Newgate: prisons, executions, and Roman graffiti

Old_Newgate
The old gatehouse and prison
Another London gate is Newgate, one of the original seven gates within London Wall, and one of the six that date back to Roman times; it was so named because it was, in the 12th century, a new gate, built to replace the original Roman gate.

Newgate will, for many people, conjure up thoughts of Newgate Prison, possibly one of the world’s most famous, and infamous prisons and the gatehouse was indeed used as a prison later in the 12th century.

When the gate was rebuilt again in the 15th century, Dick Whittington (or, to give him his proper title, Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London) provided money for the prison to be extended. The prison was eventually demolished to make way for the Central Criminal Courts, known as Old Bailey, taking their name from the street on which they stand).

Hangin_outside_Newgate_Prison
A public hanging outside Newgate Prison

In the 18th century Newgate became not just a prison but the location of public executions: the gallows at Tyburn were moved to the prison in 1783 and prisoners no longer made the long journey west from Newgate to be executed.

The public appetite for witnessing these executions did not diminish and the spectacle was as popular as it had been at Tyburn. The 16th century inn, the Magpie and Stump (which still exists), was a popular spot for viewing executions while enjoying a pint of ale.

In addition, the publication entitled The Newgate Calendar (subtitled The Malefactors’ Bloody Register), was immensely popular. It was originally a monthly bulletin of executions, produced by the keeper of the prison, and later became series chronicling the lives and times of the more notorious criminals of the day. According to one source, some contemporary editions of the Calendar could outsell Dickens.

Within the walls of Newgate, conditions were horrific, with overcrowding the norm and disease rife. The 19th-century prison reformer Elizabeth Fry played a strong role in having the conditions of Newgate improved and, later in the 19th century, executions ceased to be carried out in public.

A few of the many prisoners to grace Newgate were Ben Jonson; Daniel Defoe; Jack Sheppard, the inspiration for Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera; and Thomas Neill Cream, a serial poisoner who claimed to be Jack the Ripper.

The gate itself was rebuilt after the Great Fire, and eventually demolished in 1767. It gives its name to Newgate Street, where once a Roman tile was discovered with the graffito: “Austalis has been running off on his own for the past fortnight.” Unfortunately there is no record of who Austalis was, or what he was up to when he was running off on his own.

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Tyburn hangings

On this day in London’s history. On 3 November, 1793, the last hanging took place at Tyburn tree, near modern-day Marble Arch.

Condemned prisoners travelled from Newgate Prison to Tyburn; part of this went led into the steep ascent of Holborn Hill, sometimes called Heavy Hill. As prisoners on that journey rode backwards, the expressions ‘to ride up Heavy Hill’ or ‘to ride backwards up Holborn Hill’ indicated that someone was on their last journey. The expression ‘going west’, unlike the ‘go west’ of American pioneering times, referred to that last journey towards Tyburn.

For a fascinating insight into the full and final journey a prisoner would have made from Newgate to Tyburn, visit http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/JourneyTyburn.jsp.