Friday, June 10, 2016

Newgate Gaol - a place to avoid

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

Imprisonment was a very different matter in the medieval period when Newgate Gaol was first in operation. Few if any convicted of some criminal offence, were actually sentenced to gaol.

Newgate Gaol - and yes, it was a gate!
Gaol served to house anyone after arrest until they could be brought to trial. After conviction, the result was either release, death by execution, usually beheading, hanging, or hanging and quartering, sometime in the stocks, or some other form of punishment. Gaol was not considered a punishment. It was, however, one of the most vile experiences in those days and the overcrowded prisons often caused death long before the trial could take place.

Many buildings contained dungeons or cells to house prisoners, including monasteries and palaces. The greatest royal palace of medieval times was the Tower of London, from which all kings rode to their coronations. The royal apartments there were sumptuous and beautiful. This was no prison and the dungeons were small and rarely used until the Tudor era changed it all.

Torture had been illegal in England, but during the Tudor dynasty torture was increasingly permitted for crimes of heresy and treason. The Tower of London gradually became known as a gaol of the upper classes, but Newgate was still very much in use, known as the most important and notorious gaol in London.

It was indeed a gate – although no longer new by then. The gate itself was one of the principal western entrances into the city through the great Roman wall which surrounded and protected it. The gate first stood within the tall building with portcullis and a door which would be locked overnight. Another building was constructed alongside, and this became the principal prison. Upper cells were kept for the rich or important who could pay for superior accommodation and comfort including better food, and probably a better bed.  But lower down, partially below ground, was one huge chamber, and here the mass of criminal society was thrown, often chained and shackled, and there largely left to their own devices until death, or trial was called, whichever came first. This could be comparatively quick – or could take months, but usually only days or weeks. However, men and women were not segregated and fights could be vicious. Gaol fever was rife, rape, hunger and accidents killed many. Food was supplied, but only water (usually from the nearby highly polluted Thames), light ale and black bread. Even this insufficient fare could be stolen from those inmates who could not defend themselves against the stronger men prepared to fight for a larger share.

This communal hell-hole was known as the Limboes, and was one of the most terrible places in London. To be innocent, and thrown here, must have seemed like the end of the world.

Once taken before a judge, a prisoner’s fate would be decided and it would be unlikely to include a return to gaol. Those declared guilty of a serious crime would be taken off for execution at Tyburn. Beheading was for the nobility and they were rarely thrown into Newgate. Debtors were sometimes kept in prison until they could discharge their debt, but paying off large sums while incarcerated was not an easy task. Borrowing or thieving was the usual business. In later years after the prison had been transferred to far larger premises, many executions took place at Newgate itself.

Within the Limboes there was certainly no privacy and prisoner necessity was served by a central gutter where water often ran. Here was the only place to cough or vomit, also serving as the only latrine. Dick Whittington, a 15th century Lord Mayor of London (whether he had a cat, I’m not too sure) was concerned about the appalling conditions and dreadful over-crowding at Newgate, and he paid for and ordered enlargements and improvements. But sadly, the inhabitants soon increased further, and the over-crowding was repeated, quickly filling every new built space. It was said that those passing the gaol would have to hold their noses for the smell was so terrible it escaped the confines of the walls themselves.

The building was destroyed in the great fire of London in 1666 and rebuilt in 1672, in ever larger quarters as the prison populations grew. Greater space, however, did not include any measure of comfort, Disease and violence continued to kill many before they ever reached trial, and naturally a measure of criminal behaviour escalated amongst the criminals themselves. Nor were the gaolers known to be particularly honest, and for most of the gaol’s existence both in its early days and later when it spread into far larger quarters, they offered little in the way of comfort or protection to the inmates. The general attitude of those in authority was that the criminal element deserved no better, and certainly no public money should be spent on improving their lives in custody.

Typhus, (not typhoid, which is a separate disease) otherwise known as Gaol Fever, was a growing concern, however. For most of the years that Newgate Gaol stood, no one knew what caused this terrible disease. The usual symptoms of headache, fever and general malaise would grow over several days leading up to the appearance of a severe rash which becomes painful as it covers the entire body. More severe symptoms lead to death in more than half of all cases. This is a lice borne disease and naturally over-crowding, especially in dark confined spaces, exacerbates the risk. In some outbreaks, hundreds of prisoners could die, falling into the general heaps of uncared-for humanity. An investigation in the mid 1500s proclaimed that over 300 souls had died in prison of this vile illness. Lice were common in everyday life, and even more so in gaols where there was absolutely no facility for personal washing.

A hanging outside Newgate
Set up in 1188, the gaol continued until 1902, but once past medieval times the prison had expanded and moved from its original site, keeping the same name but in completely new and much larger premises. At first the appalling standards continued, but they did gradually improve as differing ideas were explored as to prisoner rehabilitation. Certainly a man with money for both legal payment and illegal bribery, could live a comparatively comfortable life in prison for some months, accompanied by family, pets, his own comfy bed, good food, plenty of alcohol and entertaining visitors. whereas the poor were still ill-treated.

Thus the name of Newgate spells misery, injustice, and even cruelty. The conditions of modern prisons bear no relation at all to previous situations, even as recently as the 20th century. But then, these days public opinion appears to criticise the present system as being too lenient!

All images are in the public domain.


Barbara Gaskell Denvil was born in Gloucestershire, England and later moved to London where she grew up surrounded by books, paintings and antiques. Her Scottish father was an artist and playwright, her Australian mother was a teacher, and elder sister, a successful author first published at age 16. The classic Victorian author Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell was a great, great, great aunt, so a bookish family. When birthdays came around, no one was asked what they wanted. As a child she never owned a bike or scooter, the question was simply, "Which book do you want this year?"

Her passion is for late English medieval history and this forms the background for many of her historical novels. She also write fantasy, yet both fantasy and historical fiction take us into new worlds and Barbara's books do exactly this - being multi-layered, and rich in atmosphere and depth of characterisation. Barbara can be found on her website and on Amazon


  1. I've always had a strange fascination with the history of gaols. Not that I ever wanted to enjoy their hospitality. Wonderful history of the the most infamous of them all.

  2. London supposedly had more prisons (14) than any other European capital, at least during the Tudor era...

  3. With conditions like that, the prisoners who were quickly executed were the lucky ones!


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