The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


4    From Rag Fair to Vauxhall Gardens

The Geography of the Underworld

Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.

England had a much higher rate of urban growth than any other country in Europe. London itself was by far the largest city in Europe, perhaps the largest city in the world. Between 1700 and 1800 the population of London grew from nearly 600,000 to nearly 1,000,000. Towns throughout England – and not just London – tripled in size, while the population of the country as a whole increased by three-quarters (from about 5 million to nearly 9 million). Excluding London, in 1700 only 6 towns had a population between 10,000–100,000, but by 1800 there were 48 towns with this number of people. The number of towns with a population of 2,500–10,000 more than doubled, from about 60 in 1700 to about 140 in 1800. Between 1700 and 1800 the population of Birmingham increased more than six-fold, from 10,000 to more than 70,000, and Bristol trebled, from 20,000 to 60,000. The other key cities by 1800 were Sheffield at about 45,000, and Norwich and Bath at about 35,000 each. This remarkable transition from a rural economy to an urban economy was almost certainly the main reason for an apparent increase in crime – and also a proportional decline in prosecutions, owing to the increased difficulties of controlling the crime wave.

This dramatic increase in the size of towns was due to migration from the countryside. Urban mortality rates remained very high, many more people dying from diseases and accidents in the town than were born in them. But this was more than compensated for by the flood of people attracted to the greater opportunities for making money in towns, and especially in the great metropolis of London.

Fielding in his Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers (1751) observed that 'Whoever indeed considers the Cities of London and Westminster, with the late vast addition of their suburbs; the great irregularity of their buildings, the immense number of lanes, alleys, courts and bye-places; must think, that, had they been intended for the very purpose of concealment, they could scarce have been better contrived.' Just off the main streets was a thief-harbouring warren of which the upper classes were largely unaware.

Thieves' Dens

The Complete Modern London Spy in 1781 conducts the reader not only to the major tourist sites such as St James's Palace and Green Park, but also 'gaming-houses, bagnios, and other nunneries, night-houses, jelly-houses, taverns, ordinaries, round-houses, watch-houses, public-houses, coffee-houses, masquerades, eating-houses, debating societies, tea-houses, hotels, lodging-houses, promenades, routs, assemblies, spouting-clubs, the theatre, and all places of public or private reception about Covent-Garden and other parts of the Capital'. Many of these institutions were perceived to have degenerated from their original purpose, or to have been overtaken by more salacious establishments.

A jelly-house is 'one of those places whither effeminate beaux sometimes resort of a morning; and rakes and girls of the town meet at night. There was formerly a greater number of these; but as there is a fashion in all things, so the taverns, bagnios and genteel night-houses, have taken away great part of their business; there are enough of them left, however, for people to spend their money in knick-knacks, or pick up a wench, upon occasion.'

Night-houses – taverns that remained open all night – were originally intended as refuges for hackney coachmen and others whose business called them out at all hours of the night. Early in the century, most of these had become 'haunts for the idle and vicious'. Around midnight, night-houses began to fill with whores, thieves, drunkards, foolish tradesmen and vagrants. The common night-house the Brown Bear in Covent Garden was 'equally frequented by bloods, bullies, pimps, chairmen, and those persons who are unfortunate enough to be shut out of their lodgings'. Slightly more genteel night-houses catered to 'officers, rakes, barbers, tailors, apprentices, bullies and whores'. Men who picked up women in Drury Lane or Covent Garden, after having taken their pleasure, would retire alone to a night-house to sleep until the morning, when they returned home to their wives.

Many night-cellars had an area with cubicles where people could sleep. As described by Ned Ward in an issue of The London Spy in 1699, a 'snoring-kennel' near Billingsgate was less than salubrious: 'Its walls were adorned with as many unsavoury finger-dabs as an Inns of Court bog-house. The ceiling was beautified like a soldier's garret, or a Compter chamber, with smutty names and bawdy shadows sketched by unskilful hands with candle-flame and charcoal.' A common trick of thieves, according to Defoe, was to invite watchmen into a night-house and make them drunk. However, the watchmen were familiar with the night-houses in their area, and knew who frequented them, so were often able to take constables there to apprehend likely suspects for any theft that had occurred that night. Thieves were often caught with the goods in a night-house, where they were waiting until morning when they could fence them.

Alehouses and brandy-shops (where cheap spirits were sold) were often established to cater for the needs of the criminal fraternity – as venues for prostitutes to practice their trade and as venues for receiving stolen goods, as well as places of entertainment for rogues. John Thomson, when he received his pay at the end of eight years' service at sea, married a lewd woman and set up an alehouse in Smithfield 'in which they entertained persons of the most dissolute lives'. She soon left him, but in due course he married another woman and they took a disorderly house 'for the entertainment of lewd and dishonest company' in Thames Street, for which he was sent to Newgate. After his discharge, he opened a brandy shop near Smithfield where again the usual riots and disorders were carried on. His female associates would pick up men and take them to his brandy shop, where he would demand an exorbitant price for the drinks and where the women would rob them. At his pub in White Fryars near Water Lane, when two men were thus taken in, 'We computed the reckoning to be one shilling, but Mr. Thomson swore it was twenty-three shillings' and upon their refusal to pay this sum, Thomson locked the door and with three other fellows assaulted the two men. 'We refusing to pay twenty-three shillings for two or three pots of beer, and a little cherry-brandy, the bullies fell upon us, swearing and cursing and damning us at a terrible rate, and threatning to kill us. One of them broke a broomstick with beating me, and then got a red hot poker and run it at me.' They were freed after agreeing to pay five shillings. The two women were acquitted of stealing a snuff box and money from the men, which they claimed were gifts.

On another occasion, these two women picked up a man, saying that they would be obliged if he would see them safely to their lodgings, which turned out to be Thomson's house, 'and there they would needs have me drink a dram, they call'd at once for a bottle of cherry-brandy and drank full glasses, which made me suspect they were no better than they should be. I drank but little myself; and when the glass had past 2 or 3 times round they pull'd up their coats above their middles and shewed me what they had got. Then they told me as I had seen what they had got, they must see what I had got, and so fell to unbuttoning my breeches, and in the mean time pick'd my pocket.' One of these women was successfully convicted, and transported, despite claiming that the man had given her the money to fetch some rods to flog him with.

Thomson was several times convicted on minor charges, and eventually was convicted for receiving goods he knew to be stolen and receiving a reward for returning them to the owner. While awaiting execution, he confessed that 'the many vicious women he had convers'd with, the riotous houses he had kept, the intrigues he had pursued to injure honest people, and the clamorous mirth of their success, were so far from affording that happiness which he expected from them, that he found they were very painful and gave him great uneasiness; for they were frequently alarmed, many times suddenly surpriz'd, always in terror and under apprehensions of danger, and commonly one or other of their company was in trouble.' All his friends had forsaken him, and there was no one even to take care that he was decently buried after he was hanged on 12 May 1721.

Rag Fair

Many areas of London had ancient privileges as criminal sanctuaries during the medieval period, which were finally abolished only by 1712, and even then the Mint (near the Tower of London) continued as a sanctuary for debtors. Because of their history, these sanctuary areas continued to serve as criminal ghettoes: Whitefriars and 'Alsatia' (between Fleet Street and the river Thames, which Hogarth portrayed as the 'Thieves' Kitchen'), Whitechapel, Smithfield, Bankside, Covent Garden, and parts of Holborn such as Shoe and Fetter Lanes. There were 'no go' areas such as the riverside district from St Katherine's to Limehouse, notorious streets such as Chick Lane which police officers seldom dared to enter, and slums associated with crime such as the rookeries around St Giles's Church.

Goodman's Fields and Rosemary Lane, commonly called 'Rag Fair', in Whitechapel, was London's major street market for old clothes – and stolen goods. From 2 or 3 o'clock until nightfall the poorest people in London gathered there to sell rags that were somewhat finer than the tatters they wore on their backs, and thieves used the opportunity to pass their stolen taffeta, silk, lace and other textile goods to the brokers or fences in the nearby streets. Magistrates tried to suppress the fair, but without success, for the 'traders' were defiant – they were so poor that they feared neither gaol nor punishment. Most of the rag-pickers were vagabonds, but some had earned enough by their industry to operate from a little hut about the size of a dog kennel, from which they sometimes swapped food for clothes. Women walked among the crowd carrying baskets of pancakes and dumplings, offering oysters and sex. The cheapest prostitutes of London milled amongst the tattered multitude at Rag Fair: 'It's a rare place for a miser to lay his lechery at a small expense, for twopence will go as far here in woman's flesh as half a crown at Madam Quarles's, and with much less danger of repenting his bargain.' The 'Hayfield', a pub in a back lane of Rag Fair kept by Winifred Ward, was used by several women for picking up men in the 1740s and then taking them to Ward's private house several buildings up the lane. The Jew Isaac Alvarez Dacosta, one of the major pawnbrokers-cum-receivers at Rag Fair, lived next door to the sign of The Hayfield. Jewish hawkers of second-hand clothes were especially visible at the fair, though most of the alehouses were Irish, as were many of the dwelling houses. Randolph Branch and his notorious gang of violent highway robbers in the 1750s would meet at Prince Frederick's Head in Rag Fair to plan their robberies, and in due course would pass their booty, especially watches and jewelry, to a Mrs Stitchborne, who operated as their fence and kept her own public house at Rag Fair. John Travis, the burglar known as 'Moco Jack' who was hanged in 1734, used to spend nearly the whole day with his accomplices drinking at Mrs Church's brandy shop at Salt-Peter-Bank, in Rag Fair. Throughout most of the century, constables often went to one of the brandy shops lining Rosemary Lane, where they arrested men who had just fenced their stolen goods at Rag Fair. Several alehouses-cum-lodging-houses in Rosemary Lane, for example the Sun and Wheathead, were known for harbouring thieves.

Watercolour of Ragfair by Thomas Rowlandson

Rag Fair, watercolour by Rowlandson

If a sweating labourer took off his fustian coat and set it aside and it was snatched, it would turn up next day at Rag Fair, or even the very same day. In 1730, when Anne Gilner discovered one night around 8 or 9 o'clock that two gowns, two pairs of stays, a waistcoat and two pairs of breeches were missing from her room, she went straightaway to Rag Fair, where she discovered her satin gown being offered for sale by a woman who had just bought it from two men at an alehouse. In 1728 Mary Coe, a poor washerwoman, came home one day about 2 o'clock after a half-day's work to find her chamber door broke open and all her goods gone. She went with several neighbours to Rag Fair 'and was no sooner got there, but they heard a woman crying, Who will buy a frying-pan, a pair of tongs, or a poker?' The thief was captured, convicted, and transported. Thomas Bailiff admitted in February 1719 that he had taken a Holland sheet with him after spending the night at an inn, which he pawned the next day at Rag Fair (he was convicted and transported).

The notoriety of Rag Fair could also be exploited as an excuse for possessing stolen goods. For example, John Dixon in October 1723, when chased by a man whose handkerchief had been picked from his pocket, and which was discovered lying at his feet, claimed that the handkerchief around his neck, plus the handkerchief in his pocket, plus the handkerchiefs under each arm, had all been purchased at Rag Fair and he was taking them to be washed; Dixon was not believed, and was sentenced to transportation. In April 1726 George White, accused of trying to sell a stolen calamanco gown and petticoat, claimed he had bought them at Rag Fair for his wife, but she had recently died so he was selling them (he was convicted and transported). James Robinson, who in 1716 was caught trying to hide a bundle containing stolen clothes in a hole in Goodman's Field, claimed he had obtained them at Rag Fair (he was convicted and branded).

Brokers were always careful to make sure they could prove whom they bought their goods from, and they were seldom prosecuted unless they had in effect commissioned the theft. The sale of the goods had to be traced from one dealer to another, and no one along the line would be prosecuted until they reached someone who could not prove they had not bought them from someone else. The dealers who occupied premises in Rag Fair formed networks among themselves. When Edward Rudge in February 1725 found his stolen cloth coat at the old clothes shop kept by Anthony Areton at Rag Fair and accused Areton of stealing the coat, Areton claimed that he had bought it from Jonathan Hughes, who in turn claimed he had bought the coat from Joseph Walters, who in turn claimed he had paid a certain Bains 9s. 3d. for the coat to be fetched from pawn. The upshot was that the actual act of theft could not be pinned on anyone, and no one was convicted.

The highway robbers Thomas Edwards, James Tripland, and Thomas Past, who robbed a clergyman in Swan Alley, were apprehended trying to offload their goods at Rag Fair, notably the parson's hat. A man standing by his shop door at Rag Fair saw two of the men 'playing the rogue together, and pushing one another over the kennel', one of them wearing 'a great flopping hat, without loops. Says I to my journeyman, does that great hat look as if it belongs to that fellow?' Their accomplice Thomas Beck, who turned King's evidence against his colleagues, said 'We were bid 8s. 6d. and a quartern of rum for the hat in Rag-Fair, but we thought it worth more; and so we went thence to the Poultry Compter to see a young woman.' Women while they were in prison often acted as fences. The woman who regularly fenced their stolen goods was Sarah Whittle, who was called 'The Receiver' by other women in Rag Fair. However, several Rag Fair women gave her a good character in court and she was not charged, though Edwards pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death in February 1732. The other two men were acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence. Beck, who had said 'I must hang three, or else I shall never get my discharge', was released, but arrested two months later for an attempted robbery during which he had stabbed a man who he claimed was a boyfriend of Sarah Whittle, who was bringing false charges against him. His testimony was desperately full of lies and improbabilities. He was sentenced to death, though the Justice received threatening letters from some of Beck's other accomplices. Sarah Whittle was indicted for receiving stolen goods on several occasions, but acquitted, and she was mentioned as a receiver in other trials not directly involving her. At the trial of Dorothy Carter for stealing twenty-two yards of lace in October 1733 (she was sentenced to death), one witness testified that she went with Sarah Whittle to Mr Smith's house at the Cheese and Pump in Rag Fair, 'and says I, Will you lend Sarah Whittle a guinea upon this lace? No, says he, I'll lend her nothing upon her own account, if she was going to Tyburn.'

Bartholomew Fair

Any public area where large numbers of people mingled was sure to be infested by thieves and prostitutes. The concentration of people guaranteed a high number of hits, and greater chances of escaping undetected. John Price (hanged for causing the death of a woman he raped in 1718) for several years was part of a gang of young pickpockets and gypsies who frequented all the town fairs in the southern counties, until being arrested in Bristol. James Filewood alias Vilet, a pickpocket who advanced from stealing handkerchiefs (clouting) to stealing watches and money (and who was hanged in 1718), was typical in always being present at the King's opening of Parliament, the Lord-Mayor's Show, exercises and mock fights in the Artillery Yard, visits of Ambassadors to London, the opening and closing of the playhouses in Drury Lane and Lincoln's Inn, Southwark Fair and Bartholomew Fair – 'or any other place where a great concourse of people is drawn together upon any occasions'.

Bartholomew Fair, held for two weeks in West Smithfield during May for most of the century, was the great occasion for fleecing pockets, whether by outright theft or by con tricks. 'Merry Andrews' whipped up excitement in the crowd, persuading them to enter the various 'droll booths' to see plays and wonders. These clowns made ugly faces and comic gestures, at which 'the clod-skulled audience' gazed transfixed, and even blew their noses upon the unsophisticated crowd, 'who were mightily pleased, and laughed heartily at the jest'. While they were laughing, they were being divested of their money and handkerchiefs by nimble-fingered pickpockets, and inside the candle-lit booths they were cheated by card sharks and other conmen. In 1728 a theatrical booth at Southwark Fair (operated by, among others, the novelist Henry Fielding), was advertised with the claim that 'there is a commodious passage for the Quality, and coaches through the Half-Moon Inn, and care will be taken that there shall be lights, and people to conduct them to their places.' This suggests that special efforts had to be made to attract non-working-class people to the fairs.

Bartholomew Fair, by Ackerman, 1808

Bartholomew Fair, by Ackerman, 1808

The Fair offered many entertainments. There were 'whirligigs', a kind of ferris-wheel, with stagecoach-like boxes full of children going round and round. The shopping area around Hospital Gate, facing Bedlam Hospital which lined one side of the Fair field, was a popular 'rendezvous of jilts, whores and sharpers'. There were music-houses on the northwest side, where Scaramouches enticed customers in to watch demonstrations of fancy dancing, which they could sometimes join. In some booths various tightrope entertainments provided opportunities for titillation, notably the celebrated 'German Maid', of whom Ned Ward said, 'if she be but as nimble between the sheets as she is upon a rope, she must needs be one of the best bedfellows in England.' Strolling players came in from the country to demonstrate their dramatic skills in the various theatrical booths, in competition with more professional theatre companies. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a tremendous success in the legitimate theatre in 1728, was also performed by the Company from the Haymarket Theatre at the George Inn in Smithfield during the fair, to such great acclaim that they promised to perform it again at Mr Penkethman's great Theatrical Booth. In 1729 it was performed again by Rayner and Pullen's Company of Comedians at the Black-Boy, on the Paved Stones, near Hosier Lane, Smithfield, during the time of the Fair, beginning at 11 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. The more usual fare was Robin Hood, an opera performed at Harper's Theatrical Booth in 1730. Spectators were often hurt by the hastily constructed booths falling down, and performers often fell from their tightropes.

Each fair season, the newspapers were filled with reports of watches being stolen and pockets being picked while people stood gazing at the 'drolls' of the fair: the deformed men and women born without arms, fire-eaters, contortionists, dwarfs and giants, such as Henry Blaker, the British Giant, 7 ft 5 in. tall, who exhibited himself at the Swan Tavern on the Paved Stones, West-Smithfield, in May 1751. A writer to the Chronicle in August 1758 complained of the 'debauchery, lewdness, and inhumanity; which . . . appears to be the chief intention of the fair'. Young men, profaning the name of God and King George, 'made it their sport to knock down all persons, whether men or women, that stood in their way', treating the women who fell to the ground with great indecency, and generally terrorizing the neighbourhood. One of the disorderly houses opened during the fair was 'a receptacle for the most abandoned strumpets that infest this city', and in another house 'the lower part was filled with rabble, the middle part with a puppet show, and the upper part with ladies of pleasure'. Opponents of these popular pastimes claimed, with some truth, that fairs led to felony.

Pleasure Gardens

The finer sort of people went to the pleasure gardens, of which Vauxhall Gardens was the most notable. It was located along the banks of the Thames, about two miles from Westminster Bridge. It began as a landscaped garden for promenades in the later seventeenth century, with promenades and refreshments. Admission was only one shilling, so there was a great mix of the social classes, from aristocrats to soldiers and servants. The opportunity to intermingle and 'dress down' was one of the garden's attractions, though the main attraction was the opportunity for sexual dalliance in the more dimly lit walks and arbours of the gardens. It was not uncommon for as many as 6,000 people to resort there each evening. It acquired an unsavoury atmosphere by Queen Anne's day, but was rescued and revived by the entrepreneur Jonathan Tyers, who leased the property in 1728 and reopened with a grand ridotto al fresco in 1732. Each evening at 9 p.m. a bell was rung – accompanied by cries of 'Take care of your pockets!' – to summon people to assemble to see the grand spectacle, such as a lit-up landscape with tin strips creating the illusion of falling water, and clockwork animals crossing over a bridge. Throughout the garden were many perspective effects, including 900-foot-long paths framed by trees, with an arch or temple at the end. At night various transparent pictures lit from behind were situated among the groves to surprise the walkers. The central quadrangle was surrounded by fifty boxes which people hired to take their supper in, decorated with large paintings illustrating scenes from Shakespeare's plays, or history paintings, or allegories.

Overview of Vauxhall Gardens

Overview of Vauxhall Gardens

In addition to the non-commercial sexual intrigue common at the Gardens, prostitutes also frequented it. They were not always lucky in their pick-ups. In June 1762 three army officers hired lodgings for a week nearby, where they would take women they picked up as they were leaving Vauxhall. Ann Ward was serially raped by them, but had the strength and courage to prosecute them, which required bluntness about her morality during cross examination:

Counsel. Then he pick'd you up in the Park, and you went with him, intending to lie with him?

A. Ward. Yes.

Counsel. That was very odd to lie with a stranger.

A. Ward. It was, to be sure.

Q. Did you make any opposition to going with him at first?

A. Ward. I did; but he said I should be well used, and might go away when I would. I expected genteel treatment, but had the contrary.

The three officers were sentenced to death.


Outside London, the fashionable spa of Bath was surprisingly free from crime, especially considering how much temptation it offered. But perhaps the relatively low number of incidents that we know about are due to the inadequacy of the police forces and to the fact that it had no proper criminal court, which meant that cases had to be brought at the assizes in Wells, Taunton or Ilchester, whose distance from Bath would have discouraged prosecutors. The Night Watch was not properly organized until 1739, and there were few constables, though sedan chairmen could be sworn in at times of unrest, as when food rioting seemed likely during the latter part of the century.

John Wood, whose architecture had so beautified Bath, in 1749 claimed that 'honesty . . . has been so prevalent at Bath, that very little use hath been made of any of her prisons . . . People of rank and fortune rest secure in their lodgings while the doors of the houses are left open to every body; and when they appear at the Assembly-Houses their brilliant dresses subjects them to no manner of danger.' Nevertheless, one of Wood's own servants was attacked by a footpad in February 1758 on the road between Bath and Bitton, though he managed to escape on his horse. During the same week, another footpad had pulled a maidservant from her horse, 'swearing he would blow her brains out if she made the least resistance', and stole all her money (about 18s.). And in 1764 a highwayman was brazen enough to rob two ladies while they sat in a post-chaise watching an execution. There were so many spectators around the gallows that his escape route was blocked, and he was captured.

The town was small enough to maintain tight social control if the necessity arose. During the spate of threatening letters that spread across the country in 1730 (when several blackmailers carried out their threats to burn down houses and barns if their threats produced no money), fifteen constables rounded up some forty vagrants and such as could give no account of themselves, all night-walkers were examined, a noted gaming house (where unemployed footmen lost much money) was suppressed, the city gates were guarded and 'all the hedge alehouses within a mile were searched for suspicious persons', and this prevented disorder.

The Bath Council in December 1713 agreed to erect a 'cage' near the fountain in the marketplace in which to secure 'night walkers and other disorderly persons'. In 1727 one Lewis and his wife were pelted by the crowd as they stood in the pillory after being convicted of keeping a brothel. They were guilty of 'procuring young women to be debauch'd, and forcing them so to do'. Mrs Lewis was alleged to have danced naked before several gentleman, who gave her half a crown each 'for her agility'. In 1771 two women, Jane Jarvis and Ann White, were also convicted for keeping houses of ill fame in New King Street and fined. In August 1784 the Bath Chronicle reported that the parish officers had to take active exertions 'in rooting out the nest of prostitutes that have for a long time been a nuisance to the sober inhabitants in the neighbourhood of the Cross-Bath'.

Minor pilfering and shop-lifting were sometimes reported in the newspapers, and there is even some evidence of organized crime. John Poulter, alias Baxter, confessed in 1753 that he regularly stole gold and silver items such as seals, shoe buckles and tankards, which he brought to the silversmith John Ford, who melted them down into one-ounce ingots for easier exchange. Ford and his wife Betty knew full well that these were stolen goods. During the course of a single evening Poulter and an accomplice would commonly break into more than one shop selling jewelry and fancy goods, while one of the gang bought a drink for the Watchman to keep him out of the way.

A gang of artful dodgers was broken up in April 1792, when Barnett the baker, who 'had reared up and encouraged a nest of young thieves, to the long annoyance of this city', was whipped through the streets, which attracted an immense crowd according to the Bath Herald. Ordinarily the miscreant would be whipped while walking along behind the cart ('at cart's arse') but in this instance 'The criminal was placed in the cart, which not only gave the Beadle an opportunity of bestowing the lashing unchecked by the pressure of the crowd, but at the same time made the punishment more public, as every body had a view of the offender.' Due to inadequate evidence against one of the boys, Barnett could not be tried as an accessory for receiving stolen goods, a capital felony. In July 1797 the Bath Chronicle warned people to be on their guard when buying vegetables from street sellers, who had lately contrived the trick of pretending to examine the silver shilling offered to them, and surreptitiously substituting a counterfeit coin of base metal before returning it, or offering bad shillings in change for good half-guineas.


Any geography of the criminal underworld cannot ignore the prisons, the 'seminaries' where many thieves learned their trade. Newgate prison has acquired an almost mythical status and is a central focus of many criminal biographies and autobiographies. But many lesser prisons formed a system of 'colleges' in which criminals acquired more professional skills. Many a woman entered one of the Bridewells as simply a streetwalker, but 'graduated' from it as an accomplished pickpocket.

Woodstreet Compter was well known to the criminal fraternity. It was designed mainly to lock up debtors, though as the practice of  arresting people for small debts was abolished towards the end of the century, the number of prisoners was declining. However, it remained common to use Woodstreet Compter as a temporary gaol for disorderly people. According to The Complete Modern London Spy, For the present Year, 1781, 'men taken up for assaults or night-brawls were termed RATS, and the harlots or women in a similar situation, were there called MICE, and at locking up hours, crammed into a hole accordingly.' Ragged wretches were busily employed in gaming in the prison yard. The 'beds' in the common side consisted of wooden boards arranged above one another on the wall like shelves, and the prisoners had to rent their accommodation at 15 pence per week. Although there was a separate ward for women, everyone arrested for night assaults was thrown into the strong room, mixed in with thieves, unless they paid 2 shilling per night for a room on the master's side. This was reduced to 1 shilling per night after conviction, though the prisoners had to furnish their chambers themselves. There was a tap-room in the cellar below the chapel, where visitors could drink with the prisoners. Prisoners who committed offences while in prison, were put into the 'black hole'. The longer a debtor remained in the compter, the greater his debt would become, and the less likely he would be to clear it. If a convicted felon could not find surety for his good behaviour upon release, after his term of imprisonment he remained in prison as a debtor, sometimes for a longer period than the original prison sentence.

Painting of King's Bench Prison

King's Bench Prison

King's Bench Prison, near St George's Fields, was practically an 'open' prison with very lax arrangements, for non-violent offenders, primarily debtors. It covered a very large area surrounded by a wall, lined with houses for the accommodation of 2,000 to 3,000 prisoners together with their families, and a large garden where they could walk and play ball games. It was practically a small town inside the walls, with taverns and coffee houses, and small shops selling food, clothes, tobacco. Tailors, shoemakers and wig-makers carried on their trades here, providing their services not only to the prisoners, but to anyone who cared to wander into the prison, as it was not closed to the public. Only the main door itself was manned by a guard. Prisoners had the liberty to go into the 'rules' two miles outside the prison if they gave surety for their return. There were no locks or bolts inside the prison itself. Public balls and concerts were held in the prison, and the Freemasons had a hall there. About 100 prostitutes lived inside its walls to service the prisoners. Smuggled goods were sold inside the prison and could not be taxed. Some prisoners made such a profit by selling smuggled goods that they had no wish to be released. Every so often Parliament passed an 'insolvent Act' allowing the release of every prisoner (except those who owed 500 or more to a single person) who signed a document declaring themselves insolvent. These lists of bankruptcies were published in the newspapers, and many prisoners felt it was more disgraceful to be 'cleared by the act' than to remain in prison for debt. On the other hand, just prior to the date specified in each Act, many thousands of debtors would return from hiding or from abroad and present themselves to the prison preparatory to being cleared by the Act. Because they were too numerous to be contained within the prison, they were symbolically imprisoned for a few minutes and then given an undertaking to appear whenever they were called upon.

The Fleet Prison, where mainly debtors were held, was a major site on the criminal map of London. In 1729 John Mackay presented a petition to Parliament on behalf of the prisoners in the Fleet, alleging extraordinary cruelty and corruption on the part of its warden John Huggins. This prompted an official investigation which would eventually lead to the prosecution of Huggins, and which gives us much insight into life inside the prison. Huggins required exorbitant fees from the prisoners, when they were let out for the day (many prisoners were day prisoners). He also charged them much more for their chambers than he was entitled to, and they often held more prisoners than they were supposed to. They were very badly furnished, and the prisoners complained that the drains, gutters, and necessary-houses were out of repair and never cleaned, endangering the prisoners' health. The bog houses stank; after six months of not being cleaned, the prisoners themselves had to get together a contribution to pay two fellow prisoners to haul away forty tons of stinking soil that had accumulated.

Most of the inmates' offences were financial, involving a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between them and their financial counsellors. The Warden's clerk refused to deliver any declaration to a prisoner without being paid a shilling for the delivery, whereby judgment was sometimes found against them for lack of ability to pay this delivery fee. A fresh committal-fee was charged every time a prisoner was removed from the Fleet to the King's Bench (to attend hearings) and back again. Such fraudulent charges were common. The Warden charged a Chamberlain's Fee, initially 5s., as a general fee including the first pair of sheets, then an additional 2s. for every pair of sheets afterwards, though quite often no sheets were produced. The Turnkey, on discharging a prisoner, charged from 2s. to 5s., and wouldn't release the prisoner until he was paid. Many of the fees were not authorized by the regulations; many were twice as high as what was allowed by the regulations. If a prisoner died, the Warden would not release the body until he received payment from the prisoner's friends and relations for any outstanding Chamber-Rent. If the family did not come forward to purchase the body, the Warden would suffer it to lie above ground for up to two weeks, creating a nauseous stench throughout the prison, before burying it in the prison's common burying-ground.

Trial of Bambridge for murdering a prisoner in the Fleet, by Hogarth

Trial of Bambridge for murdering a prisoner in the Fleet, by Hogarth

Huggins resigned, and was tried for murdering one of his prisoners, but he was eventually acquitted. His successor Thomas Bambridge was even worse. A Parliamentary committee found evidence that he had 'hath arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons and destroyed prisoners for debt under his charge, treating them in the most barbarous and cruel manner'. Hogarth painted a portrait of the committee, showing on a table before them the spiked collars, tongs and fetters that Bambridge used to torture his prisoners. He was tried for theft from one of his prisoners, and for murder of another, but acquitted both times.

Illustration of Newgate Prison


The major prison for felons in London was in a fifteenth-century gatehouse, five stories high, at the junction of Holborn and Newgate Streets, hence its name: Newgate Prison. It had been repaired after the Great Fire of 1666, though the inside was largely unchanged. It contained a Master's side having five wards in the southern part of the gatehouse, and a Common side having thirteen wards, nine of which were in the northern section and cellar. There were also the prison office, a tap house, some community rooms, and the Chapel on the top floor. The Press Yard, the only open area, measured a mere 9 by 50 feet, beside which was the keeper's residence plus a two-storey building for the wealthiest prisoners. After 1728 new condemned cells were built in the yard, so prisoners could no longer exercise in it (the new cells were completely destroyed by fire in 1762). A large room on the second floor was used as a sort of gymnasium, and the roof was also used for exercise, until it was closed to the prisoners in mid-century because they were pelting debris on nearby buildings.

Inside Newgate, by George Cruickshank, 1845

Inside Newgate, by George Cruickshank, 1845

The prisoners themselves established their own form of government and had monthly meetings. Their own elected officers included a Steward and wardsmen. The prison's official Keepers chose four favourite prisoners as 'Partners' who assisted the turnkeys, and who also exploited the prisoners, for example by stealing their charity money, at least until their powers were curbed in 1730. These elected officers had tribunals which set codes of conduct, and they collected 'garnish' money to buy candles, coal, soap and so on. The gaol was cleaned by 'swabbers'. There was a full-time chaplain, the Ordinary, who read prayers daily and preached on Sundays and holidays, during which the prisoners were often scandalously irreverent, shouting obscenities, pissing in the corners, and carousing at the communion table.

The prison was designed to accommodate only 150 prisoners, but it usually contained 250, sometimes more. Newgate wasn't a prison in the modern sense, but a waiting stage before and after trial – it held prisoners pending fines and the pillory, or pending appeal or transportation to America. The condemned hold held those waiting to be hanged. There were more than just the prisoners in prison. Visitors came and went in great numbers, friends supplying the prisoners with food and other necessities, and sightseers coming to see a notorious highwayman. Wives often managed to stay overnight; sometimes whole families stayed there; sometimes a ward would be rented for prisoners' wives. By mid-century only nursing infants were allowed to stay with their mothers, and older children were supposed to be sent to the local parish workhouse or foundling home. But in fact many children managed to remain with their convicted parents in Newgate, for few keepers really knew what to do with them. Prisoners could also keep pets; the keeping of dogs was not prohibited until 1792, and the keeping of pigs, pigeons and poultry was not prohibited until the early nineteenth century.

Male and female prisoners had separate wards and were supposed to come together only in the chapel during religious services. But, partly because of overcrowding, the separation was not enforced rigidly, and in any case wives were allowed to be with their husbands. Women prisoners openly solicited men so they could plead their bellies if convicted, though the trial usually came on well before any sign of pregnancy became evident. Whenever the women prisoners entered chapel, the men already there made 'a dreadful row by all sorts of lewd hallooing and whooping', according to the Ordinary in 1720. Whores paid money to keepers to get entry to the gaol, even to the condemned cells – since this was not a prison for debtors, its inhabitants often had money to spend on such diversions. Newgate prison was a disorderly house writ large. Foul-mouthed hell-cat women shouted obscenities from the prison windows to passers-by, and the male prisoners often urinated out of the windows upon the respectable townsfolk below.

A major problem was that the prisoners had nothing to do but remain idle. There was no space to build a workhouse, and no space inside due to overcrowding. Excessive drinking was common, using the Newgate taphouse, and gaming and smoking were the other pastimes. A full-time tapster also provided small provisions such as candles, soap, tobacco and coal. The drinks were usually short measures or watered down, charged at exorbitant prices. Friends brought in beer and spirits, sometimes kegs as well as bottles. Late in the century, cooperatives were set up in each ward, and someone was appointed to collect money to purchase beer, wine or spirits from a nearby public house in large quantities at an economical price. Visitors and sightseers came in to drink with the prisoners, and by the end of the century the 'Free and Easy Club', a drinking society, was organized by some of the prisoners, with its own set of farcical by-laws, which held drinking bouts with music, dancing and singing. Many attempts were made to prohibit or regulate the consumption of spirits in gaol, but were laxly enforced. Attempts to regulate gambling failed.

There was a surprising degree of literacy in Newgate. Prisoners were eager to keep abreast of current events, and paid the turnkeys to deliver the newspapers. Some keepers encouraged this source of income by arranging for a literate prisoner in each ward to read the papers to his colleagues. Some prisoners studied law books and legal advice, helping others prepare their case while awaiting trial. Many studied the Bible and religious pamphlets provided for free by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Some just read for amusement: in 1719 the Ordinary complained about a prisoner who disrupted chapel by passing round a bawdy pamphlet hidden in his hat. Many of the condemned prisoners turned their hands to literature in their final days, and began writing their autobiographies, with the help of other prisoners or journalists, for which a publisher paid a fee to their family on the day of the hanging. William Burridge, who was hanged in 1722, and who confessed to crimes going back to 1718, composed some religious verse while in prison awaiting his execution.

  But now I sigh, alas! I sob,

    And sadly do lament,

  That ever my licentious Life

    So wickedly have spent.

The Ordinaries of Newgate published accounts of the confessions and dying words of those in their charge, which was a useful source of income. The long-time chaplain John Villette (1774–99) even edited other Ordinaries' accounts into the popular four-volume collection titled The Malefactors' Register; Or the Annals of Newgate (1776). Criminal memoirs and 'gallows literature' had enormous appeal during much of the century, forming an important genre of popular literature. Chapbooks recounting the lives of previous occupants were popular with the current occupants of Newgate. Some criminal biographies were forged or fictionalized, but a study of about 247 Accounts published during the first two-thirds of the century, covering the lives and deaths of 58 women and 1,129 men, has established that the details they record are substantially accurate, and can be verified from other sources, such as parish records (regarding birth dates and parentage). The Ordinary accurately reported what was accurately told to him by the criminals, namely their family history, work experience, religion, and aliases. The crimes they confessed to (including the sequence of events and the itemizing of things stolen and houses broken into) can be verified by consulting not only the trials themselves but also newspaper reports. So many of the verifiable details can be confirmed, that it seems likely that unverifiable details, such as a criminal's relations with other criminals and his account of how he became involved in a life of crime, and the techniques of his trade, are equally accurate and can provide useful windows into the genuine history of the underworld. Repentance is noticeably absent from the extended narratives contained in each Account, supposed to be written by the prisoner himself, which is a good indicator that the Ordinary did not fabricate this part of the Account.

Prisoners often wrote pamphlets describing conditions in gaol. For example, the Memoirs of the Right Villainous John Hall (1714) has a lively description of Newgate and its customs. The Press Yard, where the convicts could walk in the open air, 'scarcely out-measured a taylor's ell', and was so tiny that the sun was not actually visible except for a brief moment when it reached the noon meridian.

Once the convict had been led by the Turnkey to the main prison, the Common side, he was beset by fellow convicts demanding their 'garnish'. The four truncheon officers claimed six pence; the convicts already there required eight pence; the cook required three pence for dressing the meat sent in by charitable persons every Thursday; the swabbers demanded three half-pence for cleaning out the gaol of its filth; the person who lead him to his cell took one shilling; his cellmates took one shilling four pence. (From other sources we see that the collection of garnish money was often an abuse practised by old prisoners against new prisoners. When James Seddan, a very old beggar, was sent to the Poultry Compter as a vagrant in December 1751, two inmates took from him his walking cane, a tin bird call, and one farthing and eight pence in halfpennies – demanding it as 'garnish money' upon his entry into prison, with which they bought beer. Seddan prosecuted the two men, and the Court reproved them, but they were acquitted of actual theft. To strip a man in any prison for his garnish, was a capital offence; four men were sentenced to death in 1730 for stealing money from a man in New Prison, after holding him down and shouting 'Garnish! Garnish!')

In the lower ward, the prisoners were packed tightly, lying on ragged blankets on a floor covered with excrement, for they had to relieve themselves in the same area as they slept. As they tramped across the floor 'the lice crackling under their feet, make such a noise as walking on shells which are strew'd over garden-walks'. Adjoining this ward was the stone hold, where convicts granted a free pardon lay until they were set at liberty, and where convicts condemned to death had their chains and shackles struck off before they mounted the cart that would take them to Tyburn for execution.

Prisoners passed much of their time in a spacious room called the high-hall. On the north side of this was a small room called the Buggering-Hold, 'but from whence it takes its name I cannot well tell, unless it is a fate attending this place, that some confin'd there may have been addicted to sodomy'. In this room prisoners gathered to complain about the failure of their various legal petitions. Next to this was a larger room called Tangier, occupied by the 'Tangerines', or debtors.

Upstairs was a place called Jack Ketch's Kitchen, where the quartered bodies of traitors were boiled in pitch, tar and oil to preserve them for exhibition. Nearby were several private rooms for wealthier prisoners, and also Debtor's Hall. One floor higher were the rooms for women pick-pockets and debtors. Below all these were the cellars, in effect a large alehouse. Here prisoners had to pay for the candles, which were placed in square pyramidal candlesticks made of clay. Nearby was a dungeon reserved for would-be jail breakers or inciters to riot, and the notorious press room, where defendants who refused to plead were stretched out on the floor, nearly naked, and slowly pressed beneath heavy weights until they either agreed to plead or were crushed to death. If a defendant did not enter a formal plea, whether Guilty or Not Guilty, he could not be tried or convicted for a felony, and the state could not claim his property, which would pass to his family. He would, however, be effectively executed, though this was sometimes represented as voluntary suicide. Most people could not withstand more than 250 lbs before agreeing to plea. Nathaniel Hawes, who in 1721 bore 250 lbs weight on his breast for seven minutes before pleading, later acknowledged that he held out to gain the applause of his fellow criminals for his courage. The highwayman William Spiggot, who refused to plead so that his property would pass to his wife and three children, was noted for unusual endurance. He was visited by the chaplain, John Villette, several times during his ordeal. 'At the next visit the chaplain found him lying in the vault, upon the bare ground, with 350 pounds weight upon his breast, and then prayed by him, and at several times asked him why he would hazard his soul by such obstinate kind of self-murder. But all the answer that he made was, Pray for me, pray for me. He sometimes lay silent under the pressure, as if insensible of pain, and then again would fetch his breath very quick and short. Several times he complained that they had laid a cruel weight upon his face, though it was covered with nothing but a thin cloth, which was afterwards removed, and laid more light and hollow; yet he still complained of the prodigious weight upon his face, which might be caused by the blood's being forced up thither, and pressing the veins as violent as if the force had been externally on his face.' Spiggot finally agreed to plead when another 50 lbs was laid atop him, making a total of 400 lbs. He was nearly speechless for two days afterwards. After being convicted of one robbery, he confessed to nearly one hundred more, mainly upon Hounslow Heath or near Kingston. He was hanged at Tyburn in February 1721. Peine forte et dure was not abolished until 1772.

On the Common side one apartment was reserved for woman felons, which had a grate opening onto a foot-passage under Newgate, through which they alternately cursed the passers-by or plead with them for money and food. There were also two holding-pens, one for men and one for women, for prisoners waiting to go to the Bar at their trial in the Old Bailey. A prisoner who was acquitted had to pay his quit-shilling to his comrades. For those who were capitally convicted, there were two Condemned Holds, one for men and one for women, where they were preached to by the Ordinary or chaplain. The Sunday following their sentence they went to the Chapel at the very top of the building to hear his Condemned Sermon, which lasted for about two hours. Here the convicts sat with their black-shrouded coffins set out in front of them. Spectators were allowed in to gratify their curiosity about the final behaviour of the condemned, who varied in the performance they put on for their benefit. Some would weep and appear penitent and devout, while others would drunkenly swear blasphemies and obscenities. In the late 1720s the turnkeys earned 20 a day from selling tickets at the entrance to the chapel.

The bane of prison life was gaol fever, a kind of typhus spread by lice in the dense prison population. More people died while in prison awaiting trial, than were executed. For example, in 1726 eighty-three prisoners (65 men and 18 women) died in Newgate of distemper, while only twenty-one people were hanged at Tyburn, and in 1727 fifty-seven died in gaol while only fifteen were hanged. Gaol fever was also carried by the prisoners into the courts. In the 'Black Sessions' of 1750, the Lord Mayor, an alderman and two other judges, several counsel, the under-sheriff and several jurors died of distemper contracted in court, and sixty-two prisoners died in Newgate.

Newgate prison was not simply at the head of a university of crime, but served as an important residence for establishing the advanced status of any criminal. Even before the rise of Romanticism, a man imprisoned in Newgate acquired an aura of sublimity, an awe-inspiring mantle of horror which raised delicious shivers among readers of criminal biographies.

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