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18 August 2009

Setting it Up: Prison in Regency London

We already have an idea of the setting: Regency England. To be more precise, London, late 1816. Our story begins with our heroine in Newgate Prison.

Newgate Prison, a brief history:

Newgate was first built in 1130, a small lock-up overshadowed by the Fleet. It was extended in 1188 and was able to accommodate more prisoners. It was enlarged again in 1236 and renovated in 1422. After its destruction in 1666 in the Great Fire of London, it was rebuilt in 1672, with another extension. The prison was demolished and replaced between 1770 and 1777. It was burned during the Gordon Riots of 1780 and had to be rebuilt, rapidly declining into a penal slum. By 1816, when our heroine found herself there, Newgate was overcrowded, a common problem in prisons. When Newgate was built for 500, approximately 800 convicts were resident.

The life of the prisoner was not exactly the regimented existence that we commonly imagine. Cheap alcohol flowed freely, gambling was rife, women traded sexual favors for money and for the possibility to "plead their belly" and gain a pardon. Felons could avoid execution if pregnant. Attempts to ban tobacco and prostitution always failed.

Despite all this, incarceration was not entirely benign. New prisoners had to pay and if they couldn't the other prisoners would simply take whatever belongings they believed would cover the fee. The prisoners themselves had a sort of hierarchy in place that was quite powerful. They held tribunals and decided many disciplinary matters for themselves. While things changed over the years, the general air of squalor and the strong feeding on the weak prevailed.

There were a few reformers of the early nineteenth century who attempted to bring about a change in the penal system but nothing could be accomplished without great cost and rebuilding. Certain other authorities tried to make changes but the quality of life of prisoners was not a priority.

(I should note here that I have learned more about Newgate since writing Betrayal. As historical authors, we can't know everything when we write. All that aside, I think I gave a fairly accurate, if rather dramatic, portrayal of the prison.)

So how did Bri end up there?

For the lower class citizens, punishment was harsh. Transportation was often the result for relatively petty crimes. Hanging was also an option but the British were quite fond of shipping their criminals to a penal colony.

To be totally honest, I'm not entirely sure why Bri ended up with the punishment she did. All a matter of how the cards fell, I suppose. While she had privately hoped for transportation, and thus the chance to begin a new life however difficult, she ended up sentenced to hang. Either way, in her mind, she'd be free.

Newgate is only featured briefly in Betrayal, the opening scene where we meet our heroine and within moments, our hero.

*For more details on the history of Newgate Prison and other prisons of London, check out Richard Byrne's Prisons and Punishments of London and Newgate Prison at Wikipedia. Pictures on this page are in the public domain.


Veronica Lee said...

WOW, that's great info! Thanks for sharing!!

Jaimey Grant said...

Thanx, Veronica! I enjoyed researching the subject in more detail even though Newgate doesn't feature prominently in my novel. :o)