Newgate prison features more than once in the Jacobite Chronicles, and for centuries was a big landmark of London, with a horrendous reputation and feared by many. Daniel Defoe called it ‘an emblem of Hell itself,’ and New York adopted the name Newgate for one of its early prisons. A number of famous (or rather infamous) people were held here, and it certainly deserves a blog article!
The actual name of Newgate arises from a mistake, as it was believed until excavations in the twentieth century that the mediaeval gatehouse which served as the first prison was actually a later (or new gate) added to the original Roman gates of London. The excavations proved that New Gate was actually Roman as well.
There have in fact been five Newgate prisons; the first one as mentioned above, which London Mayor Dick Whittington was so horrified by that he left money in his will for it to be reconstructed. This second prison was burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Another was built following this, and this third prison is the one I write about in my books. It later fell into disrepair, and was being reconstructed when the Gordon Riots of 1780 destroyed it. The final Newgate Prison was opened in 1785, and was finally demolished in 1902.
One of the reasons it became so notorious was because of it held numerous high profile prisoners, including Daniel Defoe, Casanova, Captain Kidd, Sir Thomas Mallory, Titus Oates, and Rob Roy MacGregor, among many others. Another reason for its notoriety was its close association with public executions at Tyburn and later at Newgate itself. A public execution was cause for a holiday, and the atmosphere at these gruesome events was generally upbeat (except for the mood of the unfortunate criminal). The prison chaplain would usually write up an account of the last hours of the convict, including a last-minute scaffold confession, and these were published in the Newgate Calendar, much of which can now be viewed online.
Conditions in the prison were unspeakably horrific, even by the standards of the day. Conditions in the earlier prison had also caused concern, but when it burnt down in 1666, the new building appears to have been no better than its predecessor.
Upon entering the building as a prisoner, you would be put in the room known as ‘limbo’ by the inmates. This was a dungeon underneath the gate, through the middle of which ran an open sewer. This acted as the condemned cell, but was also the reception room for new prisoners. The account I give in Pursuit of Princes of the reception accorded my character (avoiding spoilers in case you haven’t read that far!) is taken from real-life accounts. Those who could not pay were put in heavy irons and housed in one of the vastly overcrowded ‘common wards’, which teemed with lice and other vermin and were a breeding ground for the dreaded typhus or ‘Gaol Fever’, which killed vast numbers of prisoners. These rooms were not cleaned and were dark and gloomy, the prisoners would be stripped naked and would lie on the ground with no mattresses or blankets, and were given a minimum amount of very poor food. It was said that when someone walked across the floor it crunched as though the floor was covered with seashells – the sound being due to the vast quantity of lice being crushed by the walker.
For those who could afford to pay, the most salubrious accommodation in the eighteenth century was the press yard. It was so called because in earlier times it had been used for the torture of ‘pressing’, in which a prisoner was spread-eagled and tied and then had a succession of increasingly heavy weights placed on his chest to make him confess. This was often used in the case of traitors, whose estates could only be declared forfeit to the crown if they confessed their treason, and criminals would endure the most appalling agony to ensure their family was not reduced to poverty. By the eighteenth century, however, this was a room with more windows and fresh air, and conditions were similar to those in the prisoners’ homes. However, the cost of staying in this area was prohibitive, ranging from £20 to £500 on admission, so only the very rich could afford to live here. Those who could were allowed to have their families with them, and in the evenings the men could smoke, drink and play games such as skittles.
Alcohol was freely available throughout the prison, the quality dependent on how much you could pay, and was probably the only way many of the prisoners could cope with living in such terrible conditions. It was in the interest of the keeper and turnkeys to have the prison as crowded as possible, as more people meant more money for them, and this added to the horrible living conditions.
As in all prisons there was a hierarchy amongst prisoners, with some becoming the dominant figure in the cell and lording it over the others. There also developed a ‘Newgate language’, which was widely spoken, and several of these expressions entered the vernacular outside the prison. Examples include: booze (for alcohol), tye (a neckcloth), cove (a man), fence (someone who deals in stolen goods).
At 7am the prisoners were woken by a bell, on which they came out of their communal cells, emptied their chamber pots and were counted, before going to breakfast, the quality of which depended on how much the prisoner could pay. Then they did nothing until mid-afternoon. Many of them spent this time drinking, which suited the turnkeys, as people who were paralytic drunk were not likely to be capable of violent disorder. A lot of prisoners were constantly dead drunk and understandably so, given their lives!
In the afternoon they would have their main meal. The poorer people received bread and water six days a week, and meat on the seventh, unless it was stolen and sold by the warder. This meat was of very poor quality in any case. At ten o’clock in the evening they were returned to their cells.
I’ll end this blog by talking a little about the dreaded ‘Gaol Fever’, which features in Pursuit of Princes.
Gaol Fever was dreaded more than anything, and over the years killed far more prisoners than anything else did. When one person contracted it, it spread like wildfire in the insanitary crowded conditions, and decimated the often weak and undernourished prisoners.
It’s now known to be Epidemic Typhus Fever (not Typhoid, which is a different illness), and can be spread by lice. If walking around the prison floor of Newgate sounded like walking on shells because of the number of lice, it’s easy to understand how the disease spread!
The symptoms of Epidemic Typhus include a terrible headache, high fever, a cough, a rash and severe muscular pain, followed by a sensitivity to light, delirium and finally death. If a louse bites an infected person, the bacteria is carried in its faeces. When it bites another person and that person scratches the bite, the faeces with the bacteria gets into the open wound and infects them.
Of course none of this was known in the eighteenth century, and the illness was greatly feared. It did not confine itself to prisoners; in 1750 an outbreak of the disease spread from the prison to the sessions-house and killed forty-three people, including two judges and the Lord Mayor.
Foul air was thought to be the cause, understandably so as the air was particularly foul in the commons part of the prison, where the disease was most prevalent, and in 1752 an elaborate ventilation system was installed at Newgate in an attempt to control the outbreaks. It certainly seemed to improve the air quality, but the pipes used became clogged quite quickly, and cleaning them out was a virtual death sentence for the labourer doing so.
Vinegar was thought to sweeten the air, and lavender oil was known to deter lice. In Pursuit of Princes the cell is scrubbed with vinegar and the mattresses sprinkled with lavender oil to sweeten the air in an attempt to contain the illness, and this did have a measure of success, not for the reasons the people of the eighteenth century thought, but because the vinegar would kill germs and lice!
Overall, it was estimated that by the time Newgate was finally abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century, typhus had killed four times the number of prisoners executed for their crimes.
In my next blog I’ll talk about the prison staff, two of who are named in my books, about the Jacobites held there, literature influenced by the prison, and the prison reformers.