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A Grim View Inside Newgate Prison in the 1890s

29-May-2012 0:00
in Newgate Prison
by Peter Berthoud

There are very few photos of Newgate prison on the net. The most commonly reproduced ones come from a late Victorian book, Queen’s London, Anon, Cassell, 1897.

But three of the most striking and chilling  images from that book, “The Graveyard”, “The Chapel” and “The Central Courtyard” seem to have been forgotten for over 100 years.

So here is a full set, all six images together with their original accompanying text.

Newgate Prison

At the corner Newgate Street and of the Old Bailey is the gloomy granite building which was once the chief prison in London, but is now used only for prisoners awaiting trial at the Central Criminal Court, and for those there condemned to death. The exterior of the gaol is little more than a hundred years old, the older gaol being burnt down in the Gordon riots of 1780. Before the present building —the work of Dance, the architect of the Mansion House— was completed it was out of old Newgate that Jack Sheppard broke. The name is derived from one of the City gates, the tower of which was the first of the prisons that successfuly occupied that site. Our view is taken from Holborn Viaduct; and the dome and towers of St Paul’s loom large against the sky.

The Central Courtyard at Newgate Prison

In the Central Courtyard of Newgate Gaol, at which the public are here enabled to peep, the female prisoners are exercised, and upon it their cells look out. There are three exercise yards, separated from each other by high walls tipped with iron spikes. The windows of some of the male prisoners’ cells may be seen to the left. The gate by which one of the warders is standing is part of the old gaol—the structure, as it stands at present, was rebuilt in 1858 and through it pass the friends of the prisoners, who are allowed to converse with their visitors in what is called the visiting box. Admittance to this Courtyard is gained through the old doorway familiar to all who pass along the Old Bailey.

The Chapel at Newgate Prison

On either side of the pulpit in the chapel of grim Newgate Gaol sit the male prisoners, on the low forms behind the railings, while the female prisoners occupy the gallery, shown in our picture. This gallery is so contrived that the women hae an uninterrupted view of the preacher from between the tall, slanting boards, but cannot see their fellow prisoners of the other sex. In the corner to the right of the preacher is a box reserved for the Governor of the Gaol, and the Chief Warder has a seat beneath. Between the stove and the reading-desk below the pulpit is the harmonium that leads the musical part of the service. The pulpit, it will be seen, faces the communion table.

Dickens, writing in 1836, described how previously the Chapel also housed a special pew for prisoners condemned to death. His writing perhaps influenced this pew’s removal.

THE CONDEMNED PEW; a huge black pen, in which the wretched people, who are singled out for death, are placed on the Sunday preceding their execution, in sight of all their fellow-prisoners… to hear prayers for their own souls, to join in the responses of their own burial service, and to listen to an address, warning their recent companions to take example by their fate, and urging themselves, while there is yet time – nearly four-and-twenty hours – to ‘turn, and flee from the wrath to come!’

 At one time – and at no distant period either – the coffins of the men about to be executed, were placed in that pew, upon the seat by their side, during the whole service. It may seem incredible, but it is true. Let us hope that the increased spirit of civilisation and humanity which abolished this frightful and degrading custom, may extend itself to other usages equally barbarous; usages which have not even the plea of utility in their defence, as every year’s experience has shown them to be more and more inefficacious.

You can read Dickens’ full account here and see an image of the condemned pew in use here.

The “Graveyard” at Newgate Prison

“Only murderers whose crimes have been committed in the Metropolitan area north of the Thames are executed at Newgate, whither they are removed after sentence in the adjoining Sessions House. Transpontine [On the south side of the Thames] murderers are hanged at Wandsworth Gaol, unless otherwise ordered by the authorities.

The “graveyard” at Newgate Prison is a very grim-looking burial-place, which primarily serves the purpose of a passage from the gaol to the Old Bailey. Those who within the precincts of the prison have paid the extreme penalty of the law are buried under the flagstones, lime being enclosed in the coffins. On the walls on either side are the initial letters of the murderers surnames, and by this means the places of burial are recorded, though neither dates nor names are now added.”

The Galleries of Newgate Prison

Our view of the Galleries of the dismal prison in the Old Bailey is taken from the end of the second storey; and all around are the cells. The gaol will hold nearly two hundred prisoners; and those detained here are either murderers awaiting execution, or persons committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court.

A Cell in Newgate Prison

It was in 1858 that the interior of Newgate Prison was re-built, on the single-cell system. Near the window of the cell shown above are the water-tank and basin; and in the right-hand corner is the bedding, neatly rolled up; on the shelf are the prisoner’s Bible, prayer-book, plate, and mug, while in the foreground are his stool and the corner of the table.

I’ve used a couple of these images before, in a blog post debunking the myth that there are “Newgate Cells” in the cellars of the Viaduct Tavern and one or two have also popped up in my Facebook albums, so apologies if not all these images are new to you but I wanted to pull them all together in one place for anyone who might be interested.

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