Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Newgate Prison

by Evelyn Tidman

Newgate prison, which stood on the site of or close to the Old Bailey in London, has to be the most notorious prison in the history of Britain.

From the twelfth to the twentieth century, thousands of people passed through its terrible portals: common thieves, highwaymen, murderers and political prisoners. A large number of convicted inmates were taken to Tyburn (now at Marble Arch, London) or Smithfield and executed, by hanging or by being hanged drawn and quartered. During the religious zeal of the Tudors some unfortunates were taken to nearby Smithfield and burnt at the stake. During the English Civil War (1642-48) royalists, or those whom Parliament decided were spies or traitors to their cause, were housed there before trial at the Guildhall and execution. Convicted criminals not executed would likely die in Newgate of prison fever, or typhus as we now know it.

But what was Newgate really like?

Historians differ as to the term ‘New Gate’. In Roman times there were six gates leading into London: Aldgate to the east giving access to the roads to Colchester, Bishopsgate to the north giving access to Ermine Street. Aldersgate also gave access north to Watling Street and Cripplegate also opened north. Ludgate (allegedly founded by the mythical King Lud) opened eastwards, while Newgate opened west to important towns such as Silchester, Cirencester and Bath, and also aligned with Watling Street. It is thought there was also a gate known as the postern gate north of the present tower of London, and southwards there was a gate onto London Bridge known as Bridgegate. Other gates were added during Saxon times, Dowgate, Billingsgate, and Moorgate.

The Old Original Gate
Gates into towns were more than just a gate in the sense that we think of a garden gate. Complete with portcullis, they were large buildings with rooms over the gate itself and also to the sides. Often felons were housed in the lower rooms, making them also prisons. Over the years, of course, Newgate prison became too small for this purpose, and extensions were added. At the end of the twelfth century, a gaol was built on Newgate’s site.

Soon the prison became notorious for filthy, depraved living conditions. Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London (of pantomime fame) was so concerned that in his will he left money to build a new prison on the site. Accordingly, in 1423 the new Whittington Gaol or ‘The Whit’ as it became popularly known, measuring 85ft by 50 ft and five storeys high opened for business. A statue of Whittington and his famous cat adorned the façade of the new gaol, commemorating Whittington’s generosity.

Old Newgate Prison

What was it like in Newgate prison or ‘the Whit?’

Surprisingly one entered Newgate through the gate itself. Outside it had had an impression of dirty faded grandeur, with walls and mullioned windows embellished with sculpted ornamentation. It even had a permanently raised portcullis.

An new inmate would be taken immediately to the Lodge which was the general clearing house for new inmates, where the ‘gaolers’ were other inmates of both sexes, some under the sentence of death who had managed to put off the day of their execution by working as gaolers. The place reeked like a privy, and added to it the perfume of mouldy straw and unwashed humanity, vomit and damp.

‘A drink to your health, sir,’ meant that a prisoner who had any money was to buy everyone in the Lodge a drink. Alcohol was plentiful to those with money, and extorted from them by those without. If a newcomer did not pay up, he would be stripped of his clothing and his money stolen. They called it ‘chummage’.

Leg-irons were fastened on before the hapless new prisoner was conducted to the Condemned Hold, the source of the ever-present stench. Every rich newcomer spent the night there. Situated between the top and the bottom of the arch in the gate, it was a dark room, only a small glassless window letting in light or air. Wooden benches against the damp walls had to serve as beds and seats and tables. An open sewer ran down the middle of the room and emptied outside somewhere. There was no fire. Staples embedded in the stone floor chained down some unruly prisoners so that they could not move.

Half-demented by terror and the conditions, diseased, and dying, the thirty or more people of both sexes occupying this room waited for their turn to be hanged. Here in the Condemned Hold the new inmates were initiated into the terrors that awaited them.

While there, however, a person of means could purchase damp straw to lie on, which might insulate him from the cold stone floor, and he could purchase a candle. But the rats would eat the candle before he could actually benefit from the light. No food was provided in the Condemned Hold. After a night there the hapless newcomer would do anything to get out.

A Cell Door
When the new prisoner had spent a no doubt sleepless night in the Condemned Hold, he would be told that a great mistake had happened, that he should never have been put in there, and then he would be taken back to the Lodge where he again funded the gaolers to drink and could also purchase food. Here he would be offered different, private accommodation, for which he must pay twenty guineas (or twenty-one pounds), an extortionate amount of money, the price of a modest house in the city, and eleven shillings a week thereafter. Probably no-one refused!

Now, well-heeled persons could live in relative luxury with his chains removed, either in a shared cell or in a private room with a bed with blankets and sheets and a flock mattress, table and chair, and a fire. Of course the firewood came at a price as did everything else. There was even a taproom, where prisoners in that wing could buy drink and food. During the civil war, political prisoners would be held in a wing all to themselves until their trial.

If a person were condemned to death, a chaplain or ‘ordinary’ would preach a ‘condemned sermon’ the night before in the chapel, the condemned attending, an open coffin in place for the occasion. The chaplain would then write an account, preferably with a last-minute confession from the condemned—even better if it were on the scaffold—which would be included in the Newgate Calendar and sold to the people on the execution route to Tyburn.

In 1783 executions were transferred to Newgate itself, a scaffold being erected outside the gaol’s debtor’s door. Later executions were moved inside the gaol.

In 1666 the prison was destroyed by the Great Fire of London, and was rebuilt. The new one fell into disrepair and was in the process of being rebuilt again when during the Gordon Riots of 1780 it was destroyed again.

George Dance the younger built a new one in 1785 but in 1902 it was demolished and the Central Criminal Court also known as the Old Bailey was built on the site.


Evelyn Tidman's new book For the King, to be released in the spring, is about the English Civil War, and the main character spends time in Newgate prison.

Her other books include Gentleman of Fortune, a swashbuckling adventure about the eighteenth century pirate Bartholomew Roberts, and One Small Candle, the story of William Bradford and the Pilgrim Fathers.

Her books are available on Amazon, both in print and for Kindle at http://amzn.to/ZhCAE3 for the UK and http://amzn.to/ZWygLn for the US.


  1. Excellent. Very informative and interesting. Really enjoyed it

  2. Loved this - nowt like a bit of disease and gruesome stuff on Boxing Day morning!

  3. Thought I had it hard until I read this! Really captures the period & should make modern day prisoners feel cosseted in comparison! Fascinating!

  4. My WIP has the hero incarcerated in Newgate so this was a very timely read -thank you!
    G x

  5. I enjoyed that so much I became too involved with the setting and developed prison pallor! Could have been worse I suppose...:) ..Excellent read!!

    1. Thank you Lynn. Most people who were guests in Newgate developed more than just prison pallor!

  6. So cool! Love this post! I visited Jedburgh gaol in Scotland, and it was the creepiest place I saw in three weeks of castle crawling!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.