The oldest prisons and jails in the United States were built approximately two hundred years ago. The oldest,New Jersey State Prison, dates back to 1798, but that’s nothing compared to the origins of some prisons around the world.
If you’re a prison history buff, you may have heard of the infamous Newgate Prison. Located in the original city of London at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey Street—not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral—Newgate Prison was built at the site of a gate in the Roman London Wall during the 12th century. The facility opened in the year 1188.
To this day, just mentioning the name of this terrifying prison will chill the hearts of Londoners. But, does it still stand? Is it still operational? Can you visit Newgate Prison?
In today’s blog post, I will cover the following topics:
Newgate Prison opened in 1188 after construction was ordered by King Henry II. It was a fully operational facility for more than 700 years. During that time, it was repeatedly extended and rebuilt, and it held every type of criminal behind its walls. For most of its history, a succession of criminal courtrooms were attached to the prison, which were commonly referred to as the “Old Bailey.”
By the 15th century, Newgate was in desperate need of repair. When locals learned that the women’s quarters were too small and didn’t have bathrooms, the prison added a separate tower and chamber specifically for female inmates.
The original building was also collapsing and decaying, and many prisoners were dying from the close quarters, overcrowding, rampant disease, and bad sanitary conditions. Things got so bad that city officials temporarily shut down the prison in 1419.
The prison was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt in 1672 by Sir Christopher Wren. His design extended the complex into new buildings on the south side of the street.
In 1770, construction began to enlarge the prison and add a new sessions house. The new prison was constructed with an “architecture terrible” design, which was intended to discourage law-breaking.
The building was laid out around a central courtyard and divided into two sections—a “Common” area for poor prisoners and a “State” area for those who could pay for more comfortable accommodations. Each section was subdivided to accommodate felons and debtors.
After construction was nearly ruined by the Gordon Riots in 1780 (when a mob stormed the facility and it was gutted by fire) the new Newgate Prison was opened in 1782.
In 1783, London’s gallows were moved from the Tyburn Tree in the western part of the city to the prison, which made it the main location for executions. Until May 26,1868, the public was allowed to view the executions, and tickets were sold for the best viewing locations.
After 1868, public executions were discontinued and executions were carried out in gallows inside the prison. Dead Man’s Walk was a long stone-flagged passageway, partly open to the sky and roofed with iron mesh (also known as the Birdcage Walk). Executed criminals were buried beneath the flagstones and their initials engraved into the stone wall above.
In total—publicly or otherwise—1,169 people were executed at Newgate Prison.
The list of notable inmates who did time at Newgate is extensive. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, was detained at the prison for contempt of court after he allegedly refused to remove his hat during a trial for being a Quaker.
Daniel Defoe—author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders—was held at Newgate in 1703 for seditious libel. The protagonist in the Moll Flanders novel was born and imprisoned at Newgate. Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was briefly held at the prison in 1895, and pirate Captain Kidd was sent to the gallows from Newgate.
Newgate Prison finally closed in 1902. In 1904, it was demolished. The original iron gate leading to the gallows was used for decades in an alleyway in Buffalo, New York. It is currently housed at Canisius College.
The original door from a prison cell used to house St. Oliver Plunkett in 1681 is on display at St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, Ireland.
The prison lives on via pop culture, as it was mentioned in numerous literary works, films, television programs, games, and other media.
Newgate Prison appears in a number of works by Charles Dickens, including Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty and Great Expectations. Newgate was also the subject of an entire essay in his work, Sketches by Boz.
Other literary works depicting the prison include:
Other popular culture that mentions Newgate Prison includes the film Plunkett & Maclea, the online interactive novel game Fallen London, the Wachowskis’ film V For Vendetta, and the TV series Elementary.
Today, the site of the Newgate Prison is occupied by the “new” Old Bailey, which is London’s principal Central Criminal Court. On the outside, the only thing left to remind passersby that it was once a prison is a simple plaque on the Court wall. At the nearby residential cul-de-sac Amen Court, there are some remains of the prison’s Eastern Wall.
Across the street from the “new” Old Bailey is a Victorian gin palace known as the Viaduct Tavern. Rumor has it that the last remnants of the old jail cells from Newgate Prison are hidden in the building.
The Viaduct Tavern was originally built as a watering hole for laborers working on the nearby viaduct bridge, but it was transformed into a fine gin palace in 1869. Downstairs in the tavern—past the cellars filled with beer barrels—visitors can find what’s believed to be old Newgate jail cells.
The story among locals is that there was once a tunnel that connected these jail cells with the main facility across the street. However, it’s unclear if this is true, or just local legend. It’s also possible that these jail cells were part of an old debtor’s prison known as Giltspur Street Compter.
If you get the chance to visit the Viaduct Tavern, a trip down to the basement cellars is possible if you ask the bar staff. If you are interested in visiting Newgate Prison, that’s obviously not possible. However, there is a free walking tour available that covers the three miles traveled from Newgate to Tyburn during the Dead Man’s Walk (prior to the gallows being moved to the prison).
Meeting at St Paul’s Station, tourists pass the famous old cathedral before stopping at the Old Bailey. From there, you will “trace the three mile journey that the condemned made” before finally finishing at Marble Arch, the site of the feared Tyburn Tree.
“Along the way tales of crime, retribution and punishments in a darker age will give us an idea of the fate that befell those that got on the wrong side of the law in times past, and the myriad ways there were to die by execution in London’s dark past,” the Final Journey tour site reads.
This tour does contain descriptions of violent and gory acts. It is not suitable for children or those of a squeamish nature. Sites and topics covered on the tour include:
You can click here to reserve your free walking tour. They take place on Mondays, starting at 10:00 am and last for about two and a half hours.
Have you visited the site of Newgate Prison in London? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Hidden Cells of Newgate Prison https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/hidden-cells-of-newgate-prison Free Tours By Foot: The Final Journey https://freetoursbyfoot.com/the-final-journey/ 8 Oldest Prisons in America https://www.oldest.org/structures/prisons-us/#:~:text=New%20Jersey%20State%20Prison&text=What%20is%20this%3F,-Report%20Ad&text=While%20the%20New%20Jersey%20State,the%20oldest%20prison%20in%20America. Giltspur Street Compter https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=111142 Prisons and Lockups https://www.londonlives.org/static/Prisons.jsp
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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