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There are no Cells at The Viaduct Tavern

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

In countless books, guides, apps and websites dealing with “Secret”, “Hidden” and “Curious” London it is asserted with bland confidence that the cellars of the Viaduct Tavern contain cells from old Newgate Prison.

This is nonsense but sometimes a picture can help to nail a lie better than dates.

This image dates from 1897 and shows the last incarnation of Newgate Prison on the same site, facing the newly built Viaduct Tavern.

Newgate Prison and The Viaduct Tavern 1897

Newgate Prison wasn’t completely demolished until 1902. The Viaduct Tavern was built in 1869. So there is an obvious discrepancy in dates, but that aside, would it really have been conceivable that prison authorities would have wanted some of their cells to be included within the cellars of a brand new pub as it was being built?

The image below dates from around 1927. The view is much the same today. Newgate has now been replaced by “The Old Bailey”. The Viaduct looks on.

Old Bailey and The Viaduct Tavern

So the dates don’t add up and the proposal is ludicrous but that doesn’t stop those that peddle regurgitated “hidden gems” of London. Even supposedly authoritative books glibly trot out the same old tosh. This is the entry from the latest edition of The London Encyclopedia.

Viaduct Tavern - From The London Encyclopedia

In the London Encyclopedia entry for Newgate Prison they even use precisely the same illustration that I did to show the Viaduct Tavern and Newgate were both standing at the same time, page 585 for those of you who wish to check.

And here is a typical entry from one of the plethora of “hidden gems” type books. This is from Secret London – An Unusual Guide.

Newgate Cells from Secret London

These beer and coal cellars are interpreted in much the same way elsewhere. Sometimes, as here, in the most embellished and fanciful accounts, the coal holes are  referred to as feeding tubes for prisoners.

This is not a “feeding tube” but a coal plate mounted above a coal cellar, just like hundreds of thousands still to be found throughout London.

Coal plate outside the Viaduct Tavern immediately above one of the "cells"

Here is an image of an actual cell in Newgate, it dates from 1897, about when the pub was celebrating its first birthday. Tellingly, it completely lacks racks for beer barrels, such as those to be found in the Viaduct.

A Newgate Cell 1897

This image is also from 1897 and shows how the cells were arranged, above ground.

Inside Newgate Prison 1897

Even the pub’s own website (via Fullers) doesn’t make the claim that the cellars were once cells in Newgate, preferring a more cautious assertion that they were part of “the Giltspur Comptor, a debtors’ jail affiliated to Newgate Prison”.

Fullers Website

Well it would be nice to think so but the The Museum of London Archaeology Service disagree. The pub wasn’t on the site of the Compter and the Compter’s foundations have long gone in any case.

This is from the 1998 MOLAS report of fieldwork surveys on the site (carried out during the construction of the New Merrill Lynch Regional Headquarters, which occupied the site of Giltspur Street Compter) : King Edward Buildings, former Royal Mail Sorting Office, Giltspur & Newgate Street, EC1, the key paragraph is this one:

In early 1787 the majority of the site was cleared of buildings and later that year the construction of the Giltspur Street Compter prison begun (see London Archaeologist 1993, vol. 7, 115-121), and it was ready for occupation by 1791. The overall layout of the brick-built prison buildings can be established from surviving draft plans. Excavations to date have revealed some unrecorded design features including one stairwell and number of brick-built culverts. Excavation of the foundations of several blocks have revealed that they were interlaced with pine planks and beams, which are being studied as part of an English Heritage funded project on imported softwoods. The prison was in closed in 1853 and demolished in 1854, this work entailed the extensive robbing out of the below ground foundations.

So there we have it. Will this little blog post help to stem the flow of nonsense? Probably not, but at least I have got this particular gripe off my chest.

If you are in the mood for more London “facts” that aren’t actually true why not have a look at this excellent feature from Londonist from a few months back?

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