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.

LGBT men hanged in London – in 1743

Attitudes towards LGBT people have changed over the centuries. Sometimes there have been periods of relative tolerance followed by extreme cruelty. The eighteenth century was incredibly camp when it came to fashion and manners but you could be hanged by the neck for being an active homosexual.

I know because two LGBT men were hanged for the crime of sodomy near where I live in the year 1743. They had basically cruised each other in central London and then been caught in the act.

LGBT men hanged for their sexuality

Kennington and the surrounding area has a big LGBT population these days but being gay in 1743 could have landed you in terminal trouble. In fact, the sorry scene that unfolded in August of that year reminded me of the hangings of gay people recorded in Iran in recent years.

But this was London – and barely 250 years ago. The scene of the execution was near Kennington Park pictured below in the mid-winter.

LGBT men hanged in public

James Hunt and Thomas Collins were accused of the crime of “sodomy”. The two men were from the parish of Saint Saviour’s in Southwark and had committed an act “not fit to be named among Christians” in June that year.

Both denied the charge. Hunt was 37 and Collins was 57, so both mature, grown men. Not that their age made the slightest bit of difference in an eighteenth century courthouse.

Hunt was born in Rotherhithe, reasonably well educated, apprenticed to be a barge builder when young, raised as an Anabaptist but deemed to be a bit bolshy.

While in prison, he was preached at by an Anglican vicar who reminded him that his soul was in danger of eternal torment. Hunt responded that it was those who had brought the false charges against him who had truly sinned. With the prospect of being hanged in public, it’s not surprising that Hunt continuously denied being gay.

Who wouldn’t?

Men hanged for being LGBT in public

Collins was from Bedfordshire and had served in the army, been married and a father to several children. His wife was from Southwark. Coming back to London, having been away, he was walking across London Bridge on his way to see his granddaughter. As he turned into Pepper Alley, he saw Hunt walking in front of him.

Collins asked Hunt if there was a “necessary house” nearby – for which read, public toilet. They both went in together but then two other men entered and Collins claimed they set about mugging them but found no valuables to take. Or as Collins put it – here is no feathers to pluck.

Unfortunately, the account given by Hunt put himself in the privy before Collins so their accounts clashed a bit on detail. Enough to result in a death sentence by the court.

Hunt had given his version of events to the aforementioned Anglican vicar who then passed on the damning testimony. Unsurprisingly, when the time of execution arrived, Hunt was in no mood to pray with the man of the cloth who had brought him and Collins to the gibbet.

Hunt said he was glad to be rid of this life. And he and Collins both died together. They were strung up to a tree, then the cart that had brought them drove away from under their feet. After half an hour they were cut down. Collins’ body was taken for dissection – a common practice in those days – but he was returned as his body revealed signs of venereal disease.

Terrible and brutal times for the LGBT community. Happier days now. A sad story of two gay men hanged for the crime of love.

Richard Rose – London chef boiled!

There’s a certain poetic justice in having a chef boiled to death for murder. The chief in question had poisoned some dinner party guests and in turn found himself being cooked. Not a very pleasant way to go. But this was Tudor England and cruel executions were all the rage!

This rather tasteless execution took place at Smithfield.

I used to work nearby as a journalist in the 1990s and it was still a meat market – though past its glory days. I’m assuming the place of execution may have been chosen as another poetic act. Possibly this is where the cook bought the meat that he then poisoned. And now he was going the same way as his meat.

So why was this chef boiled to death? Well, Richard Rose had got himself embroiled in the sizzling religious politics of Tudor England. He was the cook to Bishop John Fisher who had loudly opposed any attempt by King Henry VIII to divorce his queen (and first wife) Catherine of Aragon.

The bishop had cried out that he would rather die than agree to an annulment of the marriage. Henry VIII no doubt made a note of that commitment. The king was undoubtedly furious with Fisher – as was the woman who hoped to become the next queen, Anne Boleyn.

I’ve always viewed Fisher as a lite, sugar-free version of Sir Thomas More. He had the same arguments with Henry VIII as More did. No you can’t divorce Catherine of Aragon. No you can’t renounce your allegiance to the Pope. And no I won’t recognise you as head of the church. Both Fisher and More repeated these opinions and their heads would soon be detached from their bodies for doing so.

The role of the chef soon to be boiled

Henry VIII didn’t lash out at Fisher immediately. Even though the bishop was apparently plotting with the Holy Roman Emperor for an invasion of England to overthrow his own king.

Instead, somebody appears to have approached the chef in Fisher’s household and offered him enough money to poison his master’s dinner. Unfortunately, the bishop wasn’t very hungry that evening but two of his guests were starving and wolfed it all down. They promptly died.

Sadly, the charitable bishop was also in the habit of sharing his table leftovers with the poor – and some of them died too.

Realising that the cause was the food, it didn’t take long to work out that the culprit was the chef. Richard Rose was arrested, interrogated and realised his goose was cooked. So he duly confessed. In no time at all, he found himself standing in a large cooking pot in Smithfield with an unsympathetic audience booing him while he boiled.

But who had paid the now boiled chef to kill Fisher?

Tongues were soon wagging in Anne Boleyn’s direction. She was an ardent Protestant but more importantly, she was thoroughly hacked off that the sanctimonious bishop had prevented her marriage to King Henry VIII.

No hard evidence was forthcoming and the king – putting his “I’m really shocked by this” face on – agreed to the chef being boiled in public. Maybe it was more important to make the point that servants should never entertain the idea of slipping toxic substances into their master’s meal.

POSTSCRIPT: Ten years later, a servant girl called Margaret Davis was also boiled to death for trying to poison her mistress and some other people.

Below is a depiction of a Tudor boiling alive from the TV series The Tudors – look away if you’re squeamish.