The first prison at Newgate was built in 1188 on the orders of Henry II. It was significantly enlarged in 1236, and the executors of Lord Mayor Dick Whittington were granted a license to renovate the prison in 1422. The prison was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt in 1672, extending into new buildings on the south side of the street.
Newgate Prison was a dismal, unhealthy place. Approximately thirty people died there every year. Physicians often refused to enter the prison and people passing by held their noses. It is the oldest, most famous, and one of the most important prisons in eighteenth century England. Though it was technically a local prison under the control of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London, it held a special position because it was not only the place of detention for all those awaiting trial at the neighboring court, but also a sort of holding pen for those awaiting execution. It also doubled as a debtors’ prison.
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.
Newgate was notorious for its overcrowding, unhealthy environment (lack of air and water, and epidemics). Prisons, Newgate included, did not supply their prisoners with bedding and clothing. These things had to be purchased from the keepers. In addition to this cost, prisoners were also expected to pay a fee upon admission. They also needed to continue to pay money if they wanted any of the ordinary comforts of life. Then, when released, they were expected to pay yet another fee before they were allowed to leave.
The Ordinaries of Newgate often published accounts of the lives of those who passed through the prison. They included such information as the crimes committed, previous convictions, trial information, life leading up to the stay in Newgate, as well as a description of the sorts of punishments that individual was to suffer. It is because of these writings that Newgate Prison has become the most well-documented prison of eighteenth-century England, allowing modern scholars to understand the system of justice during the time.
According to medieval statute, the prison was to be managed by two annually elected Sheriffs, who in turn would sublet the administration of the prison to private “gaolers”, or “Keepers”, for a price. These Keepers in turn were permitted to exact payment directly from the inmates, making the position one of the most profitable in London. Inevitably, the system offered incentives for the Keepers to exhibit cruelty to the prisoners, charging them for everything from entering the gaol to having their chains both put on and taken off. Among the most notorious Keepers in the Middle Ages were the 14th-century gaolers Edmund Lorimer, who was infamous for charging inmates four times the legal limit for the removal of irons, and Hugh De Croydon, who was eventually convicted of blackmailing prisoners in his care.
Over the centuries, Newgate was used for a number of purposes including imprisoning people awaiting execution, although it was not always secure: burglar Jack Sheppard escaped from the prison two times before he went to the gallows at Tyburn in 1724. Prison chaplain Paul Lorrain achieved some fame in the early 18th century for his sometimes dubious publication of Confessions of the condemned.
In 1783, the site of London’s gallows was moved from Tyburn to Newgate. Public executions outside the prison – by this time, London’s main prison – continued to draw large crowds. It was also possible to visit the prison by obtaining a permit from the Lord Mayor of the City of London or a sheriff. The condemned were kept in narrow sombre cells separated from Newgate Street by a thick wall and receiving only a dim light from the inner courtyard. The gallows were constructed outside a window in Newgate Street. Until the 20th century, future British executioners were trained at Newgate; one of the last was John Ellis in 1901.
During the early 19th century the prison attracted the attention of the social reformer Elizabeth Fry. She was particularly concerned at the conditions in which female prisoners (and their children) were held. After she presented evidence to the House of Commons improvements were made. In 1858, the interior was rebuilt with individual cells.
From 1868, public executions were discontinued and executions were carried out on gallows inside Newgate. Michael Barrett was the last man to be hanged in public outside Newgate Prison (and the last person to be publicly executed in Great Britain) on 26 May 1868. In total (publicly or otherwise), 1,169 people were executed at the prison.