For 100s of years Newgate Prison was the most potent symbol and reality of state repression in London, the ultimate representation of terror for the poor. From those driven to crime by the economics of serfdom or capitalism, rebels, political activists, smugglers, poachers, heretics and reformers, transgressors of the moral codes… (and obviously a lot of very nasty folk too…)
Opened in the 12th century, originally as part of one of the gates in London’s wall, but gradually expanded to a massive complex of cells and courts. It became a place of hate and fear… generating a thousand nicknames (the Whit, the Burrowdamp Museum, the College, the rumbo-ken, the Start, the Jug, the Sherriff’s Hotel, the Stone Tavern, the Stone doublet…)
From here thousands left in the morning to be drawn in the cart to the hanging tree; thousands more to be transported to bonded labour overseas; tens of thousands to be whipped, pilloried, locked in the stocks…
A shadow of doom… and inevitably of resistance. Throughout its history the Newgate terror complex faced constant resistance, in the form of riots, escapes, and attacks from outside by rebellious crowds.
Escape attempts, solo and collective, were common, even endemic. Jack Sheppard’s famous breakouts became the most legendary, but the centuries were filled with plans, plots and the occasional success.
An example, from 1771:
“October 10: About ten o’clock at night, a conspiracy was detected at Newgate: a number of transports, to the amount of thirty, had, for some time, formed a design to break out; they attempted to put their scheme in execution about nine, and luckily, were discovered, at the time above mentioned, by the keeper; who having some suspicion of their intent, went in among them, and found them at work with two iron crows (weighing about thirty of forty pounds each) to effect their purpose. The ring leaders were closely confined, immediately after, and everything ended peaceably. Great numbers of files, saws, pins &c. were found on several of the transports.”
(from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1771.)
By transports, is meant those under sentence of transportation to the penal colonies.
Only three weeks after this foiled escape, another plot was uncovered: “Oct. 31: About eleven o’clock at night, a conspiracy was discovered in Newgate among the felons, four of whom had found means to saw off their irons, and had formed a desperate resolution to fight their way out; they were immediately secured by the keepers, who took from them a number of files, saws, etc.”
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online