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The Gaol

 Clive Emsley looks at a lively history of Newgate prison

Published: October 31, 2009 at 9:48 am

Reviewed by: Clive Emsley
Author: Kelly Grovier
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £9.99


 The 20th century began on a wave of penal optimism. The demolition of Newgate prison, begun on 15 August 1902, seemed to symbolise the new, liberal penal ideology. The Newgate that fell was the third prison to have stood on the site over some 800 years. Its two predecessors had been destroyed by fire. Newgate had housed almost all of London’s most celebrated criminals – even a candidate for the real Robin Hood. It also held those who, in the 16th century, dared to challenge religious orthodoxy. They made their last journey through its gates to the agonising fires that awaited in nearby Smithfield. In the late 17th and 18th centuries street robbers, never quite as romantic as the chroniclers and novelists portrayed the ‘gentlemen of the road’, awaited trial at the adjacent Old Bailey and, if convicted, made the long, loud progress to the hanging tree at Tyburn. From 1783 Newgate itself was the scene of executions – publicly, on ‘the new drop’, until, in 1868, decorum required that they be conducted within walls.

Crime in the past, as now, attracted authors keen to provide thrills for their readers. The ordinary of Newgate, the clergyman who attended the condemned on the gallows, published his accounts of offenders from the late 17th century. Various Newgate Calendars appeared in the 18th century. Dickens and others then delighted respectable readers with the so-called Newgate novels.

Kelly Grovier’s lively history captures all of this, and more. He has a sharp eye for the vivid anecdote and skillfully situates his colourful, tragic and often grim and ghastly characters in the changing economic, political and social landscape from the Middle Ages to the end of Victoria’s reign.


Clive Emsley’s latest book is The Great British Bobby (Quercus, 2009)


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