In Pursuit of Princes I mention the names of two people who actually did work at Newgate Prison at the time, Richard Jones and Mr Twyford. Richard Jones was the keeper of Newgate in the 1740s. The keepers of Newgate were amongst the most hated people in the country and for good reason.
In the mediaeval days of the prison, two sheriffs were elected annually. If you were elected you were unlikely to refuse the post – if you did you would be fined £100 if you were the first to decline, and if you were the second, all your goods and lands would be forfeit. On their election the sheriffs would be presented with the prison keys, and were then completely responsible for all the prisoners in their care. The welfare of the convicts was not the issue, but if any of them escaped, the sheriffs were considered to be directly responsible and would be fined and even jailed. They were also responsible for repairs to the prison, another costly item.
This led to sheriffs protecting themselves by selling the post of keeper of the prison to someone else. The person who paid the highest bond would get the job, and the sherrifs would keep the bond to pay any subsequent fines.
If was now up to the keeper to ensure that the position rewarded him above his outlay, and he did this by extorting money from the prisoners. Absolutely everything, even moving from one room to another, incurred a cost. There was a cost to sleep in a room that was not covered in vermin and excrement, a cost for a blanket, to exercise, for food, alcohol….the list was endless. A fee was even charged to be released from prison at the end of a sentence, with the result that many poor people remained in jail long after their sentences were over, because they could not afford to pay to leave.
But this was not enough for many of the keepers, who invented new and incredibly cruel ways of extorting money from the inmates. Heavy chains and shackles were attached to them, with a cost for each chain that was removed. One keeper employed a device called the ‘scull cap’ which was made of metal and was fixed to the head, with a spur that fitted in the mouth, pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth, so that the prisoner was in agony until they could come up with the money to be released.
Those who could not afford to pay the fees for everything received almost nothing except the most basic starvation rations. But even those with some means might struggle to pay the exorbitant prices charged by the keepers. In the fifteenth century in an attempt to curb this, legal limits were set on what keepers were allowed to charge for beds, bread, ale etc. These laws were completely ignored by the keepers.
As a result of all this, as well as being universally hated, the keeper of Newgate became a stock villain in ballads and plays of the day.
In the Jacobite Rising of 1715 the current keeper of the prison, one William Pitt, managed to extort £4000 from his prisoners in a matter of months. This was an enormous sum in those days!
After the ’45 Richard Jones was attempting to gain a similar return, and in 1747 a group of Jacobite prisoners brought an action against him, among which they stated that:
“Everyone, tradesman or relation, before admittance at the first door has to pay 6d, and before admittance at the door backwards, even in sickness, 6d to the turnkey.
“Having no more than 4d for subsistence per day we cannot purchase strong beer necessary owing to long confinement and weakly condition; small beer and every other kind of liquor has to be bought of the gaoler at very extravagant prices.
“Lives are in danger owing to close confinement, prisoners on the common side being refused access to the fore yard (ie to get exercise and air) because the second turnkey extorts another 6d.”
Needless to say Mr Jones defended himself, and it seems nothing was done. Although this may not sound like a serious complaint, it effectively meant that the Jacobite officers, already being held in filthy and verminous conditions, could see no visitors, have no access to any other room than their overcrowded cells, have no exercise, and drink nothing but contaminated water. The 4d they were allowed for food would have assured them the most appalling starvation rations – and most of them had been in these conditions for over a year. In this light, their complaints are understandable.
As well as the keepers being vilified in song, a good deal of literature included references to Newgate Prison. A lot of this stemmed from the Newgate Calendar, which can be viewed online. It was a document compiled by the keeper once a month, which told of the people who had come into the prison during that time, and something of the crimes they’d committed and their trials. Over time other accounts were added which had only tenuous links to Newgate. Then as now, sensationalism has a lucrative market, and the calendar sold very well, with many variations on it being published.
In 1728 John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera was performed for the first time and became a sensation. The principal character, Peachum was based on the real-life Jonathan Wild, a very famous criminal of his day who had been held in Newgate before his execution. The highwayman Macheath in the play is portrayed sympathetically and is reprieved from the condemned cell of Newgate. Critics of the play stated that real-life criminals saw Macheath as their hero, and that the play was giving highwaymen a glamour that they did not deserve, and was promoting crime. The play also satirised Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, and led to a law being passed that plays had to be licensed before they could be shown – the first licensing act!
A number of novels also featured Newgate Prison, including Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding’s Amelia, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, William Ainsworth’s Rookwood which created the fictional story of Dick Turpin’s ride to York, and William Thackeray’s novel Catherine.
Charles Dickens had personal experience of the prison system – his father was incarcerated for debt in the Marshalsea prison when Dickens was twelve, which had a profound effect on the author. Later when working as a journalist he visited Newgate and recorded what he saw in some detail. These experiences certainly influenced his views about the justice system, and his novels are littered with references to the corruption of the system, and his sympathy for the victims of it. However, he seemed to believe in prisoners doing hard labour when justly imprisoned.
In Oliver Twist Fagin is tried at the Old Bailey, which was next door to Newgate Prison, and Oliver visits him in the condemned cell there, a very dark passage in the book. In Great Expectations Pip visits Newgate too, and Barnaby Rudge includes an account of the Gordon Riots of 1780 in which Newgate was destroyed. Barnaby is imprisoned in Newgate, and there are other references to the prison.
By this time many other reformers were active, outraged by the appalling conditions in the prison, and by the numerous injustices. By the end of the eighteenth century people began to look at the causes of criminal behaviour, and to recognise that such brutal conditions in prison did not necessarily deter people from a criminal life, but instead hardened them, and corrupted the younger, more innocent offenders. For the first time different options for imprisonment were suggested, including silent prisons and prisons where inmates were kept completely solitary.
Elizabeth Fry, on the other hand, campaigned for more humane treatment in prisons, and had some success in her kindness in reforming female prisoners and teaching them skills they could use to obtain employment once released, rather than of necessity having to return to crime to survive. She had a good number of critics who felt she was condoning crime and criminals, but she persisted, eventually becoming a celebrity and giving evidence in Parliamentary Committees. Her influence over prison reform was considerable, but other reforms continued after her death in 1845.
From 1850 Newgate was used only for prisoners awaiting trial at the Old Bailey or awaiting execution, and in August 1902 it was finally demolished.