N is for Newgate: London's Hell on Earth
From 1188 until 1777, Newgate Prison stood on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey in the City of London. Appearing in literature as far back as The Canterbury Tales, Newgate was a real hell on earth that struck terror into the people of London for more than 700 years.
Originally a gate in the Roman wall, a prison was built on the site at the end of the twelfth century. According to medieval statute, it was managed by two elected sheriffs, who in turn rented the administration to private Keepers for money. Being a keeper or a gaoler was a very sought-after position. They took their payment directly from the inmates, which made it one of the best paying positions in London.
The Keepers charged for everything. They charged inmates for entering the prison (as if they had a choice), for putting their shackles on, and for taking them off. Many charged up to four times the legal limit for these and for basic human needs such as food and water. Inmates commonly died of starvation, violence, or disease, such as Jail Fever (typhus). They were sent there for debt, dissent, and crimes of any scale from stealing a few pennies to murder. They were kept together in long, filthy cells with little daylight and no sanitation until they were freed, executed, or died.
On the other hand, if you had money to spend, you could stay in relative comfort in a private cell of your own with a bed, food, tobacco, newspapers, and perhaps some prison gin. Prostitutes regularly visited the prison and serviced the inmates for a price. Some keepers even had arrangements with the inmates to let them out at night on the condition that they would return and share anything they had stolen.
Reading a list of Newgate’s famous inmates is like reading a who’s who of British history. Claude Duval was kept there from December of 1669 until his execution in January of 1670. An even more famous ladykiller, Giacomo Casanova, was kept there for a time for alleged bigamy. Sir Thomas Malory (yes, as in Le Morte d’Arthur), pirate Captain Kidd, highwayman James MacLaine, pickpocket and fence Moll Cutpurse, and even the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, all stayed in Newgate for a time. Jack Sheppard escaped twice. Daniel Defoe was imprisoned there as well, and in his Moll Flanders, the heroine is born there and later does time there herself.
Newgate was moved and rebuilt in 1777. In 1783, executions were moved there from Tyburn, and the prison continued operating there until it was closed in 1902.
This prison plays a big part in both Tyburn and Virtue’s Lady, and it’s no secret that Mark’s been inside a couple of times. For a good, hard look at Newgate from the inside (complete with cadavers, rats, and sexpest wardens), check out The Southwark Saga.