Crime and Punishment, Regency Style

I’m in the early stages of my next Regency story.   Unlike “The Debutante’s Dilemma”, which takes place in the upper echelons of late Georgian society, this story deals with people facing a very different setting, namely Newgate prison.

Now, I need to admit that almost as much as I enjoy writing, I actually enjoy the research nearly as much. (Yes, yes, I know.  Bizarre but there you have it.) There’s just something so enjoyable about digging down, finding out interesting facts, and then shaping them to fit the dramatic confines of a story.   So I thought I would share a little about the notorious prison that played such an important role in the Georgian justice system.

Built at the corner of Newgate and Old Bailey streets, west of St. Paul’s Cathedral and just across the street from St. Sepulchre’s parish church and Ludgate Prison, there was a prison on the site since the early Tudor period, if not even earlier.  The prison known to Regency folks however was actually a contemporary building, built in 1780, after the 17th century prison was burnt to the ground during the virulent Gordon riots.  The rebuilt prison was ultimately demolished in 1903, to make way for a new complex of justice buildings, which were built on top of both Newgate and the Old Bailey Justice Hall.

The failings of Newgate were legendary and well known even to contemporaries who were often innured to the worst abuses of the period.   It was chronically overcrowded.  Typhus, or gaol fever, was rampant, its impact made more severe by malnourishment, lack of any meaningful sanitation or personal cleanliness, and carriers like fleas, ticks and rats.   Children were incarcerated with parents and oppressive garnishes or fees meant that many prisoners languished behind bars long after their sentences expired, due to lack of funds.

Rooms intended to hold forty were often crammed with more than double that number, especially after the introduction of transportation to New Holland (Australia), because convicts for transport often waited inside the prison for months on end until their ships were ready for them.  A commission in 1811 found that prison, which was built to hold approximately 400 souls, male and female, routinely contained more than 500, and occasionally as many as 800.   It wasn’t until the early 1820s that the prison became the exclusive confine of convicted criminals and those charged with felony offenses; prior to that the prison housed a sizeable debtor’s population as well, who were housed in the western-most quadrangle.

Interesting facts about the prison:

  • there were three classes of prisoners: the common wards, which included those in the Chapel and Press Yards and  those in the Master’s side and the State’s side.   Prisoners who could afford the garnish and weekly fees could upgrade to the better conditions afforded in the latter two wards.   It cost 13s 6d to be admitted to the Master’s side and a further 2 s 6d/week for the bed, plus a ‘garnish’ of half a guinea for coal, candles, plates, knives and forks.   In addition, the prisoners there were responsible for providing their own linens, bedding and food and were barred from receiving any portion of the weekly allotment of meat.  The set-up was similar in the State side, except that the fees were even steeper: 10s 6d for a single bed in a room shared by four men, or 7s/week to share a bed.

  • all male prisoners, with a few exclusive exceptions, were subjected to ‘ironing’ or the wearing of manacles during their imprisonment.  The standard irons weighed between 3 and 4 pounds; heavier sets weighing as much as 8 pounds were reserved for punishment
  • prisoners were given 14 ounces of bread per day, given every other day, and a once weekly share of 8 stone’s (112 lbs) worth of meat, a fixed amount which was divided amongst all the prisoners, regardless of the total prison population.
  • The prison had its own tap room and prisoners were able to purchase alcohol freely throughout the day, at their own expense.

  • visitors to the prison were allowed daily between 9am and 9pm and had the free run of the prison during that time.   Prostitutes were ubiquitous and as one Victorian historian waspishly notes, wives, “real or reputed” frequently spent the night on the wards thanks to the practice of offering “bad money” in the form of 1 shilling to the turnkeys.

There were sporadic attempts at reform; the prisoners could attend chapel on Sundays and an infirmary and doctor were assigned to the prison.  But it wasn’t until the second decade of the 19th century that serious investigations and reform efforts took root.  Led by the efforts of reformers like Elizabeth Fry and others, and coupled with parliamentary and royal commissions, the prisoners’ conditions improved, albeit at a glacial pace.

Two excellent books available online at the Internet Archive cover many of these topics in great detail and have allowed me to take copious notes.  The first, “The Chronicles of Newgate” by Arthur Griffiths (1884) in two volumes, (Vol 1) and (Vol 2), details the history of the prison and its most notorious prisoners from its earliest days.  It also includes several official reports, including those from 1811 and 1814, in their entirety.    The second, “The Old Bailey and Newgate” by Charles Gordon (1904) is a very good overview of both the prison and the justice system that populated it and includes many photographs of the prison taken just prior to its demolition.

In my next post, I’ll talk a little about the justice system that was meting out the sentences imposed on the accused, the Old Bailey and what a Regency criminal trial consisted of (which, frankly, was not much of anything!).


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