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Newgate Prison.


This prison derives its name from the gate which, till within these few years, formed a part of it, and stood a little beyond the Sessions House in the Old Bailey. It is immediately beyond the Sessions House, and is a massy building, with an extensive front of rustic work, possessing all the appearance of strength and security. Yet, in the riots of 1780, the felons, confined even in the strongest holds, were released; stones of two or three tons in weight, to which the doors of their cells were fastened, were raised: and such was the violence of the fire, that the great iron bars of the windows were eaten through, and the adjacent stones vitrified.

From the gate which stood beyond this building, and as a military way has been traced under it, there can be no doubt that there was one during the time the city was in the possession of the Romans. But the place has been made up, and no vestige of it remains, The gate, which supplied its place, is supposed by Stowe to have been erected between the years 1108 and 1128, when Richard Beauveys, bishop of London, by enlarging the precincts of St. Paul's, had obstructed the usual way under Ludgate, and made this new outlet necessary. It has been for ages a prison, and for persons of rank, long before the Tower was used for that purpose; even so far back as 1218. The gate was rebuilt by the executors of the famous Sir Richard Whittington, out of the effects he had allotted for charity; his statue, with the cat, remained in a niche to its final demolition. It was destroyed by the great fire of 1666, and rebuilt in its late form. The old prison, however, was an accumulation of misery and inconvenience. In 1778, the corporation had expended 52,585l. upon the rebuilding; 19,000l. was afterwards laid out on it; and it was nearly completed when Lord George Gordon's mob, in 1780, rendered it a mere shell, by burning every thing combustible within it. The immediate grant of 10,000l., by the House of Commons, enabled the corporation to begin that re-building which it was estimated would cost 30,000l.; and Newgate was eventually finished in the form in which we now behold it, with a black rustic wall, broken at intervals by niches partially filled with statues, and grated windows.—The salary of the keeper of Newgate is 500l.; and we find it on record, that "the prisoners pay 8s. 10d. fees, and 13s. 6d. on the master's side, or 9s. 6d., on the common side, garnish," but " garnish" is now abolished.—The chaplain, or ordinary of Newgate (at present the Rev. Mr. Cotton, an able and indefatigable man) receives 265l. per annum. For that sum, he reads prayers twice on Sundays, on Wednesdays and Fridays, preaches every Sunday morning, repeats private prayers with those under sentence of death, on Tuesday and Thursday, and, after the report, attends criminals twice a-day, and on the morning of execution.

In this prison, debtors as well as criminals have been confined. Mr. Neild, in his Work on Prisons, says, "that 285 men, and 40 women, have been at once in Newgate for debt. Two rooms are appropriated for sick felons of both sexes; and as there is no infirmary for debtors, they are compelled to lie, when ill, with the felons," — There is a chapel in this prison, which is plain and neat, and the most perfect order is preserved during prayers.

Some improvements have been attempted, especially in promoting CLASSIFICATION amongst the prisoners; which, next to the WANT OF WORK, is the great defect of most of our prisons. How far this attempt has succeeded, or is likely to answer, the reader may conclude from what has been stated, that" there are several yards and wards in Newgate, in which the male prisoners now are classed after the following order :—first, those committed for trial for felonies; second, convicts; third, misdemeanors; fourth, fines; fifth, those under sentence of death; sixth, boys under the age of fifteen, for all offences.

"You will observe, therefore, (the writer, Mr. Bennett, adds) that the classification is of the most general kind. The youth accused of the smallest felony is confined with the most notorious criminal; with those charged with murder, piracy, house-breaking, highway robbery, &c. The fines, and the accused of misdemeanors, and the felon convicts, are not now shut up in the same yard; but persons whose crimes are of a different character and complexion, all the steps and stages of guilt, are associated together. The school of crimes is still kept up; and though the teachers may have their range of instruction narrowed, yet, these preceptors are active and diligent, as far as their field of enterprise extends, though not so much mischief is done, or so much youth and comparative innocence debauched and ruined; yet those who visit Newgate oftenest, and know what goes on there best, can furnish ample evidence of the extent and consequences of this system. The reform is good the little way it goes, &c. I saw there in November 1817, several boys mixed with men convicts, in their yard. I interceded for one, a child in appearance and manner, and he was removed into the school, where he ought to have been placed long before; as his offense, though heavy, was his first, and his artless and simple behavior bespoke a want of familiarity with the ways of guilt. I saw him taken out of the circle of his associates, and I considered him as a fit object for the penitentiary, at Millbank; but a few days after he was removed to the hulks, there to be reformed, &c. I visited Newgate again on the 20th of December: it contained then but few prisoners, the sessions having lately terminated. There were only thirty-nine fines, or persons of all ages and characters, under sentence of imprisonment for a limited period; among them were Brock, Pelham, and Power; a lad sentenced to a few months' imprisonment for fraud; four of the fines were under twenty years of age. There were one hundred and twenty-three convicts under sentence for life, fourteen and seven years, promiscuously together, in different wards; of these, forty-seven were under twenty years of age, and many of. them of the early ages of fifteen and sixteen. Among the untried for felonies, fourteen out of fifty-seven were under twenty years of age. Many of these wretched beings were there for their first offences; and the Saturday preceding my visit, an account being taken of the whole number then under confinement, out of two hundred and three, tried and untried, forty-seven had been in Newgate before."

But amongst the females, wonderful improvements has been accomplished; and that too by the efforts of the benevolent and persevering Mrs. Fry, the banker's wife. It merits some detail, as it shows what may be effected where proper means are applied. To benefit those unfortunate women, a committee was formed by the activity of Mrs. Fry, who undertook to attend in the prison and find employment for the prisoners. The committee consisted of the wife of a clergyman, and eleven members of the society of friends. They suspended every other engagement and avocation, to devote themselves to Newgate. With no interval of relaxation, and with but few intermissions from the call of other and more imperious duties, they lived amongst the prisoners. At first, every day in the week, and every hour in the day, some of them were to be found at their post, joining in the employments, or engaged in the instruction of their pupils; and at this very period some of the ladies daily visit the prison. The next requisite was a matron, and a respectable elderly woman, in every way competent to the office, was found willing to undertake it, and has discharged its duties, with exemplary fidelity.

Mrs. Fry, at her husband's house, then fully represented to Mr. Cotton the ordinary, and to the governor, her views, and the plans she proposed to adopt, and the difficulties with which she saw herself surrounded. Mr. Cotton fairly told her, that this, like many other useful and benevolent designs for the improvement of Newgate, would inevitably fail. Mr. Newman, the then governor, bade her not to despair, but he has since confessed, that when he came to reflect upon the subject, and especially upon the character of the prisoners, he could not see even the possibility of success. The sheriff, Mr. Bridges, expressed the most kind disposition to assist her, but told her that his concurrence, or that of the city, would avail her but little—the concurrence of the women themselves was indispensable; and that it was in vain to expect such untamed and turbulent spirits would submit to the regulations of a woman, armed with no legal authority, and unable to inflict any punishment. She replied, " Let the experiment be tried; let the women be assembled in your presence, and if they will not consent to the strict observance of our rules, let the project be dropped." On the following Sunday the two sheriffs, with Mr. Cotton and Mr. Newman, met the ladies at Newgate. Upwards of seventy women were collected together. One of the committee explained their views to them; she told them that the only practicable mode of accomplishing an object, so interesting to her and so important to them, was by the establishment of certain rules. Each gave the most positive assurances to obey in all points. Work was next obtained for them; a room was provided, and speedily underwent the necessary alterations, was cleaned and white-washed, and in a very few days the ladies' committee assembled in it all the tried female prisoners. One of the ladies began, by telling them the comforts derived from industry and sobriety, and the pleasure and the profit of doing right. She then dwelt upon the motives which had brought the ladies into Newgate; they had left their homes and their families, to mingle amongst those from whom all others fled, and that the ladies did not come with any absolute and authoritative pretensions; that it was not intended that they should command, and the prisoners obey; but that it was to be understood, that all were to act in concert; that not a rule should be made, or a monitor appointed, without their full and unanimous concurrence. Several rules were next read, and they received the approbation of the penitent women. The plan has succeeded beyond the expectation of the most ardent.

About six months after the establishment of a school for the children, and the manufactory for the tried side, this female committee received a most urgent petition from the untried, entreating that the same might be done amongst them, and promising strict obedience. The ladies made the same arrangements, proposed the same rule; and admitted, in the same manner as on the other side, the prisoners to participate in their enaction. The experiment has here answered, but not to the same extent. They have had difficulty in procuring a sufficiency of work, the prisoners are not so disposed to labour, flattering themselves with the prospect of speedy release; besides, they are necessarily engaged, in some degree, in preparations for their trial. The result of the observations of the ladies has been, that where the prisoners, from whatever cause, did no work, they derived little, if any moral advantage; where they did some work, they received some benefit; and where they were fully engaged, they were really and essentially improved.

Two years have not elapsed since the operation in Newgate began, and those most competent to judge, a late Lord Mayor, (Wood,) the succeeding Lord Mayor (Smith,) sheriffs, the late governor, (Newman) and the present, (Brown,) various grand juries, the chairman of the police committee, the ordinary, and the officers of the prison, have all declared their satisfaction, mixed with astonishment, at the alteration which has taken place in the conduct of the females, Many have received the rudiments of education, and have learned, for the first time, the truths of the Christian religion. Several have left them, who are now filling stations in life uprightly and respectably; and but one discharged from the prison, has been again committed for a transgression of the law.

We feel assured that the reflective and the philanthropic reader will be interested with this detail; and much that is said in our notice of " Newgate," will apply to other prisons. Repetition here, as in every other part of the work, however, will be avoided, but regarding the excellent results of Mrs. Fry's system, we cannot forbear to quote the following from that lady's evidence, given before the Commons' Police Committee in 1818:

Having stated that she tried the scheme for one month, previously to its being formally mentioned to the court of aldermen, Mrs. Fry added, "our rules have certainly been occasionally broken, but very seldom; order has been generally observed; I think I may say we have full power amongst them, for one of them said it was more terrible to be brought up before me than before the judge, though we use nothing but kindness; I have never punished a woman during the whole time, or even proposed a punishment to them; and yet I think it is impossible, in a well-regulated house, to have rules more strictly attended to than they are, as far as I order them, or our friends in general. With regard to our work, they have made nearly twenty thousand articles of wearing apparel, the generality of which is supplied by the slop shops, which pays very little. Excepting three out of this number of articles that were missing, which we really do not think owing to the women, we have never lost a single thing. They knit from about 60 to a 100 pair of stockings and socks, every month; they spin a little. The earnings of their work, we think, average about eighteen-pence per week for each person. This is generally spent in assisting them to live, and helping to clothe them. For this purpose they subscribe, out of their small earnings of work, about four pounds a month, and we subscribe about eight, which keeps them covered and decent. Another very important point is, the excellent effect we have found to result from religious education; our habit is constantly to read the Scriptures to them twice a day; many of them are taught, and some of them have been enabled to read a little themselves; it has had an astonishing effect; I never saw the Scriptures received in the same way, and to many of them they have been entirely new, both the great system of religion and of morality contained in them; and it has been very satisfactory to observe the effect upon their minds; when I have sometimes gone and said it was my intention to read, they would flock up stairs after me, as if it was a great pleasure I had to afford them."

More London Prisons:

House of Correction

Tothill Fields Bridewell

Giltspur Street Compter

New Debtors' Prison

Clerkenwell Prison

Fleet Prison


King's Bench Prison

Borough Compter

Sheriffs Officers' Houses

Milbank Penitentiary

Source: Leigh's New Picture of London. Printed for Samuel Leigh, 18, Strand;
by W. Clowes, Northumberland Court. 1819