Unlike our friends Cripplegate and Aldgate, there is no debate whatsoever about where the name Newgate comes from. It is what it sounds like – the new gate. Ironically, however, it’s not the newest of London’s city gates. That honour goes to Moorgate. The suggestion has been made that Newgate takes its name from a Norman rebuild.
The gate was for several centuries notorious for containing the loathsome Newgate Prison, famous inmates of which included Daniel Defoe, Titus Oates, Captain Kidd and of course Cutthroat Jake. It also appears in fiction ranging from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist to Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. It’s a popular setting for historical fiction, and at one time inspired a subgenre of melodramatic crime fiction known as the ‘Newgate novel’ due to its grim reputation. The reputation is well-justified – aside from the notoriety of the criminals incarcerated there, the prison was dark and uncomfortable. Individual cells were a luxury not introduced until 1858. In the medieval era, the staff were sometimes as bad as the inmates, making a tidy living through bribery and blackmail. One particularly macabre case was that of the “Black Dog of Newgate”. A spectral hound was said to haunt the prison whenever an execution was held and may, if you believe in that sort of thing, be seen to this day. An inmate named Luke Hutton recalled the case of a famine in the reign of Henry III in which a gang of hungry prisoners decided that they’d eat the new boy, “and deemed passing good meate”. Unfortunately, the new boy in question happened to be a scholar in the supernatural, and the spirits of the Beyond took exception to his fate. The fearsome Black Dog was sent to haunt the place for all eternity, driving the amateur cannibals insane. As prison tales go, it makes the one about picking up the soap in the shower look quite tame.
The ghoulish canine is mentioned in Thomas Dekker, John Ford and William Rowley’s somewhat lurid play The Witch of Edmonton (one of whose characters is a very literal devil-dog).
Luke Hutton, in his account (which is told in the form of a conversation between two blokes in a pub) observes that perhaps the dog is a metaphor for the condemned cell, which contained a large black stone against which desperate prisoners were wont to “dash out [their] braines.” Interestingly, a character in The Witch of Edmonton commits suicide in the same dramatic fashion.
The prison was demolished in 1904, but the area happily (?) retains a connection with crime and punishment. The Old Bailey (or Central Criminal Court, to give it its less historically-resonant title) was built on part of the site.