Next up in my little illustrated history of the gates of London is this – a history of Newgate, perhaps the most well known gate of the city, owing to the notorious prison that grew up around it.
N E W G A T E
Contrary to its name, Newgate does indeed number among the most ancient gates of the city, and indeed was one of the four principle Roman gates into London.
This gate stood to the west of the city and was there for on a road leading to less important destinations than those guarded by Aldgate and Bishopsgate. Infamously renowned now as a once terrible prison, the gate itself was used, like many others in London, to house prisoners as early as the 12th century.
The theory I have seen behind the name is that it was likely rebuilt or extended around this time to accommodate the prisoners, which would also fit in with the increased traffic it received after Ludgate’s ease of use was likely lessened during the building work going on at St. Paul’s at that date. Of course, the name could also relate to an earlier rebuilding, since the gates were changed and even potentially in places rebuilt during the days of Saxon England. It was very possibly rebuilt in about 1080, as part of the improvement of access to St. Paul’s.
It was repaired by order of the king on 1218, remaining a prison, and in 1378 the order being given to move the city’s worst criminals there since it was supposedly the most wretched prison of any in London at the time. The inmates were briefly removed in the summer of 1423 due to the generosity of that great father of London, Richard Whittington, who left a sum in his will towards the rebuilding of the gate and the prison; John Coventre, John Carpenter, John White and William Grove were given licence to rebuild the gate with these funds on May 12th 1423.
The prisoners of Ludgate were again moved to Newgate between 8th April 1431 and 16th June that same year, the prisoners having complained that their new situation at Ludgate was dirty and unsanitary.
There was a break out from the prison by John Offrem in 1255, a murderer, the story of whose escape reached the king and, after a blundering attempt by the sheriffs and jailors to explain why it had happed, he fined the city a vast some of some 3000 marks, which I make to be some two million pounds in modern money.
The prison was the scene of another notable break-out in 1457, when three members of the Percy family –Thomas Percy, Lord Egremond; Sir Thomas Percy; and Sir Richard (or Ralph) Percy – being kept there on charges of a disorderly skirmish that had killed several people, caused a riot and escaped to petition the king for release. The remaining prisoners took over Newgate and held off the sheriffs of London and their men, until a call was sent out for the citizens of London to come to the law’s aid and help subdue the disorderly criminal mob. The three members of the Percy family who had escaped, however, seem to have been successful in their attempt to earn a pardon, although within less than a decade each would lie dead on different battlefields of the Wars of the Roses.
The gate was largely rebuilt in 1555 following a fire, again between 1630 and 31, and was supposedly destroyed in the great fire of 1666 – although my research suggests it was only damaged – its reconstruction after this did not occur for six years.
The statues on this gate were figures of Liberty, Justice, Mercy, and Truth, and two figures whose original names are lost to history.
In the early 1700s a windmill was added to the top to aid the ventilation of the cells. All this time it continued as a prison, and this last form vanished in 1767, shortly afterwards replaced by a brand new prison complex.