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.



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.

Victorian Prisons part 1

The riots across the country in August have given some differing reactions by those who were involved either defending or looting as to why they happened. Currently the police are looking like they are too be blamed…do the police make you turn on, steal, loot and destroy your own communities…we make our own decision on what we do and how we behave!

Anyway the riots have highlighted the ever growing prison population in this country and the large decent law abiding percentage of people are concerned about crime just as they were in the Victorian Era.

In 1840 20,000 offences were recorded and the Victorians very much like the man in street see value in punishment if you choose to commit a crime. The prisons that existed at the time were old, badly run and generally small affairs so ut was a time to change, build more and extend old ones. It had been easy enough to be sentenced to death by hanging but this was no longer the case.

It was clear in the Victorian Era that prison should not be a nice place to be and that they should be thoroughly unpleasant, the idea was to deter people from coming back, and  when imprisoned you were supposed to spend time reflection on the poor decisions that led to your current position in life.

This was helped along by the most tediously boring work such as the treadmill, Scrooge in the ever wonderful Christmas Carol mentions it here

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

The Treadmill

The treadmill William Cubitt came into existence in 1818 and was specifically intended to break the worst of prisoners including children. It is basically like a very large hamster wheel and could contain up to 40 prisoners at it’s largest.

The idea was that the monotony would allow you consider your life, heinous crimes and that you would reform and do anything to avoid the monotony of such a device and apparently it really was rather successful.

So you could spend all day (bar a 5 minute reprieve every 15 mins), either hours in silence walking nowhere!

According to the The Times in 1827 the amount prisoners walked per day on average varied, from 6,600 feet at Lewes to 17,000 feet in ten hours during the summertime at Warwick Jail.

Prisons in London

Newgate prison
Newgate Prison existed on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey for seven hundred years the first being built by Henry II in 1188.

The prison was destroyed and re-built several times but by 1783, it was London’s main prison and where prisoners were sent to hang being that the city’s gallows had been moved from Tyburn to Newgate Street 1868.

The disgraceful sight of public executions were discontinued and held instead inside the prison but the prison met it’s fate in 1904 and was demolished.

Marshalsea Prison
Marshalsea prison was known as a debtors prison and existed in Borough High Street for over five hundred years eventually closing in 1842. Charles Dickens father ended up in The Marshalsea in 1824 owing a debt of forty pounds and of course we also find it in Dickens great Novel Little Dorritt

The prison was run privately for profit but the Marshalsea apparently looked rather like an a rather well to do college.

For prisoners who could pay and bearing in mind this was a ‘debtors’ prison there was the luxury of a bar, a shop, and a restaurant the very odd privilege of being allowed out during the day to earn some money in with which to pay off your creditors.

However if you had no work or had no one to pay off your debt chances were you’d be in the one of the nine small rooms with many others and quite possibly for the rest of your life as your (even modest) unpaid debts remained unpaid and then unpaid prison fees simply accumulated. It was a never ending circle.

It was pulled down in the 1870’s but you can still see one of its walls and two original gate arches.

Clerkenwell Prison
Clerkenwell Jail, Clerkenwell House of Detention or Middlesex House of Detention (as it was known) was a large prison situated in (not surprisingly) Clerkenwell. It was built in 1794 had the reputation for the harshness of its punishments especially enforced silences and solitary confinement. It was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.