February 11, 2011
The most notorious of London’s many prisons, Newgate remained in use for more than 700 years.
The prison – located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey on the site of what is now London’s Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey thanks to its position on the street known as Old Bailey) – was apparently first constructed around the end of the 1100s on the orders of King Henry II at the site of one of the gates in the Roman wall (see picture).
It was enlarged and renovated several times over the ensuing centuries (including a complete rebuilding after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and another to the design of George Dance after the prison was badly damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780, sparked by opposition to Catholic emancipation).
The prison, which was infamous for the squalid conditions in which prisoners were housed, was used for a range of purposes including housing debtors and the incarceration of people awaiting execution (by the 18th century, it’s said that more than 350 crimes had become punishable by death).
In 1783 public executions were moved from Tyburn, west of the city, to a site just outside the prison. In 1868, executions were no longer open to the public at large and the gallows moved inside. The prison closed in 1902 and was eventually demolished in 1904.
Famous prisoners who spent time in Newgate include Shakespeare’ contemporary Ben Jonson (for killing a man in a duel), 17th century author Daniel Defoe (for his authorship of political pamphlets), Captain William Kidd (for piracy), and William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (for contempt of court during a case brought after he was accused of having illegally preached ).
But perhaps the most infamous is the 18th century criminal Jack Sheppard, known for having escaped from the prison several times before finally being hanged at Tyburn (close to where Marble Arch now stands).
The only surviving part of the prison in its original location is part of the prison wall which can be seen in Amen Corner.