Newgate Gaol

Newgate Gaol

Today, on the site of Newgate Gaol, is the the Old Bailey otherwise known as the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales.

Prior to the 1904 opening of the court, there had been a prison on the site for over seven hundred years. It had been used to incarcerate anybody from debtors to thieves and murderers. Many who weren’t awaiting execution were awaiting deportation (you could make a strong argument to say that those waiting to hang had a better deal).

If being jailed wasn’t bad enough, it got worse when you realised that the prison was built below the waterline of the River Thames and flooded whenever the Thames had a exceptional high tide (hence Father Eamon’s comments to Emma that she did not want to be in the gaol when the Thames flooded). On top of this those doing the jailing were private contractors who paid for the privilege, knowing they could charge inmates for anything from food, to women, to the act of unshackling them when they were to leave the gaol. (They even charged them an entrance fee after the courts sent them down, talk about adding insult to injury!).

The prison was destroyed and rebuilt on a number of occasions with the last prison going up in the late eighteenth century to a design by George Dance, the architect who had unsuccessfully put in designs for the rebuilding of London Bridge. His design was for a severe and oppressive building with bricked up windows and chains carved above the main entrance, all designed to deter lawbreaking in all those who saw it (unless of course the first time you saw it was on your way in, in which case all that design was something of a wasted effort). There were however improvements made during this period, particularly for women and the children they had with them, thanks to the efforts of social campaigner Elizabeth Fry.

From 1783, executions were moved from Tyburn to Newgate, where the condemned stayed in small, dimly lit cells before being brought out on to a high gantry on the west side of the gaol. On top of this gantry was a set of gallows where the men were publicly hung in front of a large crowd. Public executions were stopped in 1868 (much to the chagrin of the pickpockets who made a small fortune at these events) and moved inside the prison.