sets of irons, including those worn by the redoubtable Jack Sheppard - genuine; and those SAID to have been graced by the sturdy limbs of the no less celebrated Dick Turpin - doubtful. From this lodge, a heavy oaken gate, bound with iron, studded with nails of the same material, and guarded by another turnkey, opens on a few steps, if we remember right, which terminate in a narrow and dismal stone passage, running parallel with the Old Bailey, and leading to the different yards, through a number of tortuous and intricate windings, guarded in their turn by huge gates and gratings, whose appearance is sufficient to dispel at once the slightest hope of escape that any new-comer may have entertained; and the very recollection of which, on eventually traversing the place again, involves one in a maze of confusion.
    It is necessary to explain here, that the buildings in the prison, or in other words the different wards - form a square, of which the four sides abut respectively on the Old Bailey, the old College of Physicians (now forming a part of Newgate-market), the Sessions-house, and Newgate-street. The intermediate space is divided into several paved yards, in which the prisoners take such air and exercise as can be had in such a place. These yards, with the exception of that in which prisoners under sentence of death are confined (of which we shall presently give a more detailed description), run parallel with Newgate-street, and consequently from the Old Bailey, as it were, to Newgate-market. The women's side is in the right wing of the prison nearest the Sessions-house. As we were introduced into this part of the building first, we will adopt the same order, and introduce our readers to it also.
    Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates - for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma - we came to a door composed of thick bars of wood, through which were discernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty women: the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards. One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance, and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them. In one corner of this singular-looking den, was a yellow, haggard, decrepit old woman, in a tattered gown that had once been black, and the remains of an old straw bonnet, with faded ribbon of the same hue, in earnest conversation with a young girl - a prisoner, of course - of about two-and-twenty. It is impossible to imagine a more poverty-stricken object, or a creature so borne down in soul and body, by excess of misery and destitution, as the old woman. 
    ... A little farther on, a squalid-looking woman in a slovenly, thick- bordered cap, with her arms muffled in a large red shawl, the fringed ends of which straggled nearly to the bottom of a dirty white apron, was communicating some instructions to HER visitor - her daughter evidently. The girl was thinly clad, and shaking with the cold. Some ordinary word of recognition passed between her and her mother when she appeared at the grating, but neither hope, condolence, regret, nor affection was expressed on either side. The mother whispered her instructions, and the girl received them with her pinched-up, half-starved features twisted into an expression of careful cunning. It was some scheme for the woman's defence that she was disclosing, perhaps; and a sullen smile came over the girl's face for an instant, as if she were pleased: not so much at the probability of her mother's liberation, as at the chance of her 'getting off' in spite of her prosecutors. The dialogue was soon concluded; and with the same careless indifference with which they had approached each other, the mother turned towards the inner end of the yard, and the girl to the gate at which she had entered.
    Two or three women were standing at different parts of the grating, conversing with their friends, but a very large proportion of the prisoners appeared to have no friends at all, beyond such of their old companions as might happen to be within the walls. So, passing hastily down the yard, and pausing only for an instant to notice the little incidents we have just recorded, we were conducted up a clean and well-lighted flight of stone stairs to one of the wards. There are several in this part of the building, but a description of one is a description of the whole.
    It was a spacious, bare, whitewashed apartment, lighted, of course, by windows looking into the interior of the prison, but far more light and airy than one could reasonably expect to find in such a situation. There was a large fire with a deal table before it, round which ten or a dozen women were seated on wooden forms at dinner. Along both sides of the room ran a shelf; below it, at regular intervals, a row of large hooks were fixed in the wall, on each of which was hung the sleeping mat of a prisoner: her rug and blanket being folded up, and placed on the shelf above. At night, these mats are placed on the floor, each beneath the hook on which it hangs during the day; and the ward is thus made to answer the purposes both of a day-room and sleeping apartment. Over the fireplace, was a large sheet of pasteboard, on which were displayed a variety of texts from Scripture, which were also scattered about the room in scraps about the size and shape of the copy-slips which are used in schools. On the table was a sufficient provision of a kind of stewed beef and brown bread, in pewter dishes, which are
kept perfectly bright, and displayed on shelves in great order and regularity when they are not in use.
    The women rose hastily, on our entrance, and retired in a hurried manner to either side of the fireplace. They were all cleanly - many of them decently - attired, and there was nothing peculiar, either in their appearance or demeanour. One or two resumed the needlework which they had probably laid aside at the commencement of their meal; others gazed at the visitors with listless curiosity; and a few retired behind their companions to the very end of the room, as if desirous to avoid even the casual observation of the strangers. Some old Irish women, both in this and other wards, to whom the thing was no novelty, appeared perfectly indifferent to our presence, and remained standing close to the seats from which they had just risen; but the general feeling among the females seemed to be one of uneasiness during the period of our stay among them: which was very brief. Not a word was uttered during the time of our remaining, unless, indeed, by the wardswoman in reply to some question which we put to the turnkey who accompanied us. In every ward on the female side, a wardswoman is appointed to preserve order, and a similar regulation is adopted among the males. The wardsmen and wardswomen are all prisoners, selected for good conduct. They alone are allowed the privilege of sleeping on bedsteads; a small stump bedstead being placed in every ward for that purpose. On both sides of the gaol, is a small receiving-room, to which prisoners are conducted on their first reception, and whence they cannot be removed until they have been examined by the surgeon of the prison.
    Retracing our steps to the dismal passage in which we found ourselves at first (and which, by-the-bye, contains three or four dark cells for the accommodation of refractory prisoners), we were led through a narrow yard to the 'school' - a portion of the prison set apart for boys under fourteen years of age. In a tolerable- sized room, in which were writing-materials and some copy-books, was the schoolmaster, with a couple of his pupils; the remainder having been fetched from an adjoining apartment, the whole were drawn up in line for our inspection. There were fourteen of them in all, some with shoes, some without; some in pinafores without jackets, others in jackets without pinafores, and one in scarce anything at all. The whole number, without an exception we believe, had been committed for trial on charges of pocket-picking; and fourteen such terrible little faces we never beheld. - There was not one redeeming feature among them - not a glance of honesty - not a wink expressive of anything but the gallows and the hulks, in the whole collection. As to anything like shame or contrition, that was entirely out of the question. They were evidently quite gratified at being thought worth the trouble of looking at; their idea appeared to be, that we had come to see Newgate as a grand affair, and that they were an indispensable part of the show; and every boy as he 'fell in' to the line, actually seemed as pleased and important as if he had done something excessively meritorious in getting there at all. We never looked upon a more disagreeable sight, because we never saw fourteen such hopeless creatures of neglect, before.
    On either side of the school-yard is a yard for men, in one of which - that towards Newgate-street - prisoners of the more respectable class are confined. Of the other, we have little description to offer, as the different wards necessarily partake of the same character. They are provided, like the wards on the women's side, with mats and rugs, which are disposed of in the same manner during the day; the only very striking difference between their appearance and that of the wards inhabited by the females, is the utter absence of any employment. Huddled together on two opposite forms, by the fireside, sit twenty men perhaps; here, a boy in livery; there, a man in a rough great-coat and top-boots; farther on, a desperate-looking fellow in his shirt-sleeves, with an old Scotch cap upon his shaggy head; near him again, a tall ruffian, in a smock-frock; next to him, a miserable being of distressed appearance, with his head resting on his hand; - all alike in one respect, all idle and listless. When they do leave the fire, sauntering moodily about, lounging in the window, or leaning against the wall, vacantly swinging their bodies to and fro. With the exception of a man reading an old newspaper, in two or three instances, this was the case in every ward we entered.
    The only communication these men have with their friends, is through two close iron gratings, with an intermediate space of about a yard in width between the two, so that nothing can be handed across, nor can the prisoner have any communication by touch with the person who visits him. The married men have a separate grating, at which to see their wives, but its construction is the same.
    The prison chapel is situated at the back of the governor's house: the latter having no windows looking into the interior of the prison. Whether the associations connected with the place - the knowledge that here a portion of the burial service is, on some dreadful occasions, performed over the quick and not upon the dead - cast over it a still more gloomy and sombre air than art has imparted to it, we know not, but its appearance is very striking. There is something in a silent and deserted place of worship, solemn and impressive at any time; and the very dissimilarity of this one from any we have been accustomed to, only enhances the impression. The meanness of its appointments - the bare and scanty pulpit, with the paltry painted pillars on either side - the women's gallery with its great heavy curtain - the men's with its unpainted benches and dingy front - the tottering little table at the altar, with the commandments on the wall above it, scarcely legible through lack of paint, and dust and damp - so unlike the velvet and gilding, the marble and wood, of a modern church - are strange and striking. There is one object, too, which rivets the attention and fascinates the gaze, and from which we may turn horror-stricken in vain, for the recollection of it will haunt us, waking and sleeping, for a long time afterwards. Immediately below the reading-desk, on the floor of the chapel, and forming the most conspicuous object in its little area, is THE CONDEMNED PEW; a huge black pen, in which the wretched people, who are singled out for death, are placed on the Sunday preceding their execution, in sight of all their fellow-prisoners, from many of whom they may have been separated but a week before, to hear prayers for their own souls, to join in the responses of their own burial service, and to listen to an address, warning their recent companions to take example by their fate, and urging themselves, while there is yet time - nearly four-and-twenty hours - to 'turn, and flee from the wrath to come!'
    Imagine what have been the feelings of the men whom that fearful pew has enclosed, and of whom, between the gallows and the knife, no mortal remnant may now remain! Think of the hopeless clinging to life to the last, and the wild despair, far exceeding in anguish the felon's death itself, by which they have heard the certainty of their speedy transmission to another world, with all their crimes upon their heads, rung into their ears by the officiating clergyman!
    At one time - and at no distant period either - the coffins of the men about to be executed, were placed in that pew, upon the seat by their side, during the whole service. It may seem incredible, but it is true. Let us hope that the increased spirit of civilisation and humanity which abolished this frightful and degrading custom, may extend itself to other usages equally barbarous; usages which have not even the plea of utility in their defence, as every year's experience has shown them to be more and more inefficacious.
    Leaving the chapel, descending to the passage so frequently alluded to, and crossing the yard before noticed as being allotted to prisoners of a more respectable description than the generality of men confined here, the visitor arrives at a thick iron gate of great size and strength. Having been admitted through it by the turnkey on duty, he turns sharp round to the left, and pauses before another gate; and, having passed this last barrier, he stands in the most terrible part of this gloomy building - the condemned ward.
    The press-yard, well known by name to newspaper readers, from its frequent mention in accounts of executions, is at the corner of the building, and next to the ordinary's house, in Newgate-street: running from Newgate-street, towards the centre of the prison, parallel with Newgate-market. It is a long, narrow court, of which a portion of the wall in Newgate-street forms one end, and the gate the other. At the upper end, on the left hand - that is, adjoining the wall in Newgate-street - is a cistern of water, and at the bottom a double grating (of which the gate itself forms a part) similar to that before described. Through these grates the prisoners are allowed to see their friends; a turnkey always remaining in the vacant space between, during the whole interview. Immediately on the right as you enter, is a building containing the press-room, day-room, and cells; the yard is on every side surrounded by lofty walls guarded by CHEVAUX DE FRISE; and the whole is under the constant inspection of vigilant and experienced turnkeys.
    In the first apartment into which we were conducted - which was at the top of a staircase, and immediately over the press-room - were five-and-twenty or thirty prisoners, all under sentence of death, awaiting the result of the recorder's report - men of all ages and appearances, from a hardened old offender with swarthy face and grizzly beard of three days' growth, to a handsome boy, not fourteen years old, and of singularly youthful appearance even for that age, who had been condemned for burglary. There was nothing remarkable in the appearance of these prisoners. One or two decently-dressed men were brooding with a dejected air over the fire; several little groups of two or three had been engaged in conversation at the upper end of the room, or in the windows; and the remainder were crowded round a young man seated at a table, who appeared to be engaged in teaching the younger ones to write. The room was large, airy, and clean. There was very little anxiety or mental suffering depicted in the countenance of any of the men; - they had all been sentenced to death, it is true, and the recorder's report had not yet been made; but, we question whether there was a man among them, notwithstanding, who did not KNOW that although he had undergone the ceremony, it never was intended that his life should be sacrificed. On the table lay a Testament, but there were no tokens of its having been in recent use.
    In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows  sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. 'The two short ones,' the turnkey whispered, 'were dead men.' 
    The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step - he had been a soldier in the foot- guards - and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues. 
    A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted, lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and obscure stair-case leading to a dark passage, in which a charcoal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every cell on the story opens; and from it alone can they be approached. There are three of these passages, and three of these ranges of cells, one above the other; but in size, furniture and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the recorder's report being made, all the prisoners under sentence of death are removed from the day-room at five o'clock in the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are allowed a candle until ten o'clock; and here they remain until seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner's execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never leaves him on any pretence.
    We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side; and a small high window in the back admitted as much air and light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy, crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any description.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1836

see also James Grants - The Great Metropolis II.4 - click here

Newgate is the common gaol for London and Westminster, and is under the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor, Court of Aldermen, and Sheriffs. It contains not only persons directly committed for trial from the various police offices, but also those removed from other prisons previous to the commencement of the sessions, and convicts waiting to he sent away. The plan of the whole building is an area of four squares; a wall dividing the men from the women. The number of prisoners confined here varies according to circumstances. It has amounted to upwards of 900, though 350 are as many as the prison can conveniently contain. It has a neat chapel, in which service is regularly performed twice every Sunday.

Giltspur Street Compter.-This prison is separated from Newgate by the street of that name. The front is of stone, wrought in rustic work, with tolerably large and airy windows. The origin of this prison is somewhat enveloped in obscurity, nor is it necessary to trace it. Prisoners were not admitted here before the 2d of April, 1791. It is appropriated for the reception of vagrants, disorderly persons apprehended during the night, and accused persons waiting for examination.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

NEWGATE (PRISON), in the OLD BAILEY. A prison appertaining to the city of London and county of Middlesex, formerly for felons and debtors; since 1815 (when Whitecross-street Prison was built) for felons only, and is now used as the gaol for the confinement of prisoners from the metropolitan counties, preparatory to their trial at the Central Criminal Court adjoining. It was so called because it was the tower of a gate of the same name, and was used as a public prison as early as the reign of John. The solitary or separate system is not in use in Newgate, and cannot, it is said, bbe introduced without a complete alteration of the design and structure of the prison.
"For the year 1845, the total number of prisoners committed to Newgate for trial was 2581: of that number 1960 were convicted, and 621 were acquitted. The cost of such prosecutions for the year is as follows:
"Total cost of Newgate for 1845, including all salaries and outgoings ?8044
"Total expenditure at Sessions House for the twelve sessions during the year 1845, including the expenses of witnesses, salaries of the three judges, clerks and all necessary expenses ?17,100
"Maintenance for the whole convicted, on average for one year, at 15l. per head (on the lowest scale) ?29,400
This is without any proportion of the Queen's Judges' salaries who try the capital cases; and without taking into account the expense of all jurors' time, grand juries, and the witnesses whose expenses are not paid by the community, to say nothing of the expenses incurred in the magistrates' department, and the expensive police force." Refuge and Employment, by Mr. Sheriff Laurie, 8vo. 1846

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

newgate.gif (127811 bytes)

p.185 from Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present, 1852

see also David Bartlett in London by Day and Night - click here


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THE Rev. J. Davis, the Ordinary of Newgate, has just presented to the City authorities the report of the State of the Prison from Sept. 30, 1848, to Sept. 29, 1849. From this interesting document we learn that, during the above period, there were in the Gaol  - Unconvicted prisoners, 588; convicted, 1111 convicted of very grave offences, 938; making a total of 2367: of which number there have been previously in Newgate, 345; in other prisons, 385; total, 730. The returns for the previous year, to September 29, 1848, were:- Unconvicted prisoners, 645; convicted, 1418; very grave offences, 1070. Decrease under- Unconvicted, 57 convicted, 307 ; very grave offences, 132 total, 496. Making a general diminution of nearly 500, or nearly one-sixth of the whole number committed.
    The reverend Ordinary observes :-" The gaol of Newgate, beyond all doubt, has great defects compared with more modern erections; but results from these more perfect prisons do not surpass the metropolitan gaol in this respect, that seven out of eight do not return to us again."
    Another gratifying point is the great decrease in the number of boys committed, and great change in committers.
    "It is greatly to be desired (continues the Report) that no sentences (except for very short periods) should take place in Newgate. The perpetual excitement, the ever-fluctuating character of the inmates, the assemblage of criminals of the most flagrant nature, the constant recurrence of the sessions, make New gate a very undesirable prison for purposes of lengthened confinement."
    The great corruption of Newgate still appears to be moat fearful in the transport wards. The condition of the transports, confined for months in perfect idleness, makes them spend their leisure time in awfully corrupting one another. The language, acts, and habits of these utterly depraved men; their filthiness, falsehood, and pernicious animosities; are too bad to be described. The magistrates wish these men removed to their pr oper place of confinement. The Government are unable to comply with these reasonable desires, because every place is full. The rev. Ordinary then suggests the fitting up of wards as workshops, as in Millbank prison, and the keeping of the offenders constantly at labour; and this matter is pressed the more earnestly, because it has been the cause of all the calumnies that have found their way into many public documents as to the corruption inside of Newgate.
    There is another part of the prison that demands attention - the separate cells, which the Report states are so intensely cold its inclement weather, that the pain which the prisoners suffer is almost to the full extent of human endurance.
    We annex a series of Views of the interior in this metropolitan prison.
    Up the narrow steps, into the turnkey's room, and along a darkish passsge, we come into a small open court, surrounded by high walls, between which a scanty supply of air and light finds its way downwards as into a well. Facing us stands a massive building, chary of windows, and those strongly grated: it is the women's wing of the prison. As soon as the ponderous locks are turned, and the heavy bars removed, we enter the doorway, and ascend the stone staircase : suites of chambers branch off on either side, and these are occupied by the prisoners who are awaiting trial. An attempt is made to classify them according to their degrees of guiltiness, but practically this is of little use.
    Pass we now through several rooms and corridors to the quadrangle occupied by the males. As we traverse these passages we note the iron character of the building. It is dark, close, confused; and in despite of the scrupulous cleanliness preserved in every part, foul smells are not unfrequently met in its lobbies. The great fault is the want of room, the height of the walls, and the narrowness of the courts, giving them the appearance of wells rather than open spaces. Air and light are in consequence less plentiful than they should be.
    Formerly the wards of part of this prison were occupied by debtors. This practice has been discontinued, and it has now very few inmates, except such as are awaiting trial or punishment; the exceptions being persons convicted of assaults or offences on the highs seas. Just after the termination of the session of the Central Criminal Court it is nearly empty, but it gradually begins to fill again as the next assize draws night; then its inmates usually number about 500, After trial the convicts are sent off to prisons or penitentiaries to which they are committed - the short terms to the Houses of Correction, the transports to Millbank. Those sentenced capitally are taken to the condemned cells, not to leave them again until the last moment, except for chapel. These cells are built in the old portion of the building at the back. The narrow port-holes in the dark wall looking into Newgate-street let light into the galleries into which they open. There are five of them on each of the three floors. The culprit in the furthest cell on the ground-floor is within a yard of the passers-by. All thecells are vaulted, and about nine feet high, nine deep, and six broad. High up in each is a small window, double-grated. The doors are four inches thick. The strong stone wall is lined and, altogether, they present to the eye of the culprit an overwhelming appearance of strength. In a small anteroom, near the entrance of the prison, Is a collection of casts, taken from the heads of the principal malefactors who have been recently executed in front of it - very interesting to the student of phrenological science.
    The quadrangle for the men is much like the women's, but larger. It consists of two or three yards, and the building surrounding them. No separation of the men is made other than as the law requires - namely, into felons and misdemeanants.
    Some little instruction is afforded by humane and philanthropic visitors at the prison, especially of ladies. Dear Elizabeth Fry used to make the female wards the scene of her pious labours. She found helpers and successors in the work. Lady Pirie is a Constant visitor and teacher here now - so is Miss Sturgiss. They read, converse, and pray with their poor sisters.
    The chapel, as well befits such a place, is neat and plain. There are galleries for male and female prisoners. Below and in the centre of the floor, a chair is placed conspicuously, and marked for the use of the condemned culprit. On this he is required to sit the day before his execution in face of the congregation.
    Leaving the chapel we repass the yards, one of which is notable as the scene of a very curious escape - that of the "sweep." The walls are of the same height as the lofty houses in Newgate-street, and present a bar to escape which would daunt the most inveterate prison-breaker. But the sweep surmounted them. Placing his back in the angle of the wall, he worked himself up by his bands and feet, pressing them against the rough masonry, until he reached the giddy height. He then crept along the top or the walls to the houses, got on to the roofs, entered at a balcony - almost frightening a woman to death - and made his way into the streets, where, as the Newgate prisoners swear no regular costume, he passed unnoticed. He was, however, captured soon after - as almost invariably happens with escaped criminals. Now the wall is smoothed and spiked, there can be no escapes in that way.
    We have selected the descriptive details from Mr. Dixon's recently published work on the Great Prisons of London.
    Of the accompanying Illustrations, the first shows one of the corridors, in which prisoners are allowed to see their friends; next are the Chapel-yard, and the Chapel; then a Punishment Cell, formerly the condemned cell; next a Dining Ward; and, lastly, the present ward for Condemned Male Prisoners.

Illustrated London News, February 23, 1850

    We have, meanwhile, walked down the steep descent. We have crossed the hidden stream, walked up the hill on the other side, and now we stand on a broad plateau, where two large streets cross at right angles. This conformation produces a considerable amount of space between the pavements?a sort of irregular open square, and one which from time to time presents a melancholy spectacle.One of the street corners is taken up by the old Newgate Prison; and the open place in front serves for the execution of felons who have been sentenced to death at the Sessions, and who, in the first instance, had been committed to Newgate. It is a shocking custom, though it springs from the humane desire to shorten the agony which the criminal must suffer on his road. from the prison to the scaffold.
    ?Our popular festivals!? said a lady, who had been emancipated by a lengthened residence on the Continent. ?You wish to know where the people?s merry-makings are held? Go to Newgate on a hanging day, or to Horsemonger Lane, or to any other open space in front of a prison; there you will find shouting, and joking, and junketting, from early dawn until the hangman has made his appearance and performed his office. The windows are let out, stands are erected, eating and drinking booths surround the scaffold; there is an enormous consumption of beer and brandy. They come on foot, on horseback, and in carriages, from a distance of many miles, to see a spectacle which is a disgrace to humanity; and foremost are the women ?my countrywomen?not only the females of low degree, but also ladies, ?by birth and education.? It is a shame; but, nevertheless, it is true. And our newspapers are afterwards compelled to chronicle the last death?struggles of the wretched criminal !?
    There is no exaggeration in this. A criminal process, robbery and murder, a case of poisoning?these suffice to keep the families of England in breathless suspense for weeks at a time. The daily and weekly papers cannot find space enough for all the details of the inquest, the proceedings of the police, the trial, and the execution ; and woe to the paper that dared to curtail these interesting reports! it would at once lose its supporters. Rather let such a paper take no notice of an insurrection in Germany; but neglect a criminal trial, a scene on the scaffold? never!
    Let us look into that room. The father of the family, his wife, the old grandmother, with her hands demurely folded, and the daughters and little children, are all crowded round the table. The father reads the newspaper; the family listens to him. The tea is getting cold, the fire is going out, the curtains are still undrawn and the blinds are up; the very passengers in the street?? O tell it not in Gath ! ??can see what is going on in the parlour; but the listeners pay no attention to all this, for the paper contains a full report of the trial of Mrs. Manning, or some other popular she-assassin. Did she do the deed? Is she innocent? Did she make a confession? And what about her husband? And how was it done, and when, and where?
    It is truly marvellous These good, gentle people, who would not willingly hurt or pain any living creature, actually warm to the scenes of horror reported in that paper. It is altogether incomprehensible, how and to what extent this passion for the horrible has seized hold of the hearts of English men and women. They languish after strong emotions; they yearn for something which will make their flesh creep. A similar phenomenon may occasionally be observed on the other side of the Channel; but there it forms the exception, while here it is the rule. And on the Continent, too, we find this horror-mongering only in the provinces, where people, wearied with the monotony of their long winter evenings, hunger and thirst after anything like a public scandal or spectacle; but we do not find this sort of thing in large towns, where people have a variety of objects and incidents to attract their attention. But the English on the Continent make long journeys to be present at an execution. Their passion accompanies them even across the Channel. Surely we do not envy their feelings in this respect!
    Newgate is a gloomy-looking, ancient building. It is the beau ideal of prison architecture, with hardly any windows, with here and there an empty niche, or some dilapidated carvings; all besides is gloomy, stony, and cold.
   Newgate has gone down in the world. In its early years it was devoted to the reception of persons of high rank; it has since submitted to the principle of legal equality, and rich and poor, high and low, pass through its gates to freedom or the scaffold. About three thousand prisoners are annually confined within its walls. The prison can accommodate five hundred at a time, and this number is usually found there immediately before the commencement of the sessions. But the sessions of the Central Criminal Court once over, Newgate is almost empty, for some of its inmates have been discharged from custody, while the majority of them have received their sentence and taken their departure for sundry houses of detention and correction. The prisoners in Newgate are at liberty to communicate with one another; they are not compelled to work.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

    When I told the clerk that I would take a turn in the air while I waited, he advised me to go round the corner and I should come into Smithfield. So I came into Smithfield, and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of St. Paul?s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles, and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on.
    While I looked about me here, an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice asked me if I would like to step in and hear a trial or so, informing me that he could give me a front place for half a crown, whence I should command a full view of the Lord Chief justice in his wig and robes?mentioning that awful personage like a waxwork, and presently offering him at the reduced price of eighteenpence. As I declined the proposal on the plea of an appointment, he was so good as to take me into a yard and show me where the gallows was kept, and also where people were publicly whipped. And then he showed me the Debtors? Door, out of which culprits came to be hanged, heightening the interest of that dreadful portal by giving me to understand that ?four on ?em? would come out at that door the day after tomorrow at eight in the morning, to be killed in a row. This was horrible, and gave me a sickening idea of London, the more so as the Lord Chief Justice?s proprietor wore (from his hat down to his boots and up again to his pocket handkerchief inclusive) mildewed clothes which had evidently not belonged to him originally, and which I took it into my head he had bought cheap of the executioner. Under these circumstances I thought myself well rid of him for a shilling.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

see also Thomas Archer in The Pauper, The Thief and The Convict - click here

Newgate,?A solid and gloomy building of granite, constructed, after the old style, with a single eye to the security of its prisoners. Improvements have been made of late in its sanitary arrangements, but modem requirements can never be satisfied in the present building. The present structure dates from 1782, having been attacked and partly burned by the Gordon rioters in 1780, whilst still incomplete. Shortly after, the execution of capital sentences, which till then had taken place at or in the immediate neighbourhood of Tyburn-gate, about fifty yards West of the present Marble Arch (see TYBURN-GATE), was transferred to the open space in front of Newgate, the scaffold being erected before the low door, called the Debtors-door, which may still be seen. Since 1868 executions have taken place within the prison. Only the officials and the representatives of the press are admitted, unless by special order. The prison itself may be seen by order from the House Secretary, the Lord Mayor, or one of the sheriffs. The nearest station is Holborn-viaduct, in direct communication with the L. C. & D. and the Metropolitan systems. All omnibuses between the Bank and the \Vest-end pass; those for the Holborn routes alone the north side of the prison itself, those via Fleet-street from Ludgate-hill at the south end of the Old Bailey, about 100 yards off. Blackfriars and St. Paul?s piers are each something less than half a mile distant.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

see also James Greenwood's The Wilds of London - click here

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - A Cell in Newgate Prison / The Galleries in Newgate

Newgate Prison - photograph


It was in 1858 that the interior of Newgate Prison was re-built, on the single- cell system. Near the window of the cell shown above are the water- tank and basin; and in the right-hand corner is the bedding, neatly rolled up; on the shelf are the prisoner's Bible, Prayer-book, plate, and mug, while in the foreground are his stool and the corner of the table.


Our view of the Galleries of the dismal prison in the Old Bailey is taken from the end of the second storey; and all around are the cells, of which we give a specimen on the other side of the page. The gaol will hold nearly two hundred prisoners ; and those detained here are either murderers awaiting execution, or persons committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Newgate Prison : The "Graveyard," looking towards the door leading to The Old Bailey

Newgate Prison - photograph


Only murderers whose crimes have been committed in the Metropolis area north of the Thames are executed at Newgate, whither they are removed after sentence in the adjoining Sessions House. Transpontine murderers are hanged at Wandsworth Gaol, unless otherwise ordered by the authorities. The "graveyard" at Newgate Prison is, as our picture shows, a very grim-looking burial place, which primarily serves the purpose of a passage from the gaol to the Old Bailey. Those who within the precincts of the prison have paid the extreme penalty of the law are buried under the flagstones, lime being enclosed in the coffins. On the walls on either side are the initial letters of the murderers' surnames, and by this means the places of burial are recorded, though neither dates nor names are now added.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 -  Newgate : the Central Courtyard

Newgate - photograph


In the Central Courtyard of Newgate Gaol, at which the public are here enabled to peep, the female prisoners are exercised, and upon it their cells look out. There are three exercise yards, separated from each other by high walls tipped with iron spikes. The windows of some of the male prisoners' cells may be seen to the left. The gate by which one of the warders is standing is part of the old gaol-the structure, as it stands at present, was rebuilt in 1858 - and through it pass the friends of the prisoners, who are allowed to converse with their visitors in what is called the visiting box.  Admittance to this Courtyard is gained through the old doorway familiar to all who pass along the Old Bailey.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 -  Newgate : the Chapel

Newgate - photograph


On either side of the pulpit in the chapel of grim Newgate Gaol sit the male prisoners, on the low forms behind the railings while the female prisoners occupy the gallery, shown in our picture. This gallery is so contrived that the women have an uninterrupted view of the preacher from between the tall, slanting boards, but cannot see their fellow-prisoners of the other sex. In the corner to the right of the preacher is a box reserved for the Governor of the Gaol, and the Chief Warder has a seat beneath. Between the stove and the reading-desk below the pulpit is the harmonium that leads the musical part of the service. The pulpit, it will be seen, faces the communion table.

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison - photograph


At the corner of Newgate Street and of the Old Bailey is the gloomy granite building which was once the chief prison in London, but is now, as has been mentioned before in these pages, used only for prisoners awaiting trial at the Central Criminal Court, and for those there condemned to death. The exterior of the gaol is little more than a hundred years old, the older gaol being burnt down in the Gordon riots of 1780, before the present building - the work of Dance, the architect of the Mansion House - was completed. It was out of old Newgate that Jack Sheppard broke. The name is derived from one of the City gates, the tower of which was the first of the prisons that have successively occupied this site. Our view is taken from Holborn Viaduct and the dome and towers of St. Paul's loom large against the sky.

To enter Newgate you went up four steps to a narrow door with two rows of iron teeth at the top. You pulled a bell. In the entrance hall was a desk, with a gas-jet burning near; a high-backed chair with green cushions. As you went along, each door was locked behind you; the consulting room (for solicitors) was at the end of the passage, and the interview room. A whipping-post and birch were at hand, and you were shown handcuffs and heavy ankle chains; and the axe made for the Cato Street conspirators. In the chapel, you noticed a grill on one side for the concealment of women prisoners; the inscription overhead was 'Dieu et mon Droit.'  In the burying passage, where the bodies of the hanged, set in lime, were put away, there stood initials on the wall.
    'That,' said the warder, pointing, 'is Milsom and Fowler, and that's Fougeron, and that's Mrs. Dyer, and that's the Flowery pirates, and—'
    In the condemned cell was the notice, 'God will Supply.'

W. Pett Ridge, A Story Teller : Forty Years in London, 1923