Newgate Prison

Newgate Prison closed in 1902.

It had been operating for about 700 years. It was notorious and had held some surprising criminals such as:

  • Daniel Defoe (Who wrote Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe
  • William Kidd (the pirate known as Captain Kidd)
  • Lord George Gordon – UK politician whom the Gordon Riots are named after
  • Sir Thomas Malory – highwayman, possible author of Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Catherine Murphy, an English counterfeiter who became the last woman to be officially executed by burning in England and Great Britain in 1789 – Ouch!

And many, many others. Reformer Elizabeth Fry had for some time been particularly concerned at the conditions in which female prisoners and their children were held (yes children went to prison or were born in prison and stayed with their parents). She presented credible evidence to the House of Commons and improvements were made. In 1858, the interior was rebuilt with individual cells.

A big draw for Newgate were public hangings (I can’t think of anything worse!) these were crowded affairs and many people would gather to see these criminals hang. In fact one of the great events in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign was a public hanging, a bit like a royal wedding in that the number of spectators might range anywhere from 20,000 up to 100,000, the number, according to The Times, attending Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool for the mutiple hanging of four men on 11 September 1863.

In amongst the mob one found many of the labouring classes; mill-hands, factory girls and women, bricklayer’s labourers and dock workmen, either hoping for some entertainment on their way to work or enjoying St. Monday. Women and children were frequent spectators and at the last public execution in England, The Times commented on the “blue velvet hats and huge white feathers which lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death.” At any execution one might see ragged children darting to and fro to “play their usual pranks at the foot of the gallows.”

For about 60% of offences punishable by the death sentence, the magistrates recorded that it had been carried out, then gave a less serious punishment. As the century went on, the number of people who were sentenced to be hanged decreased. Between 1801 and 1837, 13 executions took place in Bedford, but between 1838 and 1878 there were only 4. Despite this, between 1800 and 1900, of the 3524 people sentenced to hang in England and Wales, only 1353 were for murder.

From 1868, public executions were discontinued and executions were carried out on gallows inside Newgate. Michael Barrett was the last man to be hanged in public outside Newgate Prison (and the last person to be publicly executed in Great Britain) on 26 May 1868. In total (publicly or otherwise), 1,169 people were executed at the prison.

The Old Bailey now stands on the site of Newgate Prison.


Arsenic and the first known British serial killer

wp6c190ac5_05_06The rhyme goes:

“Mary Ann Cotton, She’s dead and she’s rotten!
She lies in her bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing! “Oh, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string.
Where, where? “Up in the air
Selling black puddings a penny a pair.”

Not the best way to be remembered!

Mary Ann Cotton was born in 1832 was probably the first known British serial killer she used poison and is suspected of murdering up to twenty-one people.

She married in 1852, aged 20, and had five children, four of whom died in infancy, a high rate of infant mortality even in the Victorian era. Mary frequently argued with her husband, who died suddenly in January 1865. A few months later she was married again this husband died in October 1865 from an unexplained illness.

Then a few months later in 1866, Mary’s mother died. She married again and became a mother to her current husband four children. Two suddenly died soon after he met Mary. This husband became suspicious of Mary who was now pestering him to take out life insurance, like her other husbands. He wouldn’t and she left.

In 1870 Mary had married yet again. One Frederick Cotton even though she had yet to divorce her last husband. She had a son but strangely Frederick’s sister, two sons from his previous marriage and a number of friends died after sudden illnesses that appeared to follow Mary around. Then Frederick died in December 1871 as did Fredericks son. However Mary remarried yet again and yes her new husband quickly died after a short illness.

Then In the spring of 1872, one of Mary Cotton’s few surviving stepchildren, Charles Cotton died suddenly, this was bizarre and word got out about people dropping like flies.

Thomas Riley, a minor government official found this to be very suspicious and Mary had tried to collect on the life insurance she had taken out on Charles Cotton’s life, but the insurance company refused to pay until the body of the deceased had been investigated more thoroughly.

article-2096423-11963BE0000005DC-719_634x455Charles Cotton’s remains were exhumed and a significant trace of arsenic was found in the deceased’s stomach. Mary Cotton was eventually tried for the murder of Charles Cotton, her final victim. She was convicted and sentenced to death.

On March 24, 1873, Mary Cotton was hanged. The execution was botched with Mary failing to die from the initial drop after the gallow’s trapdoor opened. Instead, she slowly choked to death as she dangled on the end of the noose.

…But who was Jack?

ripperWell we don’t know whether it just one person or maybe even two?

Mei Trow believes it to be Robert Mann, a morgue attendant. Trow has used up to date CSI forensic techniques as well as current psychological profiling and also geographical profiling.

In 1988 the FBI took an examination of the Ripper case which led to an apparently rather comprehensive criminal personality profile:

This profile described the killer as lower class white man probably the product of a broken home, he had a menial job and would’ve had some anatomical knowledge. Maybe a butcher, mortuary assistant or possibly a hospital porter and because of the solitude of his job he may well of found it difficult to interact with others and could’ve been rather socially inept, possibly somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Mann who I have never heard of was generally fatherless and spent much of his time a child in a workhouse, but then again that could describe many, many poor people.

“I wanted to go beyond the myth of a caped man with a top hat and knife, and get to the reality, and the reality is simply that Jack was an ordinary man.” states Trow.

He also believes that Martha Tabram was stabbed to death in Gunthorpe Street may well have been his first and an Alice Mackenzie may have been his last.

In terms of psychological profiling, Robert Mann is the one of the most credible suspects from recent years and the closest we may ever get to a plausible psychological explanation for these most infamous of Victorian murders.” explains Professor Laurence Alison, Forensic Psychologist from Liverpool University.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that with more than 100 suspects over the years, Robert Mann will be another identity to add to the been proposed one over the years.

It is a fascinating mystery but one we probably never get to the bottom of!

Jacks back!


It’s been some 125 year since Jack the Ripper and now a team of historians are bringing the killings into the 21st century to mark the anniversary of the Ripper’s murders.

Of course we still hve no idea who murdered at least five women and possibly more on

the streets of Whitechapel at tail end of the 19th century, now with twitter you too can relive the events and horror of the time through the @WChapelRealTime account. This went live live today and will give real-time updates for four months which covers the time of the murders in foggy East End in 1888.

Steven Halliday who is a ripper historian or ‘ripperologist’ as some may call him is the man behind the project.

He says “Jack the Ripper attracted more attention than any other criminal before that time. His crimes were so gruesome he disembodied his victims. But he was also never caught.His antics were horrific and a microcosm of the horrors of Victorian London. It was a lawless place, with great division in society.”

The tweets are quite raw and very detailed but may well make fascinating reading. Historian Jamie Wolfendale added ‘Social media is what young people use nowadays. We hope this will engage them in history more’ which is a fine sentiment if you ask me

Donkey rustling!

Here’s an unusual crime for you.

An 18 year old George Pill was found guilty in1894 and was given a six-week sentence as punishment, why you would want to steal a donkey…well that’s anyone’s guess!

The details of a man who was given hard labour for stealing a donkey in Dorset are among 67,000 Victorian criminal records about to go on-line at the Dorset History Centre which has just started digitising its archive.

This is good news for us as the latest collection to go on-line includes the county’s prison registers from 1782-1901 and 1854-1904 which will be fascinating reading.

Other crimes that are reported seem quite familiar, there was:

Charles Wood, an unemployed local drunk who found himself locked up for a month in 1872 for “refusing to quit the beer-house”.

Samuel Baker, 73, was sentenced to nine months hard labour after breaking into a house to steal two brushes, some vests and a pair of stockings in 1893.

James Seal was found guilty of “the wilful murder of Sarah Ann Guppy”…he was hanged.

William Parsons got 20 years in prison in 1891 for “maliciously and feloniously” setting fire to a neighbour’s barn.

The records include the criminal’s name, place and date of conviction, sentence, physical description and details of previous crimes.

The records have been digitized in partnership with which charges for access, but you can see them for free using the public computers at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester.

The Marshalsea Debtors Prison

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I had a day in London with some friends yesterday and as is my want decided to go and check out the remains of The Marshalsea debtors prison.

The Marshalsea stood on the south bank of Thames in Southwark for a good three hundred years or so.

It was built to house men who had been court marshalled for crimes at sea. Also men who were accused of unnatural crimes which would’ve been homosexuals and those who had sex with animals . There would politicals  and intellectuals accused of sedition and London’s debtors.

These would be a Tory dream if they were around today. The Marshalsea was run for profit, if you had the money there was a bar, a shop and even a restaurant and of course you were allowed out during the day to earn the money to pay your debts, to get a good idea of how this works watch BBC’s Little Dorritt.

Unfortunately a small debt could land you in the prison for decades as it was the creditors who decided your fate. But it was John Dickens, Charles Dickens father who was sent there in 1824 for a debt to a baker which forced to leave school at the age of 12 for a hideous blacking job in a factory and here are the remains of the prison.

Prostitution and causes 1858

Sadly prostitution is still here in the 21st century and no matter how many laws that are thrown at it this terrible trade in bodies remains.

I have never been to prostitute and have always remined adamant that I would never will…I would rather have no sex than pay for it as I have no wish to perpetuate this most distasteful business, but I do know just one person who has paid for sex on a fairly regular basis. He doesn’t have two heads, nor does he smell or anything out of the ordinary…he is just shy and awkward when it comes to the fairer sex, paying for sex is a business transaction and is viewed by him as quite different from sex with a girlfriend or spouse and so it goes on.

Last best guess  back in 2009 was that there were 100,000 prostitutes in the United Kingdom which should really be of concern to all of us as it was back in the Victorian Era.

In 1859 James Miller FRSE, FRCSE (Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) published a book about prostitution, it’s causes and cure.

His best guess back then was that there was between 8000 to 80,000 prostitutes in London alone although that figure was more likely to have been around 10,000.

The sum is a terrible one, pregnant of vast results in debauchery, disease, and death to individuals—of degradation and danger to the community at large. Let any one walk certain streets of London, Glasgow, or Edinburgh, of a night, and, without troubling his head with statistics, his eyes and ears will tell him at once what a multitudinous amazonian army thedevil keeps in constant field service, for advancing his own ends. The stones seem alive with lust, and the very atmosphere is tainted.

According to Miller thereare several reasons why prostitution is such a problem and the number one issue is:

An abundant cause of prostitution, in the lower ranks, is the force of early habits and education—education, not in knowledge, but in vice and crime. Children are born to unchastity. Their parents are the offscourings of the earth: the first words a daughter hears are those of cursing and blasphemy; the only example her childhood sees is that of obscenity and vice; such youth is an apt learner; and, at the age of ten or twelve, she may be both a prostitute and a thief—her lapsed state having proved rather a simple progress than a fall.

Followed very closers by:

A more painful, and perhaps equally prolific cause, is poverty. Look to the female operatives in large towns—the sewing girls, milliners, factory workers, etc. It is generally understood, so as to be quite proverbial, that out of these the ranks of the fallen are mainly recruited. How? In some cases, no doubt, from the cause previously stated—evil and early associations; in some, also, from vanity, imprudent acquaintanceships, intemperance, etc.; but, in a very large number, from sheer want.

Poverty and a lack of education…funny isn’t that the reason given for the riots last year?

Henry Mayhew in his book London Labour and the London Poor quotes one poor girl:

“I struggled very hard to keep myself chaste,but I found that I could not get food and clothing for myself and mother, so I took to live with a young man. He said he’d make me his lawful wife, but I hardly cared so long as I could get food for myself and mother . .

Quite simply if you were poor you could not earn enough to live on. Another mother:

“I earn clear just about 3 shillings. At times I was so badly off, me and my boy, that I was forced to resort to prostitution to keep us from starving. I do the best I can with what little money I earn and the rest I am obligated to go to the streets for. I can’t get a rag to wear without flying to prostitution for it. My wages will hardly find me in food. Indeed, I eat more than I earn.”

Within poverty was what Miller called ‘a sense of decency’ with whole families, lodgers and even newly married couples living in the same room.

Another reason was alcohol:

“A woman that drinks will do anything,” is too true a proverb; and its interpretation is easy”

It was a vicious circle for many women who drank because their lives were so wretched, they turned to selling their bodies to pay for alcohol and carried the guilt of prostitution which they would try and drink away..and the circle only ceased when the woman was dead.

Miller also claims that:

First and foremost stands irreligion—prolific parent of every vice and crime. Without its restraining power in the heart, the creature is impelled to all sensual indulgence without let or hindrance.

A lack of faith? Maybe but as far as I was aware all are ‘sinners’ and all sin treated as equal!

His final cause is a:

“slackness of our civic rule in permitting prostitution, brazen-faced and open-handed, to prowl upon our streets for prey. The thief is dogged anxiously by the detective, and even mere suspicion of his craft is sufficient for arrest; but the prostitute, though such by habit and repute, and seen in the act of ensnaring the silly one, is left undisturbed in her vocation.”

Not policed enough, many prostitutes were a simply allowed to go about there business.

So what were the solutions that Miller put forward? His remedies for prostitution are as follows:

We would continue and greatly increase the efforts made for elevating the masses. Education must be sown far more broadcast than it is; and with it religion, as the true fertilising and fructifying power. Secular and religious teaching must go hand in hand. Let these run to and fro together over all our borders; then true knowledge shall be increased; and then, too, as already stated, we may look for prevalence of self-respect and self-control.

Education, education, education…sounds somewhat familiar part of today’s political landscape in the UK.

Accommodation was also at the top of the agenda:

Better houses must be provided for the working-men and women, in both town and country, but specially in the former. Oh, that some magic power were given to the monied and respectable classes, so that they might have but one brief comprehensive glimpse of all the frightful orgies that are transacted, night after night, in the squalid lairs of the sunken and depraved!

and the country did eventually make some headway with housing although we are once on the brink. Instil some morals and values into the those scrounging, idle parents and thus there parents:

Let every means be used to restore vicious and idle parents to habits of industry, and virtue, and honesty. And into the children let us ingraft right principles, so that they may grow up, at least in the knowledge of right and wrong, and with a consciousness on the part of the female, that she carries a priceless jewel in her honour— however plain her person—however humble her rank may be—which, without deepest shame and detriment, she dare not give away.

A ban on alcohol:

The masses will not be elevated, unless along with many other changes intemperance be put away; and this demands special opposition, as we have seen. Were the disuse of alcoholic drinks, except under medical requirement, to become general, in six months we should be rid of prostitution by at least a half.

It’s amazing how much this is starting to sounds like a political broadcast for our current masters in government…my how thing don’t change!

The question of womens pay which was eventually adressed some 120 years later and yet even today women in the UK earn 10% less than men

In this country, the whole question of female labour and wages stands urgently in need of revision. It is a shame that in these enlightened days, honest, industrious, able-bodied women, labouring with painful industry from morning to night, or oft-times far into night, cannot make a living; and may, from this cause alone, be driven into vice and self-debasement.

Clearly there were some who were mentally ill and lived on the streets very much like today although this is not mentioned by Miller. He does go on to say that the moral tone of general society must be raised and with the Penny Dreadfuls, Penny Gaffes, lack of education and extreme poverty that is really par for the course…mind you it probably wouldn’t do our society to raise the bar a bit whne you look at the awful celebrity culture that has risen up in the last 20 years.

And of course Miller is not in favour of regulation of prostitution but of the full repression of so that it is removed from the streets altogether…and I for one can only agree with him.