The most famous common law jail in the world, Newgate, was demolished in 1904 but not after centuries of terror and cruel punishment.

The old walls of London which dated to Roman times, contained four gates. Henry I (1068-1135) added a third, complete with dungeon and a guardroom; it became known as Newgate and became London's prison for all felons awaiting trial.

Newgate and the precincts around the gate, at the intersections of Newgate Street and Old Bailey, was a veritable one-stop-shop for medieval corrections.

Just outside the gates proper was a pillory which the locals used to stone to death the restrained convicts.

London had separate prisons for debtors (Wood Street Compter) and those suspected of political crimes (Tower of London) but Newgate was the home for criminals.

However, the occasional woman, bankrupt, child, political prisoner, lunatic or homosexual was incarcerated at Newgate and thrown in with the lot of psychopathic prisoners.

Basic housing was free at Newgate - little water or food and no sanitation and over-crowding. As late as February of 1813, Elizabeth Fry wrote in a letter:

"I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry."

Newgate prison - reconstructionAll prisoners wore leg irons at all times.

But the jailors could sell enhanced accommodation called easement of irons. For a fee extorted from the family of the prisoner, off came the leg irons and almost anything except liberty could be given to the prisoner. Extra food, bedding, alcohol, water and even conjugal visits - all for a fee.

Jackson wrote:

"Political prisoners and wealthy felons were expected to pay exorbitantly for food, wine and fuel but enjoyed unlimited visits and other privileges. One of them married twice during his forty years awaiting trial and sired ten children."

Many died in prison if medieval criminal law did not kill them first.

For those fortunate enough to be executed, the sentence was carried out by a public procession from Newgate to London's hanging spot: Tyborn Tree, some three miles away.

On the night before any prisoner was to leave Newgate for execution, he (or she) attended a special religious service in the prison chapel, with an empty coffin lying on the centre of an elevated table. At exactly midnight, the jailor would ring the prison bell and yell out:

"All you that in the condemned hole do lie, prepare you for tomorrow you shall die, the Lord above have mercy on your souls."

Escape from Newgate was rare but a fellow named MacIntosh did it because he made his attempt quickly, before conditions in Newgate weakened him. Waiting for his daring moment, he leveled a guard, took his keys and calmly walked out into London never to be seen again.

In about 1600, the local court was built adjacent to the prison and became known as Old Bailey, saving much time and money in the transportation of prisoners between jail and court.

Between 1770 and 1778, the prison was completely renovated and announced ready to accommodate a contingent of 300 males and separate quarters for 100 debtors and 60 women. The government prepared the prison reformer John Howard through the new building and he pronounced it fit.

Before long Newgate became Newgate: overcrowded with 1,000 prisoners.

Another innovation: the gallows at Tyburn were moved to Newgate prison and every Monday morning, the weekly death penalties were carried out. Between 1783 and 1902, 1,169 executions were carried out at Newgate. Up to 1868, they were all very public affairs with the best seats to the show available for purchase.

Three women were first hanged and then burnt at the stake for forging coins.


  • Jackson, S., The Old Bailey (London: WH Allen, 1978).