The Gaol: The Story of Newgate, London’s Most Notorious Prison

Written by Kelly Grovier
Review by Edward James

Forget Alcatraz, the Bastille, or the Black Hole of Calcutta: the most notorious prison in history was surely Newgate. For over a century successive editions of The Newgate Calendar rivalled the Bible as a bestseller. Not all the grim histories in The Calendar concerned the inmates of Newgate, but the name sold the book.

This was partly because the prison had such a long history. It was first built in 1188, was rebuilt twice and not demolished until 1903. Over 1000 inmates were hanged in the gaol or on the scaffold outside during the 19th century and countless thousands were taken from there to die at Tyburn in the centuries before; even more perished of ‘gaol fever’. Grovier retells several of their stories, but unlike The Calendar he also tells us about the executioners and gaolers and the prison reformers, notably Elizabeth Fry and, in his own way, Charles Dickens.

The book is very readable, and we learn a great deal about how English society treated its offenders over 700 years. My only cavil is that £25 seems a high price for quite a short book which is interestingly but not lavishly illustrated. Perhaps the fact that it was broadcast on Radio 4 inflates the price.