I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Newgate Calendar was an enormously popular British publication of the 18th and 19th centuries. According to exclassic.com “The Newgate Calendar was one of those books, along with a Bible, Foxe’s Books of Martyrs, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, most likely to be found in any English home between 1750 and 1850.”
The book dealt with the misdeeds of offenders who found themselves in London’s Newgate Prison. It might have served as a moral road map, but, no doubt many readers lapped up the details between its covers because they were salacious and lurid.
Newgate Prison Had Old Roots
The first jail on the site occupied by Newgate Prison was built in 1188; it served as the last home for many of London’s most notorious criminals for almost 700 years.
It was London’s chief prison and the place where the condemned spent their last few days before execution. Spartacus.schoolnet.co relates how, “Every Monday morning large crowds would assemble outside Newgate Prison to watch the men and women executed. A seat at one of the windows overlooking the gallows could cost up to £10. Public executions were abolished in 1868 and until 1901 prisoners were hanged inside Newgate.”
Until 1783, executions were carried out at Tyburn, about two-and-a-half miles to the West of Newgate. Prisoners were taken to the gallows in horse-drawn wagons past throngs of jeering crowds who would pelt the villains with rotting produce.
I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry.”
Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, 1813
Newgate Calendar Compiled from Broadsheets
Following the execution of a particularly infamous criminal, peddlers sold broadsheets describing the event. Some even fashioned poems and songs which were read or sung in gin houses for tips.
The keeper of Newgate Prison had the idea of collecting these stories and publishing them as a monthly accounting of the execution of highwaymen, rapists, pickpockets, and all the other ne’er-do-wells that passed through his hands.
The first issue to come out in book form was published in 1773. According to The British Library its full title was “The Newgate Calendar; comprising interesting memoirs of the most notorious characters who have been convicted of outrages on the laws of England since the commencement of the eighteenth century; with anecdotes and last exclamations of sufferers.”
It went on to offer readers a “Genuine and Circumstantial Narrative of the lives and transactions, various exploits and Dying Speeches of the Most Notorious Criminals of both sexes who suffered Death Punishment in Gt. Britain and Ireland for High Treason, Petty Treason, Murder, Piracy, Felony, Thieving, Highway Robberies, Forgery, Rapes, Bigamy, Burglaries, Riots, and various other horrid crimes and misdemeanours on a plan entirely new, wherein will be fully displayed the regular progress from virtue to vice interspersed with striking reflexions on the conduct of those unhappy wretches who have fallen a sacrifice to the laws of their country.”
The complete collection was published in four volumes between 1824 and 1826.
In one edition, a frontispiece showed a picture of a mother handing a copy to her son. She is pointing out of the window to the body of a criminal hanging from a gallows. And, just in case the image was not enough to scare the wits out of the child, the following verse was included:
The anxious Mother with a Parents Care,
Presents our Labours to her future Heir
“The Wise, the Brave, the temperate and the Just,
Who love their neighbour, and in God who trust
Safe through the Dang’rous paths of Life may Steer,
Nor dread those Evils we exhibit Here.”
A Famous Newgate Case
A favourite entry in the Calendar recounted the life and death of Catherine Hayes; it was covered in five pages, such was her notoriety. She led a promiscuous life and seems to have had an almost insatiable sexual appetite that could not be satisfied her husband John Hayes. She took numerous lovers, one of whom was her own son from a previous liaison.
In March 1725, she persuaded two of her lovers, Thomas Billings (her son) and Thomas Woods to kill her husband. After getting him drunk, the two men killed Hayes with an ax and dismembered his body. But, they were sloppy in disposing of their victim’s head, which was discovered and identified.
In April 1726, the three came up for trial at the Old Bailey. Billings and Woods were charged with murder, Hayes with “petty treason.” Having previously confessed, the three were found guilty and sentenced to death, Billings and Woods by hanging, Hayes by burning at the stake.
Hayes had to witness the hanging of her son Thomas Billings before her turn came. It did not go well for her. It was the normal practice to strangle women with a rope before the flames reached them. But Richard Arnet, the executioner, made a mess of it; the flames came too close to him and he let go the cord, leaving Catherine Hayes to die agonizingly and slowly in the fire.
- The Old Bailey is Britain’s Central Criminal Court and it stands on the site originally occupied by Newgate Prison.
- William Duell, 17, was taken from Newgate Prison to be hanged at Tyburn in November 1740. After 20 minutes, he was cut down and his body taken to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection by anatomy students. But, as the scalpels were about to start cutting he began breathing. The authorities took pity on him and changed his sentence to transportation to North America. He is thought to have died in Boston in 1805.
- Some of Newgate Prison’s inmates included: Daniel Dafoe (seditious libel), Giacomo Cassanova (alleged bigamy), William Penn (improper preaching), Ben Jonson (murder in a duel), and Oscar Wilde (homosexual acts).
- The Newgate Calendar gets a mention in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger’s pal Charley Bates laments that the Dodger’s arrest for the petty crime of stealing a purse will keep him out of the encyclopedia of criminals. “Oh, why didn’t he rob some rich old gentleman of all his walables? . . . How will he stand in the Newgate Calendar? P’raps not be there at all. Oh, my eye, my eye, wot a blow it is!”
- The Complete Newgate Calendar is available online from several websites.
- “Newgate Prison.” John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, September 1997.
- “Catherine Hayes.” Exclassics.com, undated.
- “The Newgate Calendar.” British Library, undated.
- “The Alphabet Library: N Is for The Newgate Calendar, ‘a Runaway Bestseller’.” Tim Martin, The Telegraph, May 27, 2014.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on December 08, 2019:
I had heard of the Newgate Calendar, but never knew what it was. I figured it for a type of Poor Richard's Almanac. I could not have been more wrong it seems. Thank you for this informative piece.