The Gaol is a history of London’s infamous Newgate Prison which operated for over 800 years before finally closing in 1902. Being one of London’s main prisons for so long meant that the place has been long associated with various famous characters, literature and historical events. In this rather short book (its less than 300 pages) the author attempts to tell Newgates story through the stories of some of its more famous and not so famous inmates.
Rather than give a history of Newgate using a chronological time-line, the author instead largely bases each chapter on the various crimes and lives of its inmates. For example one chapter is based on highway robbery and another on those inmates that managed to escape. Writing the book in this way means it can be difficult to get a sense of the period of history the author is referring too as the time frame jumps about but it also means that the individual stories are told giving more of a close-up to the life in Newgate Prison.
Famous inmates include (and believe me there is a big list) Casanova, Daniel Defoe and William Penn. What I have found already though is how many times Newgate is mentioned in literature. I am currently reading Great Expectations and not only is Newgate mentioned but Pip has a tour of the place (as did Dickens himself). I have also recently finished Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connell and again Newgate was featured.
The full history and the changing conditions of Newgate are far too large to mention here but many aspects of the prisoner’s lives, crimes and executions are covered. Given that the government’s policy during the 18th century was to use execution as a means of crime prevention meant that a stay in Newgate was often short and the public executions outside the gates would draw large crowds. Prisoners had to pay for everything making the position of the gaoler a rather lucrative one which was hard to get.
If you want a more detailed history of Newgate then I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you are using it as a starting block but I would recommend it for anyone interested in the subject and is more interested in the prisoner’s lives rather than important dates.Posted by Jess