The Newgate Prison Riot

Newgate prison was a desperate place in 1816. It was the main place of execution in London- not just murderers and rapists but crimes such as shoplifting, which remained a capital crime until 1818. In May 1816, there were about 120 convicted criminals waiting to be transported to Australia and they tried to tunnel out of the building but were caught by the keeper and the turnkeys.

They revolted again on Sunday August 26th. Visitors had been allowed into the prison and some, contrary to the rules of the establishment, had been seeing friends in their cells. A visitor reported that his watch had been stolen and the Keeper ordered a lock down, with the prison being closed and nobody being allowed in or out. The watch was found and the prisoners were let out of the cells, but about 120 transportation prisoners refused to go back into their cells. They demolished tables, smashed up iron railings and overran the cells and the roof. The Keeper called on 100 constables armed with cutlasses and pistols, firing over the head of the prisoners. There was stalemate; the prisoners had no formal demands and the prison keeper could not get them back into their cells.

The solution was unorthodox by our standards. The Keeper of Newgate called for the intervention of the Lord Mayor of London, Matthew Wood- a man of “reliable firmness” who was chosen as a man able to deal with the protest and distress in London in the acknowledged difficult year. However, the Mayor was out of town-in his cottage at Twickenham- and did not arrive at Newgate until the early evening of the 27th. Showing distinct bravery, even with the 100 armed men behind him, he called for the 20 “ringleaders” to surrender to him personally. The prisoners realised quickly that the surrender was to be unconditional. He promised that, if they submitted, they would be treated “according to their own best interests”-an ambiguous statement to say the least

His use of psychology was very sound. He called on the least outrageous of the prisoners first , creating a momentum which led to the collapse of the riot. The ringleaders were” doubled ironed” in their cells for days. They transportation was hastened, and the meat ration was reduced to nothing until the cost of the damage was recouped. The rule about visitors only seeing the inmates through the bars of their cells was re-instated.

Matthew Wood’s reputation was further enhanced by these events. Later the same year he saved the lives of three Irishmen who had been duped into a serious counterfeiting crime by police officers who had set them up for the reward money

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