What Was Newgate Prison?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Newgate Prison was an infamous prison which operated in London for over 700 years. It has featured in a number of novels and films about British history, and conditions in the prison inspired many 19th century social reformers, who were justly horrified by the squalor of Newgate. The history of Newgate prison is turbulent, and during the years that it remained in operation, it held a wide range of Britons, from famous people like Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d'Arthur, to debtors who were unable to settle their accounts.

Newgate Prison operated in London, England for over 700 years.
Newgate Prison operated in London, England for over 700 years.

The prison no longer stands today, but it was located on Newgate Street, in close proximity to the Roman Wall which once encircled London. The street and the prison were named for the nearest gate in the wall, although a clear explanation for the gate's name has been lost in history. Historians theorize that Newgate was named after an expansion of St. Paul's Church near Ludgate led to increased traffic, causing the city to create another gate for people who wanted to circumvent St. Paul's.

During its time as a prison, Newgate Prison held  prisoners awaiting trial.
During its time as a prison, Newgate Prison held prisoners awaiting trial.

Originally, Newgate had a small prison house, which was expanded into a full prison in 1188 on the orders of Henry II. This prison was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666, after which it was rebuilt again. In the 1780s, a series of violent riots ruined Newgate Prison again, and it was rebuilt just in time for the gallows of London to move to Newgate Prison in 1783. In the early 19th century, social reformers raised awareness about conditions in the prison, leading to some changes in the prison's structure. Ultimately, the prison was closed in 1902, and destroyed in 1904.

During its time as a prison, Newgate Prison held prisoners awaiting trial, people who had been convicted to death, and debtors, among others. The layout of Newgate Prison included an area for “common” prisoners, as well as more luxurious cells for people who could afford to pay for them. The prison provided no amenities beyond its cell walls, and conditions inside could be extremely grim, especially for those without help on the outside.

It is unfortunate that Newgate Prison was destroyed, since it played an important role in British history. The building which replaced it, the Old Bailey, is an important historical building itself, serving as one of the major criminal courts in England. Numerous depictions of Newgate Prison can be found in contemporary writing and art, fortunately, so the prison's sordid history is unlikely to disappear entirely.

Newgate Prison was replaced by the Old Bailey court building.
Newgate Prison was replaced by the Old Bailey court building.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

jholcomb

Charles Dickens wrote several novels that had scenes set in Newgate. He had some experience in that area - when he was a boy, his father was in Marshalsea Prison for debt. Your family could stay with you in prison, and they would be able to leave to work to pay your debt. Young Charles worked in a blacking factory before he was able to return to school.

I'm not sure if it was Newgate, but I'm pretty sure I remember a debtors' prison in David Copperfield, for instance. I think David visits his impecunious friend Mr. Micawber in one.

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