Celestina in Newgate Prison: a Christmas tale pt 15

In the last episode of the Celestina Sommer story, we left Celestina in the police van being carried off to Newgate Prison to await trial for wilful murder. Today I’m going to look more closely at what that notorious place was like when Celestina arrived there in 1856.

Newgate, 1st half of 19th century. Print by George Shepherd

Newgate, print from the first half of the 19th century *

Newgate. It was a name to terrify even the most callous and hardened criminals. All Victorian Londoners knew ‘those dread recollections that make the very name of Newgate significant of terror and vain remorse’, as Thomas Archer wrote in 1865, nine years after Celestina went there.

Imprisonment. Fear of trial, fear of sentence. Squalor, filth, depravity, corruption. Little light, little air. Transportation (which didn’t end until 1868). Execution. Despair. These words were all associated with that symbolic prison.

And Celestina would’ve been aware of them all.

What did she see when the van drew up outside Newgate on the afternoon of Tuesday, 26 February, 1856? High, almost windowless walls, soot-blackened, intimidating. The architect George Dance had designed it in the ‘Architecture Terrible‘ style; the French phrase meant ‘terrifying’, not ‘completely rubbish’, of course. The theory was that the prison would repel those who saw its ‘reinforced walls almost without windows, a deliberate inelegance, and overt symbolism such as carved chains over entrances’. It was a monumental, solid, warning.

Even so, the prison had been burned and looted just before rebuilding was finished, during the Gordon Riots of 1780. The rioters set the prisoners free – a London foreshadowing of the storming of the Bastille. The completed building managed to hold undesirables out – and in.

William Hepworth Dixon's description of Newgate, chapter 8

Dixon’s description of Newgate

The large, solid, high-walls of Newgate would be intimidating enough from the outside. But what would Celestina have seen when the heavy door opened?

William Hepworth Dixon described the journey to the women’s wing in his book, The London Prisons, published in 1850 (pp 191-224):

‘Up the narrow steps, into the turnkey’s room, and along a darkish passage, we come into a small open court, surrounded by high walls, between which a scanty supply of air and light finds its way downwards as into a well. Facing us stands a massive building, chary of windows, and those strongly grated: it is the women’s wing of the prison…

‘As soon as the ponderous locks are turned, and the heavy bars removed, we enter the doorway, and ascend the stone staircase. Suites of chambers branch off on either side; these are occupied by the prisoners who are awaiting trial. An attempt is made to classify them according to their degrees of guiltiness; but practically this is of little use, as the matron can only judge of the detenue’s grade from her own statements, or from the offence with which she stands charged.’

The Christian Socialist reprinted extracts from this book in 1851, with some illustrations of the inside of Newgate at the bottom.

Plan of the interior of Newgate, 1800

Plan of the interior of Newgate, 1800 *

The women’s part of the prison was on the right as you entered, next door to the Sessions House (or Old Bailey, as it’s usually called). Charles Dickens described it in Sketches by Boz, published in 1836:

‘Turning to the right, then, down the passage to which we just now adverted, omitting any mention of intervening gates – for if we noticed every gate that was unlocked for us to pass through, and locked again as soon as we had passed, we should require a gate at every comma – we came to a door composed of thick bars of wood, through which were discernible, passing to and fro in a narrow yard, some twenty women: the majority of whom, however, as soon as they were aware of the presence of strangers, retreated to their wards. One side of this yard is railed off at a considerable distance, and formed into a kind of iron cage, about five feet ten inches in height, roofed at the top, and defended in front by iron bars, from which the friends of the female prisoners communicate with them…’

Dickens went on to describe two inmates, ‘hardened beyond all hope of redemption’, and their visitors. He continued:

‘Two or three women were standing at different parts of the grating, conversing with their friends, but a very large proportion of the prisoners appeared to have no friends at all, beyond such of their old companions as might happen to be within the walls. So, passing hastily down the yard, and pausing only for an instant to notice the little incidents we have just recorded, we were conducted up a clean and well-lighted flight of stone stairs to one of the wards. There are several in this part of the building, but a description of one is a description of the whole.

Newgate prison: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850

Map with Newgate (green) and the Sessions House (red) in 1850 *

‘It was a spacious, bare, whitewashed apartment, lighted, of course, by windows looking into the interior of the prison, but far more light and airy than one could reasonably expect to find in such a situation. There was a large fire with a deal table before it, round which ten or a dozen women were seated on wooden forms at dinner. Along both sides of the room ran a shelf; below it, at regular intervals, a row of large hooks were fixed in the wall, on each of which was hung the sleeping mat of a prisoner: her rug and blanket being folded up, and placed on the shelf above. At night, these mats are placed on the floor, each beneath the hook on which it hangs during the day; and the ward is thus made to answer the purposes both of a day-room and sleeping apartment.

‘Over the fireplace, was a large sheet of pasteboard, on which were displayed a variety of texts from Scripture, which were also scattered about the room in scraps about the size and shape of the copy-slips which are used in schools. On the table was a sufficient provision of a kind of stewed beef and brown bread, in pewter dishes, which are kept perfectly bright, and displayed on shelves in great order and regularity when they are not in use.

‘The women rose hastily, on our entrance, and retired in a hurried manner to either side of the fireplace. They were all cleanly – many of them decently – attired, and there was nothing peculiar, either in their appearance or demeanour. One or two resumed the needlework which they had probably laid aside at the commencement of their meal; others gazed at the visitors with listless curiosity; and a few retired behind their companions to the very end of the room, as if desirous to avoid even the casual observation of the strangers.

Map showing Newgate Prison in the 1890s

More detailed map: Newgate and the Old Bailey in the 1890s *

‘Some old Irish women, both in this and other wards, to whom the thing was no novelty, appeared perfectly indifferent to our presence, and remained standing close to the seats from which they had just risen; but the general feeling among the females seemed to be one of uneasiness during the period of our stay among them: which was very brief. Not a word was uttered during the time of our remaining, unless, indeed, by the wardswoman in reply to some question which we put to the turnkey who accompanied us.

‘In every ward on the female side, a wardswoman is appointed to preserve order, and a similar regulation is adopted among the males. The wardsmen and wardswomen are all prisoners, selected for good conduct. They alone are allowed the privilege of sleeping on bedsteads; a small stump bedstead being placed in every ward for that purpose. On both sides of the gaol, is a small receiving-room, to which prisoners are conducted on their first reception, and whence they cannot be removed until they have been examined by the surgeon of the prison.’

In the following year, James Grant wrote in The Great Metropolis:

‘The remaining or third station forms the south wing, or that part of the building which is nearest to Ludgate Hill. There all the female prisoners are confined. They have two yards allotted them, each of which has sleeping wards and day-rooms attached. One of the two yards is occupied by females who are awaiting their trials. Connected with this department of Newgate, there is a school for girls. The upper story of this yard is used as an infirmary for females. The second yard and attached apartments are reserved for females under sentence of transportation for felonies and misdemeanors.’

Dickens touched on the characters of the women in Newgate. This was a huge concern for the commentators in the Victorian age. In 1852, four years before Celestina was locked up, David W.Bartlett wrote in his London by Day and Night:

Illustration of Dickens's description of Newgate: two women

Illustration of Dickens’s Boz sketch *

‘We now passed into the female department of the prison – the first room we entered contained two quite handsome young women, and as a rule there was a great difference between the appearance of the male and female prisoners. The latter were ashamed, and could not conceal it. One face was really a beautiful one, and crimsoned with blushes, but some of them seemed wholly lost to goodness, and such were indescribably more horrible than my of the men’s faces. Why is it that an utterly depraved woman looks so much worse than a depraved man? It certainly is so, and perhaps the reason is, that we all expect to see virtue and beauty in women, but we are not so confident of men and when we are disappointed, the look of Vice upon the woman’s face looks more hideous than on a man’s.

‘In one ward we saw a woman with as sweet a looking babe as ever we saw out of it. It was a touching sight – such pure Innocence in the arms of Guilt. And when we thought of the cruel scorn of the world, we wished, almost, that the babe might die, instead of living to herd with wicked men, or if among good, to be taunted with its birth. Born in Newgate let the child be gentle as the gentlest, pure as the purest and beautiful as a poet’s ideal, and that stigma would forever banish it from society.

‘There was a young girl in the same ward only eight years old, who looked as if she was frightened at our approach. We wondered how one so young could get to such a place. Her face was very pale, and she was reading a little Testament when we entered the room she curtsied to us gracefully, and as we looked at her, we thought her eyes filled with tears. She did not seem to be at borne with those around her. Close to her side there was one of the ugliest-looking hags we ever have seen, with reddish eyes, and a low forehead. Newgate has its contrasts as well as the world outside its walls.’

Parsian fahion plate, two women, 1850s

Now that’s what women ought to be like *

Women, of course, were the weaker vessel, the fairer, gentler sex, more inclined to virtue than men. So their fall was more shocking. It was… unnatural. And along with the disgust at these unwomanly women ran the fear that the relatively innocent would be corrupted by being shut up with the hardened criminals, the prostitutes, the teachers of vice.

As Dickens described in 1836, prisoners were held together in ‘wards’. Dixon’s 1850 account, earlier in this post, said that those awaiting trial were kept in ‘chambers’, so it seems that there was some segregation for them, at least.

But contemporary accounts of Newgate, complaining about the bad influence of untried prisoners on others, especially the ones found innocent, imply that there was also a fair degree of mixing. And Newgate was ‘a prison of detention, not of correction’; it only held people who had not yet been tried, or those waiting to be transported or executed. So the proportion of potentially innocent, corruptible people was fairly high.

This worry about bad influence had already led to calls for Newgate to be remodelled on the ‘separate system’, with one prisoner to one cell. This was to start in May 1857, with the men’s wards. But for now, Celestina was in with the other murderers.

Celestina Sommer would stay in the ‘awaiting trial’ section of Newgate Prison until Friday, 7 March, when she was to stand in the dock at the Old Bailey.

Further information:
The Newgate Calendar, c 1780
Wayward Women
Victorian London: Newgate Prison
Old Bailey Online: Crime, Justice and Punishment
Sketches by Boz: ebook, University of Adelaide
London-In-Site, a blog post about a visit to Newgate. The comments are worth reading, too.
Gresham College lecture: Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell

* Picture credits:
West side of Newgate, print by George Shepherd, c 1800: Akigka, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Plan of the interior of Newgate: Wimstead~commonswiki, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Illustration for Dickens’ Sketches by Boz: Princeton University Art Museum
Fashion plate: Haabet, Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Newspaper reports: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Map: Cross’s New Plan of London, 1850, via Mapco
Map: OS London, 1:1,056, 1893-95, via National Library of Scotland

Catch up with A Christmas tale:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 16


About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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14 Responses to Celestina in Newgate Prison: a Christmas tale pt 15

  1. Pingback: Another murder: a Christmas tale pt 11 | A Rebel Hand

  2. Pingback: Celestina’s life in Millbank Prison: a Christmas tale pt 22 | A Rebel Hand

  3. Pingback: Will Celestina hang? A Christmas tale pt 20 | A Rebel Hand

  4. Pingback: Broadside ballads about Celestina: a Christmas tale pt 19 | A Rebel Hand

  5. Pingback: Celestina’s trial – verdict and sentence: a Christmas tale pt 18 | A Rebel Hand

  6. Pingback: Celestina Sommer’s trial for murder: a Christmas tale pt 17 | A Rebel Hand

  7. Pingback: New evidence against Celestina: a Christmas tale pt 14 | A Rebel Hand

  8. Pingback: Celestina at the Old Bailey: a Christmas tale pt 16 | A Rebel Hand

  9. cassmob says:

    I have an idea it was a book called The Tin Ticket about Australian female convicts circa 1830s.


  10. cassmob says:

    It must always be a shock to enter any prison as a first-time offender but surely worse for women in Newgate. I’m trying to remember where I read more about it that make these descriptions seem tame…or perhaps the time period was different.


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