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Convict Voyages: Starting the Journey in Newgate Prison

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

Convicted criminals who were tried at the Old Bailey in London and received a sentence of transportation began their journey to the American colonies in the notorious Newgate Prison. Like those sentenced to transportation at other prisons, they waited for the next convict ship to leave port, which sometimes could be several months after sentencing. Given prison conditions at the time, it wasn’t unusual for convicts waiting to be transported to die before they even left prison.

Eighteenth-Century Prisons

Prisons in eighteenth-century England mainly functioned as holding places for those moving through the criminal justice system–much like our modern-day jails today–with debtors generally being the only long-term inhabitants. The poor condition of prisons in general made the idea of punishing criminals by placing them in prison for an extended period almost unimaginable. Sentencing a criminal to long-term incarceration would have been the equivalent of handing down a death sentence, given the rampant diseases that often ran through the prisons. In addition, prisons were already overcrowded, and the cost of building even more prisons for long-term imprisonment was prohibitive.

Eighteenth-century English prisons were often scenes of drunkenness and riot, since almost every prison had a tap room that sold alcohol to its prisoners. Some smaller prisons were even situated in public houses. The sale of alcohol was highly profitable for the keepers of jails, so much so that an Act in 1751 banning the sale of spirits in prisons was generally ignored. Prisoners received a meager diet of food, although better fare could be purchased. Felons who had access to an opening to the street were allowed to beg for food or for money, which could be used either to supplement their diet or to spend in the tap room.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of eighteenth-century English prisons was their smell. The stench coming from Newgate Prison infiltrated the entire surrounding neighborhood. In 1750, the odor got so bad that eleven men were hired to wash down the walls of the prison with vinegar and install a ventilation system. During the process, seven of the eleven men working on the project came down with “gaol fever.” Only five years later the horrible smell from the prison was still so strong that nobody in the neighborhood could bear standing in their doorways.

John Howard.
Image via Wikipedia

John Howard, who published a study of English prisons in 1777, described the intense odor he encountered at practically every prison he visited.

Air which has been breathed, is made poisonous to a more intense degree by the effluvia from the sick; and what else in prisons is offensive. My reader will judge of its malignity, when I assure him, that my cloaths were in my first journeys so offensive, that in a post-chaise I could not bear the windows drawn up: and was therefore often obliged to travel on horseback. The leaves of my memorandum-book were often so tainted, that I could not use it till after spreading it an hour or two before the fire: and even my antidote, a vial of vinegar, has after using it in a few prisons, become intolerably disagreeable. I did not wonder that in those journies many gaolers made excuses; and did not go with me into the felons wards.

Entering Newgate Prison

When prisoners arrived at Newgate Prison, they were put in irons and led through the prison gate. The keeper’s house was on the left, and below it was the “hold,” where prisoners awaiting execution were kept. Prisoners entered the hold through a hatch, and the chamber was entirely constructed of stone, with hooks and chains fastened into the floor to restrain unruly prisoners. An open sewer ran down the middle of the hold, emitting a stench that filled the entire space.

Newgate, the old city gate and prison.
Image via Wikipedia

If prisoners had enough money to pay the fees and the garnish demanded of them upon entry, they could be directed to the Master’s Side or the Press Yard. The Steward of the Ward, generally the senior prisoner who was entrusted to oversee the daily care of the prisoners, collected the garnish money, which was a fee that went toward purchasing coal for heat, brooms for sweeping, and candles for light. Prisoners who entered Newgate with money could also pay to have the weight of their irons reduced or removed entirely. Those who lacked sufficient funds to pay for the privilege of better accommodations were put in the Common Felons Side.

The Common Felons Side

The Common Felons Side of Newgate Prison was divided into five wards, three for men and two for women. Each ward had varying degrees of comfort, relatively speaking, and felons were placed in them according to how much money they could pay. Those who could not pay the entrance fees were put in the Stone Hold, which one observer described as “a most terrible stinking, dark and dismal Place, situated under Ground, in which no Day-light can come.” The hold had no beds, so prisoners were forced to sleep on the stone that paved the floor. Felons who could pay dues could be placed in the Middle Ward, which was not as dark or cold as the Stone Hold, and while these prisoners still did not receive beds, they slept on oak flooring instead of stone.

In 1724, it was observed that most of the prisoners who inhabited the Common Felons Side were

generally those that lie for Transportation; and they knowing their Time to be short here, rather than bestow one Minute towards cleaning the same, suffer themselves to live far worse than Swine; and, to speak the Truth, the Augean [sic] Stable could bear no Comparison to it, for they are almost poisoned with their own Filth, and their Conversation is nothing but one continued Course of Swearing, Cursing and Debauchery, insomuch that it surpasses all Description and Belief.

The beginning of a transported convict’s journey to the American colonies was inauspicious, to say the least.

Resources for this article:

  • Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
  • George, M. Dorothy. London Life in the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1965.
  • Howard, John. The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons. Warrington: Printed by William Eyres, 1777.
  • Langley, Batty. An Accurate Description of Newgate, with the Rights, Privileges, Allowances, Fees, Dues, and Customs Thereof. London: Printed for T. Warner, 1724.
  • Whitfield, Peter. London: A Life in Maps. London: The British Library, 2006.

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

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