Eighteenth Century London: Newgate: London's Emblem of Hell

Eighteenth Century London: Newgate: London's Emblem of Hell

Newgate –
London’s emblem of Hell


The history of any prison follows closely the history of a country. One factor, human wickedness, remaining the same, the determination of what are the degrees of crimes committed against a society, with methods of punishment, reflect the civilization a State possesses.1

West View of Newgate by George Shepherd (1784-1862)
Image 1: West View of Newgate by George Shepherd (1784-1862)

The principal prison for holding serious crimes in the metropolis was Newgate, next to the Old Bailey Session Houses. “The name alone once carried a charge strong enough to turn any law-breaker’s nerve.”2 Newgate prison stands characteristically for the worst excesses of the days of Bloody Code, the cruel penal system of the eighteenth century. In order to examine this claim, I will give a closer description of the history of the prison, the everyday life in prison and the legal system in eighteenth-century London.


During its long history there were five separate prisons at Newgate. The first one, added as a gate to the principal entrance to the city, itself a gateway in London’s original Roman Wall (through which travellers were admitted), was built by order to Henry II in 1188, the “father of the English legal system” and hence was called “the new gate". Significant enlargements took place in the 1230s, but nevertheless the prison had been in great despair until the fifteenth century. The contemporary major of London, Richard Whittington3 rebuilt it, but did not solve the problems of overcrowding completely. One model of facing the challenge of overcrowded prisons was given by Charles’s I, “early release scheme” whereby prisoners could be freed provided that they enlisted in the army or navy.

However, Whittington's prison survived until the Great Fire of London in 1666. The reconstruction afterwards included an extension with new buildings. Still facing the problem of disrepair, the fourth Newgate only enjoyed a short existence until it was destroyed and burnt down in the Gordon Riots, an uprising of anti-Catholic rioters, named after a famous prisoner of Newgate, Lord George Gordon. During the fire of the Gordon Riots many prisoners died and approximately three hundred were able to escape. The succeeding fifth Newgate prison was designed in a style called “architecture terrible” to discourage crime and law-breaking only by looking at the building itself. Interestingly, the new building was divided into two sections: a common area for poor prisoners and a state area for prisoners who could afford a more comfortable imprisonment. Each section was further subdivided into spaces for felons and debtors. Consequently, Newgate became a debtor’s prison. This model of prison lasted until its demolishing in 1902. It was teared down in order to enlarge the Session Houses of the courts of the Old Bailey.

A Dismal Place

[...] ‘tis impossible to describe the terror of my mind, when I was first brought in, and when I looked round upon all the horrors of the dismal place: [...] the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd affliction things I saw there, joint together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of entrance into it.4

This passage of Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders” (1722) in fact gives a representative picture of the contemporary imprisonment in Newgate. The prison actually was an unhealthy place, which physicians partially refused to visit. It is said that people passing by the gaol held their nose and that some shopkeepers nearby had to close their stores for the summer, because of the incredible stench. Due to a constant lack of water, light and fresh air numerous diseases arose.

The atmosphere within the prison must actually have been really depressing; there are contemporary voices, which describe Newgate as the “misery of London”, wherein “unhappy beings immured in dismal cells”, waiting for “their career” to be “terminating in a violent, shameful death”.5 The ambience within the chapel of the prison must have been even worse. Spending the last hours of life on one of the “condemned pews”, prisoners who were to be executed the following day, were singled out, sitting on a reading desk with their own coffin upon the seat by their side, attending the mess in sight for all fellow inmates.

The Prison from the Inside

During the eighteenth century the only duties the government had to fulfil, was to defend the kingdom and to administer the monarch’s court. Significant domestic issues such as health care, transport, education, and the running of prisons were matters left to private enterprises. Governors often referred to as “keepers” or “gaolers” bought the right to run a prison by paying a large amount of money to the government.6 To recover those investments gaolers imposed exactions and fees from the prisoners for nearly everything belonging to the everyday life in prison. The requested goods had been basic consumer commodities like food, bedding, and clothes or more exclusive services like beer, salubrious accommodations or prostitutes. It is said that some of the wealthiest prisoners were accommodated in the keeper’s own houses.

Newgate - cell and galleries Image 2: Newgate - cell and galleries


Any time spent in prison was paid by the prisoners, bedding and clothing had to be purchased from the keepers. Prisoners, even those who were imprisoned as debtors, had to pay fees for admission and departure. The so called “garnish” entrance fee had to be paid at the prisoner’s arrival. Those who were not able to pay it had to surrender their clothes. Thus the profession of a keeper was really lucrative. Even blackmailing by the keepers was very common. For example did the gaolers receive gifts or bribes from the prisoners to spare them exceedingly torturous ways of death. The tradition of prisoner’s self-management led to corruption among the inmates as well.

A debtor’s prison

In addition to male and female felons, who were generally kept in irons, there were male and female debtors. Both sections, as we had found out before, were divided into master areas, for prisoners who were able to pay for their accommodation, and a common side, for poor inmates, which were appropriate paradigms for the unhealthy, dismal conditions described above.

Imprisonments run from private cells with cleaning women and visiting prostitutes to lying on the floor with no cover and barely any clothes. To sum it up, the conditions of imprisonment were highly depend on the financial situation of the prisoner. Due to this poor conditions only a quarter of the prisoners survived until their execution day, because of the unhygienic environment, which caused infectious diseases like typhus. This so called “gaol fever” spread throughout the prison by lice or flees. There is much said to be for the fact that diseases killed far more people than executions, which were extraordinarily popular throughout the eighteenth century.

Processions – Public Executions

After a prisoner was found guilty at the Session Houses of the Old Bailey the journey from Newgate to the gallows of Tyburn began. Followed by the bells of St. Selpulchre church8 the so called processions customarily started out on Mondays where many people had time to watch. Placed in a horse cart, with tied hands and sometimes even seated on their own coffins, condemned prisoners were commonly dressed in their best clothes in order to die like gentlemen; this circumstance shows the crucial influence of fashion and consumerism in the eighteenth century. Clothes was not only a good of need, it was a good of fashion and a tool for self-expression.

Most of the condemned prisoners had prepared gallow speeches before they took their last journey. Because of the immense crowds watching, the two mile long ride to Tyburn took up to three hours. Along the route many people were trying to catch a glimpse of the condemned, girls were blowing kisses, people were throwing food, excrements, cheering, and jeering. However, nobody was allowed to be too close to the carts in order to prevent attempts to rescue prisoners.

A last Drink

While they were carried, prisoners had the chance to stop by and have some bottles of beer. The procession stopped at numerous taverns on the route through Tyburn Road9, a very lively road in the eighteenth century, full of salesmen, shoppers and passengers. At their final stops prisoners were drinking a lot of alcohol, mainly brandy and beer; some were even joking. “I’ll pay you a pint on my way back!” was a popular gag. Some prisoners were even too drunk to reach Tyburn awake.

Public Gathering

The crowd standing around applauded the jesting prisoners and followed the spectacle amused. Tyburn Tree was said to be one of the biggest tourist attractions on Saint Monday. Among the enormous crowds there were hawkers selling food and women selling printed versions of the death speeches. The galleries at Tyburn were full of people, having paid to see the executions; the most expensive seats were those, in which one could hear the speeches, the crying and screaming of the condemned prisoners. Sometime there were approximately 30,000 people watching and mocking at an execution.

Tyburn Tree Image 3: Tynburn Tree

During the actual hanging the prisoners were blindfolded. An ordinary stand by to pray for the condemned souls, before they died of strangulation or a broken neck, which could take up to forty-five minutes. Some prisoners were pulled by relatives or friends in order to put them out of misery more quickly. After the give-away sign of urine running down the dead body’s leg, the crowd hushed and went home. It is estimated that between 1571 and 1783 about 1100 men and 100 women died this way. Most dead bodies were taken back to Newgate in security in order to be passed to the College of Surgeons or London’s teaching hospitals for dissections and research. Relatives or friends who wanted to spare this sort of indignity had to pay money to be allowed to bury the corpses.

All in all the executions were intended to draw spectators; consequently, the executions were removed to a scaffold outside Newgate in 1783, because of public concern about disorder coming from the processions. The public executions were barbarous, frightful and degrading, even for numerous people of the watching crowd.

The Bloody Code

There are no reliable numbers of hanged people in the eighteenth century, but the legal system of the time, referred to as the “Bloody Code” has been really remorseless and declared over two hundred felonies subjects to the death penalty. Accordingly not only capital crimes like murder, rape, arson or treason were punished by death, even felonies like animal theft, burglary, robbery or bizarre crimes like damaging the Westminster Bridge were included. Reforms against this draconian legal system did not apply until the 1860s, when Sir Robert Peel, a Home Secretary, removed death penalty from many crimes.

The Newgate Calendar

Besides the “morbid ritual of public executions”10, which attracted huge numbers of people, punishments like whipping, pillorying, thumbs tying, or body pressing also took place in public. Another characteristic feature for the passion for voyeuristic entertainment was the publishing of the Newgate Calendar: Ordinaries, who offered spiritual care to prisoners who were condemned to death, had also the right to publish an account of the stories of prisoner’s lives, their behaviour at the scaffold, stories of their crimes, or their last dying speeches. About four hundred editions of the Newgate Calendar with about 2,500 biographies were printed and published. Those accounts served also the purpose of demonstrating the prize of sins.

Rituals of Punishment

The rituals of punishment mainly served the purpose of deterrence; criminals were punished publicly in order to have a negative effect on the witnesses. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century pillory became the centre of this penal system. But there were also possibilities to avoid hard sentences. Women had the possibility to “plea their belly”, which mainly meant, that pregnant women could not be executed until their child was born. Another possibility to escape the gallows was to plea “benefit of clergy”, by which many prisoners fell on their knees and quoted significant extracts from the bible. A by-standing ordinary then decided whether the condemned could be spared or not. The last and most common way to avoid execution was to be transported to North America.


Compared to other European cities, London was the capital with the greatest number of prisons. The largest, most notorious and worst was the constantly overcrowded Newgate. As the examination of the penal system, the contemporary society and the everyday life of prison shows, Newgate was a place of cruelty and wretchedness. It is nowadays seen as a legendary place and has been inspiration of more poems, plays and novels than any other building in London.11


1 Alan DugaldMcKillop, The New York Times; published May 4, 1884
2 Carver, Stephen: Newgate Prison in: The Literary Encyclopedia
[found on http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=772]
3 1354–1423
4 Defoe, Daniel: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders. (London 1994), 300.
5 Dickens, Charles: Sketchs by Boz (1826)
[found on http://www.victorianlondon.org/prisons/newgate.htm]
6 estimations talk of amounts of about £ 5000
7 which is the Constitutional Court since 1902
8 on the opposite street of Newgate
9 which is today famously known as Oxford Street
10 Babington, Anthony: A history of Newgate Gaol and Prison Conditions in Britain 1188 – 1902 (London: 1971), 29
11 Halliday, Stephen: Newgate. London’s Prototype of Hell (London: 2009)



Babington, Anthony: A History of Newgate Gaol and Prison. Conditions in Britain 1188-1902. (London: 1971).

Doefoe, Daniel: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the famous Moll Flander., ed. Pinguin Popular Classics (London 1994).

Gay, John: The Beggar’s Opera, Introduction ed. Bryan Loughrey, T.O. Treadwell. (London: 1986), 7-31.

Shoemaker, Robert B.: The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England. (London: 2004)

McLynn, Frank J.: Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth-century England. (Oxford:1991).

Internet Pages

(Date: November 18, 2010)

(Date: November 18, 2010)

(Date: September 30, 2010)


Image 1 West View of Newgate by George Shepherd (1784-1862)

Image 2 Newgate - cell and galleries

Image 3 Tyburn Tree