Newgate Prison was located on Newgate Street in the City of London, on the site where the famous court, The Old Bailey, now stands. The prison was notorious for its appalling, overcrowded, cruel and unsanitary conditions. It housed a range of prisoners, including men, women and children, from those convicted of minor offenders to those awaiting execution. It would be outside Newgate’s gates that the last British prisoners to suffer beheading took place, when five revolutionary ringleaders accused of a conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet were executed on 1 May 1820.
Conditions in prisons in the 1700s were appalling. Prisoners were usually kept together in large dungeon-like rooms, and were not separated by gender or type of crime. Disease was rife and many prisoners died as a result. Following a report in 1777 by John Howard, reformers began demanding changes to make prisons safer and more secure.
Campaigners believed prisons should be places where criminals could be reformed and not just punished. Demands included separate areas for male and female prisoners, a chapel, and areas for work and exercise. Among the reformers was Elizabeth Fry who campaigned in the early 1800s for better conditions for female prisoners at Newgate Prison and spent time teaching prisoners and their families to read and write. Newgate was eventually remodelled, including separate cells for inmates, in 1858.
Among the inmates were political prisoners, imprisoned for their involvement with the political campaigns and demonstrations of the time, which were calling for a living wage, better working conditions and the right for ordinary people to vote. The most notorious were the Cato Street conspirators, led by Arthur Thistlewood, who had planned to kill members of the government in 1820. When the plot was foiled, they were imprisoned in Newgate and publicly executed outside its walls. Other famous Newgate prisoners include the pirate William ‘Captain’ Kidd, and the author of Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe.
Some writers took a more romantic and glamorous view of prisoners and prison life, in what became known as the ‘Newgate Novels’ of the 1820s-40s. The most famous of these was Charles Dickens’s, Oliver Twist (1837). The character Fagin is thought to have been based on Ikey Solomon, a pickpocket sent to Newgate in 1827.
Newgate was finally closed in 1902 and demolished in 1904.
Did you know?
The original Newgate Prison, dating from 1188, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (1666).
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.