Policing Victorian London: The Door to Newgate Prison and the Furnival’s Inn Watchman’s BoxMay 29, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Exhibitions
Following on from her blogs about William Raban’s film Nightwalks, the key objects within our Dickens and London exhibition, Dickens’ family portraits, and London pubs, this week PhD student, Joanna Robinson, looks at policing in Victorian London. Joanna is a PhD student working collaboratively with the Museum of London and the English department at King’s College, London.
‘And now the strokes began to fall like hail upon the gate, and on the strong building; for those who could not reach the door, spent their fierce rage on anything—even on the great blocks of stone, which shivered their weapons into fragments, and made their hands and arms to tingle as if the walls were active in their stout resistance, and dealt them back their blows. The clash of iron ringing upon iron, mingled with the deafening tumult and sounded high above it, as the great sledge-hammers rattled on the nailed and plated door: the sparks flew off in showers; men worked in gangs, and at short intervals relieved each other, that all their strength might be devoted to the work; but there stood the portal still, as grim and dark and strong as ever, and, saving for the dints upon its battered surface, quite unchanged.’
(Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003), p. 533.)
This scene from Barnaby Rudge, where the rioting mob attack and ultimately destroy Newgate Prison, is a climactic moment in the text even for modern readers, yet for Dickens’ contemporaries this incident would have had an even sharper resonance. During the Victorian period, Newgate acted as a kind of cultural metaphor for criminality, as it was the site of public executions in front of massive crowds, yet it simultaneously held a subversive appeal. Newgate novels became a popular genre, with William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard causing a sensation and the reissue of Oliver Twist on the back of the bandwagon. However, in his 1841 Preface to Oliver Twist, Dickens rejects his association with Sheppardism, and the sensational elements that were now being linked with his own work. For many of Dickens’readers, the city slums he depicts were as foreign as Victorian Imperial concerns overseas, and Dickens prided himself on creating a window into the suffering that existed on the doorsteps of the rich. Newgate novels, on the other hand, were meant to be exhilarating reads, creating a sense of danger and the exotic for many of their readers. Meanwhile, they could offer the poor a hero from among their own class.
The door from Newgate Prison, which Dickens describes as grim and obdurate in the passage above, features significantly in the Dickens and London exhibition. Once round the first corner in the exhibition, you see it looming impressively in the centre of the space. Indeed, when you remember that people tended to be shorter two centuries ago, it is clear what a gloomy and imposing shadow it must have cast on prisoners. Yet what really struck me about it was the decision to place it next to the Watchman’s Box from Furnival’s Inn. The two of them seem to vie for attention – both impact pieces with a central location in the exhibition – or so I thought. But when chatting to a group of MA students, none of them had felt very affected by the box, or hadn’t realised what it was. Watchmen were basically security guards, who patrolled the streets at night in an effort to keep order before the Metropolitan Police Force was initiated in 1829. However, public opinion of them was not high. Policing in Victorian London was a difficult task, and many people felt unprotected by these supposed figures of authority. This made me wonder whether the underwhelmed reaction of these students to the box was in fact appropriate.
In contrast to the Watchman’s Box, the door from Newgate really does look threatening; indeed, John Betjeman described the prison as ‘deliberately sombre and fortress-like.’ It seems as if the prison was designed to create a severe enough impression to be an effective deterrent of crime in itself, especially if the minimal police force was not making the streets any safer. It’s really almost comical to see the two objects side by side, as they form such a stark contrast to our own surveillance society. Yet Newgate at least must have had some effect. As Dickens shows in the passage above, the door from Newgate is the greatest obstacle in the way of complete anarchy from a Metropolitan mob, and its symbolic significance in this passage reveals the real feeling of authority that it generated amongst the Victorian public. Indeed, even now when the door is out of context and contained in an exhibition, it is difficult not to shiver at the thought of being shut behind it.