It can’t have escaped your notice that I’ve been on a bit of a London gaols thing of late, notably Newgate prison.
Today marks the execution at Tyburn in 1724 of Jack Sheppard, possibly Newgate’s most notorious inmate, a huge celebrity in his day. He met his fate aged just 22. A promising carpenter by trade, he became a common criminal, capturing the imagination of Londoners through a string of audacious escapes in the brief six month period leading up to his execution.
Escape #1. Having been betrayed by his brother Tom, a fellow-felon and partner in crime, Sheppard was initially set up by Jonathan Wild, a criminal gang-master and fence, who nonetheless operated on both sides of the law, working for the other side when it suited him. Sheppard was invited to play a game of skittles, there apprehended and locked up in St Giles Roundhouse. Within three hours he had broken through the ceiling and lowered himself to the ground from the room above using the classic rope of bedclothes. He made his getaway, still manacled.
Escape #2. Sheppard is caught pickpocketing on 19 May and banged up in St Ann’s Roundhouse. He is joined there by his girlfriend Elizabeth Lyon (who was instrumental in leading him into the criminal life in the first place). They are transferred to New Prison, Clerkenwell, where they spend some days filing through their manacles. Once again, on 25 May, Sheppard uses the knotted bedclothes method for the both of them to depart the building, negotiate a twenty foot wall, and make their escape.
By now, Sheppard’s exploits are reaching a wide audience.
Escape #3. Sheppard immediately resumed his career but once again was betrayed by his associates, including Jonathan Wild. He was arrested on 23 July and charged with burglary. On 12 August, he was convicted and sentenced to death, the date of execution being set for 4 September . This time he found himself an inmate of Newgate prison. On 31 August, he had visitors, who distracted the guards sufficiently for Sheppard to remove the bars of the window and get away yet again, this time disguised as a woman.
Escape #4. Sheppard was re-captured on 9 September in Finchley and returned to Newgate. He now had super celebrity status and received dozens of admiring and curious visitors. This time he was incarcerated in a strong room, manacled and chained much more securely and furthermore padlocked to metal staples attached to the floor. Nonetheless, he laughed at his gaolers’ efforts and was right to do so. On 15 October, Sheppard managed to remove his handcuffs and chains, but still manacled broke through a series of six doors, gaining access to the prison chapel, then via the roof of the prison itself and onto the roof of a neighbouring house. He broke through the house and escaped out of the front door.
Once again, Sheppard sought refuge in the country, and once again was drawn back to the city. He was apprehended one last time, the authorities on this occasion taking no chances, chaining him to heavy weights under 24 hour guard. He spurned the opportunity for a reduced sentence in return for shopping his accomplices, and on 16 November, was hanged. The crowd that gathered for his final procession and execution was estimated at 200,000, over ten times the throng for a high-profile despatch.
Jack Sheppard became an instant legend. Already he had had his portrait painted in prison and been the subject of dozens of pamphlets and newssheets. After death he was the object of biographies, ballads, plays and musicals, not least The Beggars’ Opera.
There is excellent coverage on Jack Sheppard at Wikipedia, here.