Back from freezing France where I was, at least, able to do some chunky reading, quickly despatching the above-titled narrative history of Newgate prison by Stephen Halliday. The descpription “prototype of Hell” comes from Henry Fielding, one of the 18th century’s big personalities. A dramatist, writer and impressario, on becoming the chief magistrate of Bow Street, he set to work cleaning up the local criminal justice and penal landscape which had become saturated in corruption. Unfortunately, after the death of his brother John who succeeded him, the system soon returned to its old ways.
The Fieldings were two participants of dozens who populate the Newgate story. The prison, sited next door to the Old Bailey, witnessed the trials, incarceration and deaths of many thousands of men and women for some seven centuries. More died from disease within its walls than ever did at the gallows. Along with petty criminals and debtors, its inmates included celebrities such as Dr Dodd, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, political agitators, traitors, sex offenders and those deemed to be a general thorn in the side of authority such as the writer Daniel Defoe. All the significant dramatis personae of the Newgate story here are given separate pen-portraits, an approach I really like. One can take a break from the narrative and make a mental note to find out more later about those whose story extends beyond their relationship with the prison.
The value of this book is not just in the absorbing tale of Britain’s most notorious prison, but the history of crime and punishment in England across the ages and society’s response to them. One soon gets the measure of the essentially medieval system that persisted through to the late Georgian period and how it failed to contain crime, despite the “Bloody Code”, in the world’s most populous city. But the most interesting part of the story is how the penal system was thorougly transformed, from its faltering beginnings with the Fieldings through the Victorian era and into the 20th Century.
One would think it not too challenging to write a story as colourful as Newgate’s that was thoroughly entertaining and indeed, Stephen Halliday achieves this with ease. But the reward of a good history book is to leave the reader truly enlightened on a particular subject and in this the author is throroughly successful.
Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, The History Press, 2006. 317 pp. ISBN 978-0-7509-3896-9,