25 MARCH 2006, Page 34

Abodes of misery and despair

Peter J. M. Wayne

NEWGATE: LONDON’S PROTOTYPE OF HELL by Stephen Halliday Sutton Publishing, £20, pp. 234, ISBN 0750938951 Tucked away behind the concrete fretwork of Centrepoint Tower, at the dead end of a dank, rubbish-strewn alleyway, the arched entrance gate to St Giles-inthe-Fields’ churchyard provides one of the favourite (and safest) meeting points for West End crack dealers and their bedraggled bands of eager clients. Etched in bas-relief into its weather-beaten stone tympanum, a manacled brigade of skeletal human figures writhe in agony on the Day of Judgment.

We used to call it Hell’s Gate, whilst I speculated nervously on my own eventual fate at the hands of our All-Creator. But here in Stephen Halliday’s sumptuous volume of grotesqueries, I learn this disconcerting 17th-century scene is actually known as The Resurrection, and that, during the period and beyond, the cart carrying a condemned man from Newgate to Tyburn would halt here amidst the cheering and jeering mob, to allow its occupant the comfort of a final cup of wine and a perfumed nosegay to steady his fraying nerves.

Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell is bursting at the seams with such exotica. Despite my own hard and painfully won experience in Her Majesty’s now crumbling prisons, I had no idea that through out the 18th century the ‘deathsweat’ of a hanged man was collected in vessels on the execution platform before being sold to onlookers as a cure for warts and other carbuncular disfigurements; that this same condemned man would have been forced to attend the prison chapel on the Sunday before his hanging to partake in responses for his own burial service; that before his execution in 1774 the infamous highwayman ‘16-string’ Jack Ryan threw a dinner party in Newgate’s ‘buggering hold’ where he entertained no fewer than seven accommodating prostitutes; or that right up to the middle of the 19th century many criminologists still maintained that criminality was spread ‘miasmatically’ or (in layman’s terms) through ‘airborne organisms’.

A colourful, animated narrative (the raw material is any historian’s dream) weaves its way in and out of London’s multitudinous houses of correction, extending far and beyond its titular brief and the forbidding walls of Newgate. Halliday is particularly forthcoming on the role architecture plays in society’s attempt to modify the more unacceptable aspects of human behaviour. Functionalism in extremis (see, for instance, the use of intimidatory stone shackles carved like some threatening python, wrapped around the entrance columns of Charles Dance the Younger’s Newgate, rebuilt in 1778 after the border riots) led to the adoption of the ‘panopticon’ (all-seeing) prison, one of the best examples of which, Wandsworth, I presently sit in whilst writing this review, whereby visiting magistrates were able ‘to quickly inspect large numbers of prisoners without having to come near to such repugnant objects as the prisoners themselves’.

It all seemed so wonderfully straightforward when viewed through Jeremy Bentham’s rose-tinted spectacles, viz, ‘morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened, economy sated ... all by a simple idea in architecture’.

Well, indeed. Yet notwithstanding such cocksure arrogance, many of the problems which preoccupied both the establishment and the penal reformers remain with us, unresolved, in the 21st century.

Arch-lecher Giacomo Casanova described Newgate in 1764 as ‘an abode of misery and despair, a hell such as Dante might have conceived’. Three hundred and fifty years later, in diaries which describe his own brief sojourn in Belmarsh prison, Jeffrey Archer uses much the same Dantean nomenclature, entitling each volume of his trilogy Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

In Hanoverian times, innocent and unsuspecting passers by Newgate were likely to be ‘bombarded with the output of urinating and excreting prisoners’. Three days ago my cellmate was forced to wrap up his faeces like a parcel of fish and chips before ejecting it through our window because of defective in-cell plumbing and a locked cell door.

Daniel Defoe found himself imprisoned in Newgate in 1702 for publishing a pamphlet which lampooned the Church’s intolerant view of doctrinal dissenters. And if that doesn’t ring any topical bells, how about the on-going, representative-of-ourtimes debate about the influence of video ‘nasties’ on impressionable youngsters? In 1840 an awful hue and cry ensued about romanticising crime and criminals when it turned out that one Francis Courvoisier (who murdered his master Lord William Russell) had read Harrison Ainsworth’s Newgate novel about the popular thief and escapologist Jack Sheppard.

There are, it must be said, one or two factual errors. Great Marlborough Street Magistrate’s Court no longer functions as an instrument of the law as Halliday asserts, but is in fact a luxury hotel wherein the old cells have been converted (lavatory bowl and all) into trendy, subtly lit niches in the cocktail bar; whilst Jeremy Bentham’s brother sold his panopticonic plans directly to Prince Potemkin for use as a factory, not, as we are told, to build a prison.

All in all, though, this short but thoroughly compelling social history succeeds, fascinating and repelling its readers page by page in just about equal measure. After Newgate’s final demise in 1902 an auction of its ‘relics’ was held within its gloomy precincts. The sale only raised £980 for all its chattels, as one observant journalist pointed out, ‘less than its value as firewood’.

It seems wholly appropriate to this reviewer that such a monstrous edifice came to such an ignominious end. The auctioneer is not named, but I’d like to imagine him as Charles Dickens described a gang of young prisoners on a visit to Newgate in the 1840s: ‘There was not a glance of honesty, not a wink expressive of anything but the gallows or the hulks...’ Oh yes. I can visualise him now as I sit locked in my decrepit, indecorous cell on a miserable Friday afternoon, ‘as wan and unearthly as if he had been summoned from the grave’.