Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Gaol, by Kelly Grovier

3 stars

A fascinating and very readable look at the long and murky history of Newgate prison, this features a parade of some of the characters to have haunted its cells and looks at its role in society, the changing attitudes of the English to crime and punishment, and its influence on the popular imagination. 

Regardless of the prison's incarnation (it having been rebuilt after being razed to the ground in the Great Fire of London and the 1780 anti-papist Gordon Riots) the picture it paints is an incredibly gruesome one - the prison a hellish labyrinth of dark corridors and overcrowded cells (it housing more than 4 times the inmates intended along with their families, dogs, pigs and poultry!), Press Yards and Ketch's Kitchens (where the executioners would boil the heads of those they'd recently dispatched), sending its stench and noise far across London. 

Whatever unlucky sod was sent there (as many were for such paltry crimes as being in debt) was soon a victim of the corruption of the institution - being charged on entering the prison, for each chain they wore, for their food and board, for having chains removed and for leaving prison - if they hadn't already become the victim of Typhus. So riddled with the disease that doctors would refuse to visit, it's thought that Gaol Fever carried off more than 4 times as many as the Executioners did and, considering their fearsome tallies (with one noted to have been hanging, drawing and quartering more than a dozen men a day during the Bloody Assizes), that's a heck of a lot of dead people.

Tyburn, site of executions which drew spectators in their thousands

With executions held at Tyburn and (later, outside the prison itself) drawing upwards of tens of thousands of spectators to watch the drama as families fought with Resurrection Men for the bodies of their recently departed loved ones, or the crowd itself attacking the executioner if he'd been particularly brutal, it's small wonder such scenes had a huge an impact on the popular imagination with hundreds of plays, pamphlets and novels written about the characters involved - an early precursor to the criminal biographies I'm addicted to today - reaching its pinnacle with the strutting highwaymen of the 17th & 18th centuries often cast as folk heroes.

Any history fan couldn't be disappointed with the ton of interesting facts contained within, though I'd have liked more information in some cases and less in others.

I also appreciated the criminal slang which headed each chapter, and am totally saving 'gape-seed' up for future use...

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