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Inside Newgate

Accompanying the warder on a tour of Newgate Prison (and expressions of horror at the condemned prisoners' burial ground).

Published in The Railway Review, 16 July 1880, - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.

Illustration: Front of Newgate from the Old Bailey, from 'Old and New London', vol.2, [1878?], by Walter Thornbury.

Front of Newgate from the Old Bailey, from 'Old and New London', vol.2, [1878?]

My guide was an elderly and experienced warder, and by way possibly of making known to me in as polite a manner as possible that if I had gained admittance under false pretences and with sinister intentions I should find that I had made a serious mistake, he led the way to an apartment, and opened a cupboard where the fetters were kept — a bright, shining row of the modern pattern, with a few examples of the ancient "darbies," such as, I suppose, were used at a time when the art of breaking out as well as getting into Newgate was a branch of the "professional's" education — monstrous things, some of them — and unhitched a pair of wrist-irons from the hook; and they weighed at least a quarter of a hundredweight, and the leg-irons to match were even more massive. In the same receptacle, and evidently preserved as precious mementoes of the past, were the anvil and hammer with which at the last moment the cruel blacksmith struck off the galling incumbrance, together with several other interesting relics of the good old time. The irons, I was informed, were seldom or never used now, except when prisoners were in course of removal from one prison to another. I came on many other things that used to be the pride and glory of Newgate, but which had been abandoned since the renowned criminal stronghold had mended its manners. For instance, a prison uniform is now unknown at Newgate, and no manner of compulsory labour is performed by the incarcerated. I certainly saw a goodly dose of oakum, but this, I imagine, was for the light amusement of the well-behaved, who found idleness irksome. I saw, too, the black hole — half a dozen black holes, indeed — but no one was ever placed in them. Another Newgate institution, observed from time immemorial, is now obsolete — the condemned sermon. I ascertained this from my conductor as we stood in the prison chapel. As of old, to the left and to the right there are spaces in which the criminal congregation is accommodated, railed off from the rest of the sacred chamber by spiked bars of iron, stout enough to secure the most ferocious creatures of prey ever exhibited at a menagerie; and there too was the doomed one's chair (I always understood that he sat in a pew), a stiff and straight-backed black chair which, when occupied, was placed apart from any other seat, and in fair view of the parson in the pulpit. But he now participates in the sermon in common with the rest, and is never specially preached at. But if there is no condemned sermon, Newgate is still faithful to its condemned cell. Except for its terrible associations, and for the fact that hundreds of miserable wretches have sat at that table and lain on that bedstead, counting the rapid hours that seemed so hungrily anxious to eat up their dwindling remnant of existence, there is nothing dreadful about the condemned cell. It is about the size of an ordinary underground back-kitchen, and about as well-lighted. There is a little shelf, on which repose the dying man's plate and his pannakin, and his hymn-book and Testament, and his Bible, unnecessarily branded "Newgate" on the leaves. There is a very small deal table and a little form, and these last-mentioned articles of furniture, as well as the floor-boards, are scrubbed white, and the vaulted ceiling is white, and the walls. There is many a cell in which a poor man with his family is condemned to live and pay several shillings a week for, in the shape of rent, that is not nearly so desirable a place of abode as regards cleanliness and good ventilation.

But there is one feature of Newgate's interior, a recollection of which will probably abide in the memory of the man who sets eyes on it, long after all else connected with the grim prison is forgotten — the murderers' burying-ground. When one reads that "the body of the malefactor was the same afternoon buried within the precincts of the gaol," the natural inference is that there is a graveyard, that there is a spot at the rear of the chapel, very likely, set apart for the interment of those who are sacrificed to the law's just vengeance, and that, though the unhallowed hillocks are devoid of head or footstone, there is a registry kept, by which the authorities can tell whose disgraced remains they cover. This, however, is by no means the system adopted. The guide, unlocking a door, discovers a narrow paved alley, between two very tall, rough-hewn walls, which are adorned with whitewash. The alley is, perhaps, five-and-twenty yards long, and not so wide but that two men joining hands could easily touch the sides of it, and at the end there is a grated gate. "This," remarks the civil warder, "is where we bury'em," and you naturally conclude that he alludes to a space beyond the gate, and that he is about to traverse the alley, and open it. Instead of this, barely has he stepped over the threshold than he points to the letter "S," dimly visible on the wall's surface, and, says he, "Slitwizen, who was hanged for murdering his wife and burning her body," and before your breath, suspended by the startling announcement, is restored to you, he lays his forefinger on another letter a few inches off. "Ketchcalf, who cut the throat of his fellow servant; Brambleby, who split his father's skull with a garden spade; Greenacre, who murdered Hannah Brown and afterwards cut up her body;" and so, as he keeps shifting barely a foot at a time along the face of the whitened wall, he goes on adding to the horrible list, while the ghastly fact dawns on you that every letter denotes a body cut down from the gallows, and that the pavement you are walking on is bedded in the remains of who shall say how many male and female murderers? We are comparatively moderate in modern times in the use of the hempen cord as a remedy against man-slaying; but this was nearly a generation since, when business was exceedingly brisk in that line, and a hanging was looked for in the Old Bailey on a Monday almost as much as a matter of course as the cattle-market in Smithfield on a Friday. Then, as now, the dreadful little lane between the high walls was the only place of sepulchre for those who passed out to death through the Debtor's door. The very paving-stones bear witness to the many times they have been roughly forced up by unskilled hands that a hole may be dug for the reception of the poor coffined wretches who wear quicklime for a shroud. There is not a whole paving-stone the length of the alley, and they are patched and cobbled and mended with dabs of mortar in the most unhandsome way. "A very large number must have been buried here at one time and another," I remarked. "Bless you, yes, sir," replied the Newgate warder of long service, "you can't see half the letters. They used to be all over the other wall as well, but, being whitened every year, the letters at last got filled up." It was not a pleasant idea, and I believe that the cracked and unstable condition of the paving-stones suggested it, but it came into my mind as I scanned the walls and made out scores and scores of ancient letters, showing ghostlike through the obliterating whitewash, what a hideous crowd it would make if those to whom the initials applied could all in a moment be recalled to life. The narrow alley would not hold them all. There would ensue such a ferocious crushing and striving for escape that there would be murder done over again, and such work for Mr. Marwood that he would be striking for extra pay.