The Old Bailey, London, England

Ron Spiers, April 2003


The book, The London Encyclopaedia, published by Macmillan in 1995, describes a prison which had stood on a site in Newgate Street, one of the principal gates into the City of London. The gate had been in existence since before the year 857. In the year 1188 it is mentioned as being a prison. The following précis is based on the article on the prison, given in the book.


Newgate prison had been on the site since the 12th century. In 1423, the executors of Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, were granted a licence to 're-edify' it, but by the end of the 16th century it was again in a ruinous condition and it had to be refaced. It was burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. A new prison was finished in 1672 and decorated with a statue of Richard Whittington and his cat. The stench from it was appalling, it had little water or sanitation, there were frequent outbreaks of gaol fever, a virulent form of typhoid, and disease spread to every cell. Newly arrived prisoners were bullied and robbed, not only by other convicts but also by the keeper and his turnkeys.


The prison was pulled down and a new one took its place in 1770-8 The prison was later the scene of riots, the Gordon Riots, when 300 prisoners escaped and burnt it down. In 1780-3 a new prison was built to replace it and because there was now space, that device of execution, the scaffold, was transferred from Tyburn (now Marble Arch) to the prison. The scaffold was erected in front of Newgate Prison in the street named Old Bailey. As at Tyburn enormous crowds gathered at the scaffold to watch the hangings, some paying high prices for their view from surrounding windows. In 1868 hanging outside the prison was ended by an Act of Parliament, but it continued inside Newgate’s walls. In 1902 Newgate was demolished to make way for the present, Central Criminal Court, known as the Old Bailey.


Over the years the prison has housed many famous and notorious persons such as Jack Sheppard the escapist, who was hanged at Tyburn, Daniel Defoe(1660-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe, Titus Oates(1649-1705), the informer against Roman Catholics, and William Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania in America, to name just a few.


The proceedings of the Old Bailey were published between 1674 and 1834. These are now on line and can be searched, for example for a name, at


There are entries for Spier, Speer, Speers, Spyers and Spear.