Newgate was the final stop for most criminals. Literally.
By the Georgian era, Newgate was in need of overhaul and expansion. The designs of George Dance were chosen and construction began in 1770. The Gordon Riots of 1780 all but destroyed the prison, but reconstruction was finally complete in 1782. The style was architecture terrible, a French-based design that was supposed to render prison so repulsive as to deter criminal behavior. Newgate was basically a large, hulking rectangle of thick, reinforced walls, with few windows, with its interior subdivided into three sections built around central courtyards. Accommodations were available for 300 men, with separate quarters for 100 debtors and 60 women. Prison reform advocate John Howard was initially impressed:
In reality, the new design, with its Common area for the poor and State area for the wealthy, was further subdivided into various chambers and cellars to house debtors and felons, both male and female. Basic incarceration was free in the Common area at Newgate, but that came with a hidden cost: infrequent food, appalling sanitation, and rampant over-crowding. Doctors refused to visit the ill unless mandated by court or paid handsomely. Wealthy prisoners, however, were limited in comfort only by their purses.
“Political prisoners and wealthy felons were expected to pay exorbitantly for food, wine and fuel but enjoyed unlimited visits and other privileges. One of them married twice during his forty years awaiting trial and sired ten children.”
It took little time to realize the positive outlook desired by Howard was nowhere near the reality of Newgate. Because the prisoners were allowed to essentially manage themselves. they developed their own methods of provoking sympathy from visitors in the form of food, drink, and even money. The more enterprising developed methods to collaborate in court in pursuit of favorable verdicts and sentences: forgers drafted appeal notices and petitions for financial support from the Bank of England, and those in danger of transport conspired and refused the Royal Pardon that would send them to Australia.
Multiple reforms were attempted but met with little success. Acts in 1774, 1784, and 1791 established rules for cleanliness and adequate ventillation, classification of prisoners, and regular visitation and inspection of prisons, respectively. All were unenforced. Reformer Elizabeth Fry wrote in an 1813 letter:
“I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry.”
But few were sorry. Few concerned themselves with what went on behind the monstrous walls. That is, until the public executions occurred. Those evoked a macabre interest in the public, and unfortunately, the end result for most housed in the Common area was rarely freedom; it was more often death, whether by disease or nubbing, from the nubbing cove manning the nubbing cheat.
An Execution Outside Newgate Prison, 19th century, by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1805-1810, via Museum of London.
Nubbing cheat: the gallows.
Nubbing cove: the hangman.
•The Story of John Howard Prison Reformer yields bounteous information on prison conditions.
•The quote about political and wealthy prisoners was by Stanley Jackson in his book, The Old Bailey.
•Elizabeth Fry can be studied through her own words, in the Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry.
•Fascinating information on English prisons, and Newgate specifically for this post, can be found at London Lives.
•Slang definitions from 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.