Newgate prison – a habitation of misery

fig.1_maltonnewgate_fmtMy latest story has taken me into Newgate prison, immortalised (if the word is appropriate in the context) in Fielding’s Moll Flanders, and in 1807 still the place described by notorious highwayman   Captain Alexander Smith as a ‘dismal prison… a place of calamity… habitation of misery, a confused chaos… a bottomless pit of violence, a Tower of Babel where all are speakers and none hearers.’

newgate-prison-entry-gateAt the time, it housed around 300 women in a space intended for 50, and they often brought their children with them. Many slept on the floor, without bedding. Looking through the proceedings of the neighbouring court, the Old Bailey, I found many convicted women had two, three, or even four children under 7, and into prison with mother they would go.

Everything was for sale. The keepers weren’t paid, but lived on the bribes of prisoners and their families. So much for a bed, so much for a meal, so much for a pail of water, so much for coals to cook or to keep warm. Those who were wealthy could be housed in comfort, and could have visitors and their own reading matter, clothes, and food.

Those who were poor were thrown to the mercies of the other prisoners, and were likely to have whatever little they still owned taken from them. The prisoners ran their own affairs inside of the walls, with a tough culture of gangs who intimidated those who didn’t fit in. The keepers simply kept the prisoners from leaving.

Prisoners weren’t classified beyond the general classification of debtor and felon, and people awaiting trial were imprisoned with those sentenced and awaiting transportation or execution; first time offenders with hardened criminals; the young with the old.

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Elizabeth Fry, the Quaker reformer, first visited in 1813:

The turnkeys warned them that the women were wild and savage, and they would be in physical danger. However, they went in anyway. On that and two more visits, they brought warm clothing and clean straw for the sick to lie on. Elizabeth also prayed for the prisoners.

Elizabeth said:

‘All I tell thee is a faint picture of the reality; the filth, the closeness of the rooms, the ferocious manners and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness, which everything bespoke, are quite indescribable’

After several visits, family problems kept her away, but she returned several years later and began a long process of reform. (Note, though, that the painter doesn’t quite believe in the reform. At her feet, the children play with dice. And the women on the far right are passing a bottle.)

Elizabeth Fry



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