Newgate Prison was founded in the late 12th century in an effort abide with the Assize of Clarendon of 1166 set in motion by Henry II. This legal reform transferred power out of the hands of local barons and into circuit judges and the royal court, and emphasized the role that juries played in legal processes. As such, there needed to be holding cells for prisoners while court dates were finalized and juries could be assembled. In 1188, the prison was formalized out of a collection of pre-existing cells within the Roman London Wall, which previously had been in use during the reign of Henry I. The prison quickly accrued a terrible reputation in the eyes of the general public, as the wardens were corrupt, and the conditions were dismal. Drinking, gambling, and even prostitution were commonplace. In 1236 the prison was enlarged thanks to the conversion of an adjacent turret into a prison complex, adding new dungeons and additional structures beyond that which already existed. The entrance to the City of London proper was dominated by this structure, which put on display for all to see the penalty for breaking the law.
By the 1400’s, the complex was starting to show its age. Information about the squalid conditions, specifically for the women’s quarters, which were too small and did not have their own latrines, led to reformers to pressure the government into renovations. A separate tower for female prisoners was added in 1406. However, overcrowding, and horrible sanitary conditions led to rampant outbreaks of disease, such as Typhus. So bad were the conditions that the prison was temporarily shut down in 1419. Repairs were commenced in 1422 thanks to the bequeathment of private estates in London for the purposes of repairing the dilapidated structures. The gate and the jail were demolished and rebuilt, with the addition of a new mess hall, chapel, and additional chambers and dungeons. Three main wards were erected. The Masters ward was for those with the financial capital to pay for accommodations and food beyond what was readily available, the Common ward was for those who did not, and the Press Yard was intended for special prisoners. This third ward was where the king often imprisoned those deemed to be traitors, rebels, or heretics before being brought to trial. By the mid-15th century, the prison complex had completed renovations and was estimated to hold some 300 prisoners.
The prison was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, most of the medieval City of London. It was rebuilt just 6 years later by the famous English architect Sir Christopher Wren, who supplemented the prison with additional buildings, expanding its capacity for prisoners. This version of Newgate Prison stood for nearly 100 years without major renovation. In the interim, the prison saw more use as a holding area for those sentenced to execution, much like the Cato Street Conspiracists. In 1770, Parliament approved of a plan to enlarge the prison complex by adding an additional main building, effectively a second Newgate Prison of similar dimensions to the first, to be built by George Dance. Before this could be finished, a mob stormed the building during the 1780 Gordon riots, with fire effectively gutting the building and requiring an additional 2 years to finalize its construction. In 1783, Newgate replaced Tyburn as the site of London’s Gallows. These took place just outside of the prison, and drew large crowds. In 1807, 27-34 died in a stampede involving some 40,000 people who were watching an execution.
In the 19th century, social reformers such as Elizabeth Fry took aim at the Newgate Prison, still known far and wide for its dismal conditions. Fry was primarily concerned with the living conditions of female prisoners, as well as their children who were forced to live with them. In 1858, after an intense campaign, the interior was rebuilt with accommodations in mind for these types of prisoners. Gradually however, the prison fell out of use, and by 1902 was closed. Just 2 years later in 1904 the prison was demolished.
As an interesting note, the prison left a lasting impression on the Anglosphere. At least three prisons have been named Newgate in homage to the original in London, all in use in the 18th and 19th centuries; one in Dublin which has since been demolished, one in New York which was also demolished, and one in Connecticut which has since been renovated into a museum.
Conditions of the Prison
As stated above, the conditions of Newgate prison could be atrocious. For the men sentenced to death, the conditions described are nightmare inducing. Prisoners were chained to a wall in what amounted to an open-air sewer, in an effort to break their spirit. Conditions were to horrible that doctors would not enter. Prisoners convicted of less serious crimes did not have it much better. The rooms were dirty and unlit, with constant outbreaks of lice and other diseases. Those who could afford to purchase alcohol, largely those in the Master’s ward remained perpetually drunk, for good reason. The jailers would leave prisoners chained to walls to starve. Additionally, they would extort these prisoners, forcing them to pay to remove their chains, or even to enter the prison. So much extortion took place that top positions in the prison were some of the most profitable in London. Various reforms took aim at this wanton abuse by the prison wardens, to little effect. By the time that the Spencean Philanthropists entered Newgate, the conditions were not much different than what one would see hundreds of years earlier.
Horace Cotton, sometimes referred to as Horatio, was an ordained minister who served as the Ordinary of Newgate Prison from 1814 to 1837. This means that he was the chaplain at the time of the Cato Street Conspiracy. He offered to perform sacrament to the 5 Spencean Philanthropists that were sentenced to be executed; as these men were all Deists, they refused him. Davidson relented, however, and took the sacrament on the morning of the execution and stayed deep in prayer to his last moments. As he was led to the gallows, Davidson held Cottons hand. Do not let this impression fool you; Cotton took a dark pleasure in his role in ordaining condemned prisoners. He was described by contemporary sources as a fire and brimstone preacher, and kept a secret and illegal journal which details his views on the men sentenced to execution. Additionally, he was censured on numerous occasions, and had to be reminded in a professional capacity that his job was to give comfort to prisoners during their final moments, not to chastise and distress them. Examples of this can be seen in the trial of Eliza Fenning, a young maid who in 1815 was sentenced to death for the alleged attempted murder of her employer. Cotton distressed even the family of the alleged victim with his sermon, choosing to read Romans 6:21 to the assembled crowd, which amounted to him gloating about Fenning’s sentence. Fenning today is believed to be innocent.
What would the process of being executed look like from the perspective of a condemned man (or woman)?
The Sunday preceding their slated execution, all prisoners condemned to die were forced to attend a religious service performed by the Ordinary of the Prison at the time. In fact, all other prisoners were obliged to attend, and watch as the service prayed for the souls of the condemned persons, while also admonishing those in attendance to heed their peers fate and learn to save themselves. In the tenure of Revd. Cotton, the service became the premature burial service of those on death-row, complete with the presence of an empty coffin which the condemned individual would be placed in after their death. These coffins would be placed next to the condemned, so that they might reflect on their sentence. Following this service, the individuals would be placed in a condemned hold, little more than a hellish dungeon with minimal light, and appalling sanitary conditions.
On the day of the execution, the condemned would be led from the hold into the Press Yard, and freed from their leg shackles while their wrists and arms were bound. Here they were again tended to by the Ordinary, who offered religious services in a variety of different forms depending on the acting vicar at the time. In addition, white nightcaps were placed on the heads of the prisoners. After this, the prisoners were led from the Yard to the Lodge, and through the Debtors Door, located at the foot of the gallows. Once through, the prisoners would be marched up the steps of the gallows. These gallows were not permanent features of the Prison complex, but were wheeled in on the eve of slated execution by a team of horses. At the top of the gallows, the prisoners would once again be allowed to pray with the Ordinary as the hangman tightened the noose around their necks. Upon a signal from the Under Sheriff, the lever would be pulled and the trapdoors under the nooses would fall out, dropping the prisoners 12-18 inches in a break-neck fall, literally. It was common for prisoners to writhe for a few seconds before finally going still; for those who continued to struggle, a hangman underneath the gallows (unseen by the crowd) would grab onto them, adding his weight to theirs to expedite their death and prevent undue suffering. Following the execution, bodies would be left to hang for an hour. After being cut down, the bodies of the deceased would be returned to their respective families for a proper burial, or in the case of those convicted of murder would be dissected. In special cases, such as the 5 executed men who took part in the Cato Street Conspiracy, the bodies would be buried on site at Newgate Prison, in a remote passageway referred to as the ‘Birdcage Walk’ or ‘Dead Man’s Walk’. It was located in the rear of the complex and connected to the Old Bailey, just next door to the prison. Here particularly dangerous individuals would be buried in unceremonious graves, in an attempt to prevent these individuals from becoming martyrs. In the case of the Cato Street Conspiracists, the letters T B I D T were inscribed along the wall, referencing Thistlewood, Brunt, Ings, Davidson and Tidd. This practice would be abandoned shortly thereafter.