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The motto “Venio sicut fur” [I come as a thief] addressed new arrivals sternly from a dial above the enormous iron door, set in a gloomy, rough-freestone porch decorated with fetters, while the bells of St. Sepulchre tolled for the condemned… Contemporary descriptions vary, but Newgate was basically comprised of four major sections: the Keeper’s Lodge, in addition to its official function, sold alcohol (brewed onsite) and tobacco to those that could afford it; the Master’s side had thirteen common cells measuring 26 by 32 feet, each officially holding thirty prisoners; the Press Yard held revolutionaries and prisoners of conscience such as Jacobites and Quakers and was detached from the main building, standing alone in Phoenix Court; finally there was the Condemned Hold in the cellars. The building was designed to hold about one hundred and fifty prisoners, but the actual population usually exceeded this figure by at least another hundred, all crammed together whether awaiting trial or already convicted.  

Inside it was chaos, with one guard to every ninety prisoners. Wives were permitted to visit overnight, prostitutes could ply their trade, gambling and dancing were permitted, children and farm animals ranged freely and newspapers were even delivered daily. The air inside was thick and filthy, and a virulent form of typhus, known as “gaol fever”, carried away about thirty inmates a year. Prisoners pissed on passing pedestrians from grated windows and doctors generally refused to visit. Debtors, thieves and killers mixed socially and in this earthly Pandemonium hard currency, known as “rhino”, meant everything. The rhino may not have exactly established a prisoner’s innocence, but it could make life inside a deal easier, buying food, drink, tobacco, sex and more comfortable accommodation from the Keeper, rent on a good cell ranging from twenty to five hundred pounds per annum. This was the Newgate of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, described by a contemporary observer as: “a bottomless pit of violence, a Tower of Babel where all are speakers and no hearers”. 

Newgate was again “improved” after an entire Old Bailey courtroom full of people, including the judge, were infected with gaol fever by two Newgate prisoners on trial there in 1750 (forty died as a result). The restored prison, this time with a ventilation system, was finished in 1770. 

Stephen Carver, University of East Anglia


That first night was a blur. She was shoved into a common cell with forty or so other wretches and sat speechless against the wall watching with horror at the bedlam revolving around her. She had become one of the nightingales of Newgate, those caged birds of crime and would sob and screech like the best of them when her time came to be punished.

Because that night in the cells was nothing compared to the chill that ran through her body when her name was called a few days later and she was dragged, struck dumb with terror, into the courtyard and then through the side gate to be stripped to the waist and thrown on a cart headed for Fleet Street. Eleanor was to be whipped.


Offenders (mostly those convicted of petty larceny) were sentenced to be stripped to the waist and flogged “at a cart’s tail” along a length of public street, usually near the scene of the crime, “until his [or her] back be bloody”. Publicity was traditionally an essential feature of this punishment, but occasionally even in the late seventeenth century the courts ordered that the punishment should be carried out in prison or a house of correction rather than on the streets. From the 1720s courts began explicitly to differentiate between private whipping, which took place inside or immediately outside Newgate Prison, a house of correction, or the Old Bailey; and public whipping, which was carried out in the traditional way. Over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the proportion of whippings carried out in public declined, but the number of private whippings increased after 1772 owing to a loss of faith in the alternative punishments of transportation and the death penalty. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 (after having been in decline since the 1770s) and that of men ended in the 1830s.

There was some method in the madness. Public whipping was meant as a living advertisement about the wages of sin. It was, of course, more like entertainment to the onlookers. She was frozen, pulled through the busy streets to the accompaniment of cries and cat calls until she reached the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. The cart stopped there and Eleanor was turfed out onto the road, lashed to the back of the cart and made to run behind it as it turned up Fetter Lane and headed for Holborn. She was whipped and spat at, stumbling at speed through early morning streets for the amusement of passers-by, whipped repeatedly as she went.

She passed by the corner of Dean Street, saw the faces of the family that only a fortnight before she had been servant too, stumbled bleeding towards Holborn Hill where, mercifully, she was thrown back into the cart and trundled down the hill towards Newgate. Her last moments in the outside world were a blur of pain as she crouched in the tray of the cart and stretched her back in pain. She was barely conscious when she arrived back in her cell, felt only blood and sharp pain as some of the more experienced inmates bent over her and rubbed at her back. She knew nothing of their kindness, a kind of faint was upon her, a release of sorts from her terror.

Eleanor lay on the floor amidst the filth for hours until rare kindness came to her rescue. She was lifted onto some kind of bed and lay face down as her wounds were attended to and a savage sleep blacked out the pain.

Once again Eleanor had got off lightly. Unbeknown to her money had changed hands and reduced the length of her punishment. Her wounds were lighter than they might have been because of John Dean’s son. He had pressed a guinea into the hands of the guards as they passed Dean Street, stopped the slashing and softened the blows. She never knew.

Four months went by. She healed, she hardened, then, one day in June she smelt smoke.


4-11 June, 1780. London erupts in inter-class violence. Enraged by poverty, gin, and the bungling imperialism of the American war, rioters take to the streets. Great numbers, including the visionary artist William Blake, collect around Newgate; in a portent of the Bastille, the legendary prison becomes a focus–both literal and symbolic–of popular wrath. Walls are toppled, gates smashed; over one hundred prisoners are freed into the eerie light from the flames engulfing the adjacent house of the Keeper, Richard Akerman. George Crabbe looks on as a dozen rioters climb to halloo from the top of the prison now likewise set ablaze; seen against flame and smoke, their screaming black silhouettes remind the horrified poet of Milton’s devils. Other aristocratic homes are attacked, plundered, burned. The house of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield is ransacked, the windows smashed, the formidable railings pulled down; many of the Noble Lord’s notebooks are given to the flames. The crowd–still raging, still furious–swirls through the narrow streets of the old city before surging westward, gathering now around the Houses of Parliament. Inside, a surreal tableau: hovering near Lord George Gordon, the nominal instigator of this unrest, are several terrified MPs who, fingers trembling on the hilts of their swords, threaten to run Sir George through should the chaos outside somehow tumble into the venerable halls. Finally, after several days of more or less strategic violence, the crowd loses its focus; now motivated as much by wanton drunkeness and blind anger as by social or political solidarity, it surrounds the Bank where no less a personage than Alderman John Wilkes tries to restore some sense of order, reason, and calm. His efforts fail. Insurrection ruptures the elegant punctilios of eighteenth-century social order; the celebrated British legal system–from the lowliest prisoner to the Lord Chief Justice himself–is momentarily levelled into chaos; aristocratic and municipal authority teeters on the brink of utter collapse.                                                                                           

William Hone: eyewitness account


From our windows we saw them throw Chairs, tables, Cloaths, in short everything the House contained, & as there was too much furniture for one fire they made several, at distances sufficiently great to admit of one or 2 People passing between them – at one time I counted six of these fires, wch. reached from the bottom of the street up to the crossing wch. separates Orange and Blue Cross street. – such a scene I never before beheld! – as it grew dusk, the wretches who were involved in smoak & cover’d wth. dust at the bottom of the street, wth. the flames glaring upon them & the fires between them & us, seemed like so many Infernals, & their actions contributed to assist the resemblance they bore, for more fury & rage than[?] they shewed in demolishing everything they met with cannot be conceived – one thing was remarkable, & convinced me that this mob was secretly directly by some body above themselves – they brot. an Enginewith them, & while they pull’d Hyde’s House to pieces & threw every thing they found in it into the flames, they order’d the Engineto play on the neighbouring Houses, to prevent their catching fire – a precaution wch. it seems has been taken in every place that these lawless Rioters have thot. fit to attack. In the midst of this frightful scene Miss Kirwan arrived terrified to death – then my sister B – each got to our door thro’ the Crowd with difficulty – after several fruitless attempts to gain our House, they were just retum’d home more dead than alive – Miss Kirwan went away wth. her servant before it was dark – My sister waited for Mr. B.till near nine –


When Hyde’s House was emptied of all its furniture, the Mob tore away the windows & window Frames, & began to pull up the Floors, & the pannels of the Rooms, till some of the Neighbours, (Who had however hung blue Ribbons from their Windows the whole time to prove their Religion, & many of whom perhaps had particular reasons to rejoice in the Justice’s Disaster,) entreated them not to keep up so strong a fire before their Houses, as they had the greatest reason to fear they would soon catch, & that the whole street wd. be in a blaze notwithstanding the Engine- Upon this the Ringleaders gave the word, & away they all ran past our windows to the bottom of Leicester Fields, with lighted firebrands in their hands, like so many furies – Each carried something from the fires in our street, that nothing might escape – they made in Leicester Fields one Great Bonefire of them – the Women like the Furies were more active & busy in the business than the Men – & they continued pulling down Pannels, Doors, &c till between two & 3 in the Morning to keep up the Bonefire & totally destroy the Poor House.


Susan Burney’s eye-witness account of the Gordon Riots, June 1780


There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age, with blue cockades in their hats – besides half as many women and children – all parading the streets – the bridge – the park – ready for any and every mischief. – Gracious God! what’s the matter now? I was obliged to leave off – the shouts of the mob – the horrid clashing of swords – and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion – drew me to the door – when every one in the street was employed in shutting up shop. – It is now just five o’clock – the ballad – singers are exhausting their musical talents – with the downfall of Popery, S[andwic]h, and N[ort]h. – Lord S[andwic]h narrowly escaped with life about an hour since; – the mob seized his chariot going to the house, broke his glasses, and, in struggling to get his lordship out, they somehow have cut his face; – the guards flew to his assistance – the light-horse scowered the road, got his chariot, escorted him from the coffee-house, where he had fled for protection, to his carriage, and guarded him bleeding very fast home. This – this – is liberty! genuine British liberty! – This instant about two thousand liberty boys are swearing and swaggering by with large sticks – thus armed in hopes of meeting with the Irish chairmen and labourers – all the guards are out – and all the horse; – the poor fellows are just worn out for want of rest – having been on duty ever since Friday. – Thank heaven, it rains; may it increase, so as to send these deluded wretches safe to their homes, their families, and wives! About two this afternoon, a large party took it into their heads to visit the King and Queen, and entered the Park for that purpose – but found the guard too numerous to be forced, and after some useless attempts gave it up. – It is reported, the house will either be prorogued, or parliament dissolved, this evening – as it is in vain to think of attending any business while this anarchy lasts.                                                                                                         



Eleanor had no idea what was happening. Trapped in her common cell with the other nightingales she was cut off from the extraordinary scenes outside. Even the noise of the mob was silenced by those great stone walls. There were a hundred thousand in the streets, some say, nobody really knew the size of the riots, the great surge of the mass obliterated any comprehensive overview, they simply converged on Newgate as if by some common will. ‘Now Newgate!’ rang out and they came, surging in from all sides. One mob ran down Holborn Hill, along Snow Hill, another came in from Fleet Street and Ludgate Road, another down Giltspur

Street from Smithfield market.  The prison was a magnet, the cause of the riot forgotten. Here was a chance to strike at the heart of all the oppression they had known. They had the wild abandon of righteous men, a pack intent of reducing all the jails in London to ashes. This wasn’t about releasing the ‘No Popery’ rioters, already incarcerated a few days earlier. This

was the cry of the disenfranchised, the poor and the dispossessed in an uprising against all the forces that had trampled them in London’s history. They came armed with clubs, bludgeons and crows, from all directions, to liberate their comrades and in the process were about to embark on what Peter Ackroyd says was ‘the single most astonishing and significant act of violence in the history of London.’ Eleanor was slap bang in the middle of history, chained to a wall and unaware of any of it.

Just before eight o’clock on a hot Tuesday evening, the 7th of July they massed outside the main gate. The crowd filled the great space from St. Sepulchre’s Church, down Newgate Road, along in front of the Old Bailey, filling Fleet Lane, Giltspur Street and beyond, a seething uncontrollable rabble intent on destruction. Somewhere in the middle of it all was Mary Higgins, eyes alight, trembling with a passion that was more sexual than politic.

The Keeper’s house was the first target. Richard Ackerman was his name and he appeared on the roof, looking down on the rioters. Contemporary accounts record a brief hush falling over the crowd as one of their number shouted out, in a surprisingly polite fashion, ‘You have some friends of ours in your custody, Master!’

“I have a good many people in my custody.’ He shouted back in a voice full of that same pious authority they had come here to overturn. Not a smart move.

‘Damn you. Open the gate or we will burn you down and have everybody out!’ screeched one of their leaders, a black slave called John Glover.

This was the signal for all hell to break loose. The doors and windows to the Keeper’s House were broken down and the rioters entered. In seconds furniture, household items, curtains, papers, anything that moved was hurled out the windows as simultaneously the crowd moved upon the great door of the prison.

The furniture was piled against the door, pitch, tar and anything else they could find that was  inflammable was thrown on top. The torches of the mob were hurled into the pile and within minutes the whole thing was ablaze. A wall of flame ran up the doors as some men scaled the walls and stood, waving their torches in the air. They threw these brands upon the roof and soon that was burning too. A troop of guards, maybe a hundred charged through the crowd, intent of saving the Keeper and what was left of his house but they were encircled and attacked, their staffs and lances broken and hurled into the fire.

Those on the roof tore away the rafters and descended with ropes and ladders. Soon the prison itself was ablaze. This is when Eleanor smelt the smoke. It drifted in under the door, along with the sounds of shouting and swearing. All of them in that cell began shrieking as the cell filled with acrid smoke and fumes. Eleanor wasn’t a religious woman but she prayed to whatever God attended the poor and the unfortunate while all around her the shrieks of her fellow inmates increased in terror.

‘The wild gestures of the mob without and the shrieks of the prisoners within, expecting instantaneous death from the flames, the thundering descent of huge pieces of building, the deafening clangour of red-hot iron bars, striking in terrible concussion on the pavement below, and the loud, terrible yells and shouts of the demoniac assailants on each new success, formed an awful and terrific scene.’

Frederick Reynolds – eyewitness account


Mary was right outside the main gate when it collapsed inwards in an explosion of sparks and flame. She was shrieking her sister’s name into the smoke, gesturing wildly, screaming at anyone who could hear her that her dear, beloved sister was inside. For once in her life Mary had a purpose that didn’t revolve directly around her well-being. Mary was involved. She belonged. Some fools in the crowd even made way for her as she charged inside with the mob, believing for a moment that she cared. But she didn’t. She just took advantage of her connection and inflated her needs. She didn’t care about Eleanor, she wanted to be a star in this little drama and for one brief moment she was.

With the others she ran screaming into the prison and entered the inner courtyards. They crashed through locked doors, wrenched hinges from stone walls, smashed windows and timber with abandon, all the while shouting, screaming with wild, reckless abandon. The cries of the prisoners mingled with theirs as smoke and heat filled their cells, terror reigned supreme.

‘The activity of the mob was amazing. They dragged out the prisoners by the hair of the head, by arms and legs, or whatever part they could lay hold of. They broke the doors of the different entrances as easily as if they had all their lives been acquainted with the intricacies of the place, to let the confined escape.’

Holcroft – eyewitness account


Eleanor heard the tumult approaching. She was screaming, they were screaming as the door s splintered in front of her and a pack of fierce looking ruffians with fire in their eyes and at their back broke in. ‘Murder! Murder!’ She screeched and then the biggest of them raised a huge hammer and knocked the chains from the wall. He grabbed her by one arms and began to drag her towards the open door. Eleanor began to fight and kick until she realized that these men were here to rescue her, not rape. There was no time for questions. All around her was flame and smoke.  She was dragged, carried, pushed into the courtyard in the midst of the crowd, blinking and coughing from the smoke. Above her the roof was aflame, the falling beams of timber crashing to the ground with a terrible roar. Her legs were still shackled and she was lifted bodily onto the shoulders of a stranger and rushed down a corridor filled with smoke and what seemed to her like the wild spirits of demons, her mouth dry and eyes watering, gagging for fresh air.  Her rescuer seemed fearless, his strength never flagged as he held her fast and ran. In the midst of all this horror she heard one voice above all others. She heard her name. It was Mary.


Outside it was chaos but Eleanor scarcely noticed. She was a hero. To cries of ‘A clear Way! A clear way!’ she was carried over the heads of the crowd to the blacksmith up Giltspur Street and dumped on the ground. Her rescuer disappeared without a word and she was left with Mary while the blacksmith released her irons. Eleanor was free. She hugged her sister and in that brief moment they were family. Both of them returned to watch as Newgate burned, then, with hardly a glance in her sister’s direction Mary was swallowed up by the crowd. The younger sister staggered away, unable to believe the events of the day. She stumbled through the streets of London to an uncertain, unrecorded future and disappeared into history, never to be seen again.

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