Newgate was the original London gate on the west side of the city.

New Gate spanned the Roman road that led out west through the streets now known as Newgate Street, Holborn, Oxford Street, Bayswater Road, and Notting Hill Gate. The road then continued onwards to the settlement of Silchester and the West of England. The original Roman gate was probably built as a triumphal arch at an earlier time than the wall. There was a Roman burial ground outside the wall to the north-west of the gate, at the modern-day Smithfield. During Saxon times it was known as Uuestgetum, or West Gates, indicating a double gateway, probably similar to that of Roman times.

According to the Tudor historian John Stowe the medieval gate was built in the 12th century during the reign of either Henry I or King Stephen. It was double-arched with a portcullis and at around that time acquired its name of Newgate. The road within the city leading to the gate became known as Newgate Street, although parts of it were called Blowbladder Street and Shambles due to the butchers’ stalls that lined it. Outside of the wall, around the city, was a defensive ditch, and in parallel outside of that, running south from the gate, the street of Old Bailey developed in the 12th century.

A prison was created at Newgate in the reign of Henry II during the 12th century where prisoners could be held while awaiting trial. Henry III instructed the sheriffs of London to repair the gaol in 1218 “for the safe keeping of his prisoners” and one of the gate’s turrets was extended in 1236 to enlarge the prison. A courthouse was located close by to undertake trials of those held in the gatehouse. At some point Henry III sent the sheriffs to the Tower of London and fined them when a priest who had killed a prior escaped. Further extensions and enlargements to the gate and its prison followed in the early 15th century, including a room for female prisoners.

Newgate prison had a notorious reputation for its appalling conditions, with regular deaths caused by the squalor and disease. In around 1414 the keeper and 64 prisoners died of ‘gaol fever’. As a result Richard Whittington left money to rebuild the prison, which was completed in 1432. By the middle of that century the prison could hold 300 male and female prisoners.

Following the failed rebellion of 1450 against the government of King Henry VI, its leader Jack Cade was publicly beheaded at Newgate. The prison housed many famous prisoners over the centuries, including Titus Oates, William Penn and Daniel Defoe.

Outside of the gate stood the Church of the Holy Sepulchre-without-Newgate, still in the same location today. From the 16th century the well-known Saracen’s Head coaching inn stood adjacent to St. Sepulchre.

Prisoners who were condemned to be hanged were taken by horse-drawn cart from Newgate, often several at one time, to the gallows at Tyburn, the modern-day Hyde Park Corner. Large crowds congregated along the route to witness the spectacle. From 1605 a handbell was rung at midnight and a prayer recited for prisoners to be executed the following morning. The handbell is still preserved within St. Sepulchre. The church bells were rung to mark the time of the execution and flowers given to the condemned as they passed the church gates on their way to Tyburn.

Newgate was loathed by many and occasionally came under attack. It was badly damaged during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. A mob involved in large-scale attacks on immigrants marched on Newgate in 1517 where they freed several of their number who were being held there.

Repairs to Newgate were completed in 1633 but it was destroyed 33 years later in the Great Fire. It was rebuilt to be stronger and more convenient, with a central archway for carriages and a separate postern gate for pedestrians. The new gate contained statues of Justice, Mercy, and Truth on the east side, and Peace, Plenty, Concord, and Liberty on the west, the latter having Whittington’s cat at its feet. The courthouse was also rebuilt at the same time in an Italianate style.

In the latter part of the 18th century a new prison building and courthouse were constructed near to the gate. Following the removal of the prison, the gate was demolished in 1777, the last of London’s city gates to disappear. The new prison was near completion when it was attacked and badly damaged in 1780 during the Gordon Riots. The prison finally closed around the end of the 19th century. A new courthouse opened on the site in 1907, by then known as the Central Criminal Court, or more generally called the Old Bailey according to the street in which it stands.

<Back to The City Wall and Gates of London

Sources include:

  • Alan Brooke ‘Gates of the City of London’
  • Walter Thornbury ‘Old & New London’
  • John Morris ‘Londinium’
  • Dominic Perring ‘Roman London’
  • Stephen Millar ‘London’s City Churches’

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