Newgate Prison: Public hangings in Victorian London

This is the first of a series of blog posts about the notorious Newgate Prison that once stood on the site of the Old Bailey

You might assume that hanging people in public had died out in England after the 18th century but in fact, these gruesome events continued right up until 1868. The authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray both witnessed some of the last hangings – which still drew crowds of tens of thousands. In fact, Dickens seems to have been a serial attender at executions while also condemning them. He was present, for example, when murderer Marie Manning gasped her last outside the Surrey County Gaol in 1849 and outside Newgate prison when Francis Courvoisier dangled from the rope.IMG_0872

I have a battered old guide to the city – London As It Is Today – published for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it tells visitors all about the delights of London’s prisons and even how they could be visited. It even lists some of the most recent executions!

Newgate prison was a huge jail standing where the Old Bailey is today. 19th century public hangings there included:

  • John Bellingham – executed in June, 1812 for shooting dead the prime minister Spencer Perceval. This was the only assassination of a prime minister in British history
  • Henry Fauntleroy – a banker hanged for forgery in November, 1824
  • Joseph Hunton – a well-known Quaker executed for forgery in December, 1828
  • George Widgett – the last person to be hanged for sheep stealing in May, 1831
  • John Bishop and Thomas Williams – for the murder of an Italian boy in December, 1831
  • Francis Benjamin Courvoisier – who killed Lord William Russell, his master, July 1840
  • Daniel Good – for the murder of Jane Jones at Putney in May, 1842
  • William Henry Hocker – for the murder of James De La Rue at Hampstead in April, 1845

My 1851 guide remarks on the imposing aspect of Newgate prison with its solid masses of granite walls.

In the open space in front of this prison, executions (now happily of rare occurrence), usually take place, with all their terrors; how many a young heart has here had its pulsation stopped! how many who once were the pride of their parents, and the joy and hope of their circle of friends, have here had their careers of profligacy and crime cut short, and in the pride of their strength, been “lighted away the way to dusty death”

In the prison chapel, there were galleries for male and female prisoners and at the centre – a chair for the following day’s condemned “shedder of blood”. Before the 19th century, his or her coffin would be placed at their feet during their last service just to rub the point home. In a small ante-room near the entrance to the prison was a collection of casts of the heads of well known executed individuals. Duplicates could also be seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s. IMG_0875

Newgate prison dated back to the 12th century but the last building dated from 1770 to 1783 and was designed by George Dance, who was the son of the architect of the Mansion House in the City of London (still standing). When it was decided to stop dragging condemned criminals from Newgate to Tyburn to be hanged (roughly where Marble Arch is today), they were simply led out to the front of Newgate and executed there – the first hanging being on the 7th November, 1783.

In another old guide to London in my possession, it states that on public execution days, local coffee shops and gin palaces would be bursting with people bargaining for seats to get the best view away from the crowds aside. You would hear the punters saying “excellent situation, comfortable room, splendid view”. The crush of people extended down Giltspur Street with criminals boasting loudly how their mates had been hanged, transported or imprisoned while they were still at large committing their foul deeds. City clerks often lingered too long and were late for work or even sacked.

When public hangings stopped in 1868 (Michael Barrett on the 26th May that year – an Irish Fenian), you would know that a life had been cut short within the prison walls by the flying of a black flag.

Should Victorian visitors wish to take a tour of the prison, they could apply to the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Home Office today), the Lord Mayor or the Sheriffs of London. Newgate Prison was finally torn down at the turn of the 20th century and the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey, was constructed between 1903 and 1906.

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