The Gaol

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am

The Gaol

by Kelly Grovier

John Murray


The good old days?

If you think modern life is the pits, give thanks that you didn't live in a Britain darkened by the malevolent shadow of one of history's most notorious prisons.

Baghdad's Abu Ghraib has its revolting horror stories, but as an icon of state-approved abuse tipping over into the sadistic, Newgate, London's most terrifying 'big house' for almost 800 years, is the poster boy.

Treated almost perversely by Kelly Grovier as a kind of 'theatre' for the condemnation of guilty and distressingly often innocent inmates (no soft-soap 'reintegration into society' here), Newgate imparted deep despair into the hearts of prisoners fettered in rancid cells in frigid stone labyrinths, some, below ground level, in Stygian gloom.

Across the stage of his learned but dispiriting social history comes clanking a chain gang of conspicuous inmates: the 13th-century outlaw Roger Godberd, whose more familiar identity may have been Robin Hood; Sir Thomas Malory, Arthurian author and unreconstituted rogue; his literary fellows Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and Robinson Crusoe creator Daniel Defoe; and Captain Kidd, perhaps the most celebrated of Caribbean pirates.

The supporting cast comprised murderers, forgers, highwaymen, thieves and Jacobite conspirators; the culpability of many was in serious doubt but such was the unjust nature of the legal 'system' that 'insinuation was often sounder than proof', writes Grovier. For example, the intimation of guilt, allied to the theatrics of crown prosecutor Sir John Silvester, was enough to hang servant and cook Eliza Fenning in 1815 on suspicion of trying to poison her employers. Silvester was a flagrant womaniser spurned by the accused; denied the expected 'co-operation' from a female defendant, he showed no leniency.

Such was the nature of 'justice' and so terrifying the notion of Newgate in the popular imagination, its reputation, and those of its execution grounds at Smithfield and Tyburn, buttressed by the gory, greedily devoured news-sheet accounts of the latest hanging, burning, beheading or quartering.

With prisoners' rights non-existent, physical torment and casual cruelty were the order of the day for centuries. A method of torture known as peine forte et dure was employed on those refusing to enter a plea to avoid trial. The accused would be stretched across his cell floor and a plank placed on his chest. Metal weights were added until the prisoner relented or, after unbearable suffering, his rib cage collapsed and he died.

Religion, predictably, was usually the source of the most barbaric method of dispatch: burning at the stake. In the 16th century, as England dithered between Protestantism and Catholicism, 'the lethal pendulum of pious preference' saw one side frequently roasting the supporters of the other after heresy was deemed a capital offence. And bringing a depraved appetite for butchery to each brutal, public spectacle facilitated by fire, axe, sword or rope were the crowds in their innumerable thousands.

Execution days were tantamount to festivals, with entertainers, refreshments and music to keep the punters happy while waiting for the condemned star turns to fry, lose their heads or squirm on a gibbet.

The Gaol, having been destroyed and rebuilt several times, was finally erased from the London landscape in 1902 to be replaced by the Central Criminal Court (generally referred to, ambiguously, as the Old Bailey). Having been neither the largest nor the oldest prison in Britain, it owed its notoriety largely to the abominable conditions inside.

Unfortunately for Grovier, the action within and without was so appallingly rich that his history of this beacon of darkness is often lost in a blizzard of anecdote. Ultimately, his attempt to dissect Newgate's sinister mystique is frustrated by its irrepressible drama.