Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
Newington Gardens is a small quiet gardens behind the Crown Court on Newington Causeway, created on the site where Horsemonger Lane Gaol once stood. It was known for a long time as Gaol Park, the memory of the former building kept alive by the high external wall and large gatehouse long retained after the prison was demolished in 1880.
Work began on the construction of Horsemonger Lane Gaol and the Sessions House in 1791 as the principle court and prison to serve the whole county of Surrey. The prison’s correct name was the Surrey County Gaol but was known as Horsemonger Lane Gaol after the road it faced onto, at right-angles to Newington Causeway, now called Harper Road. It was able to accommodate just under 300 prisoners. The prison building consisted of a quadrangle three storeys high with outbuildings that included offices, an infirmary, women’s baths and a laundry. One side of the building was for the imprisonment of debtors, divided into separate accommodation for private and common debtors. The rest of the building was for the incarceration of criminals where men, boys and women all had separate accommodation and their own respective segregated “airing yard”.
There is a description of the Gaol and its prisoners in The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life, published by Henry Mayhew in 1862. Doubtless the author encountered many hard cases but the prisoners are described sympathetically. To a modern mind, it is a shock to see the statistics given regarding child prisoners. For the year ending 1860, there were 43 boys and five girls under the age of 12 imprisoned, and 172 boys and 31 girls between the ages of 12 and 16.
Horsemonger Gaol was the main site within Surrey for executions and between 1800 and 1877, 131 people were hanged. Most of the executions took place before 1836 after which time fewer types of crime resulted in the death penalty. The condemned cell was about the size of four cells and furnished with two iron bedsteads, a washstand in one corner and a water-closet in another. An officer was constantly in attendance night and day while a prisoner was awaiting execution.
Until 1868, executions took place in public on a temporary structure on top of the gatehouse and attracted large crowds who viewed the occasion as entertainment. Charles Dickens witnessed the execution of Marie and Frederick Manning at the gaol in November 1849, hanged for the murder of their friend Patrick O’Connor. Dickens was so disgusted by the behaviour of the crowd he wrote a letter to The Times calling for the end of public executions.
“I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faced in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language of the assembled spectators When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. … When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind blocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered gave a new zest to the general entertainment …”
His voice was added to the campaign to end public executions and eventually the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 was passed when they were abolished.
In 1877, the Home Office took over the running of prisons and the Surrey County Gaol was closed in 1878 and demolished in 1880. The Surrey Magistrates, who still owned the land, proposed to sell the land for building development but came under pressure to turn the area into a much needed open space and playground in a densely populated part of London. Apart from graveyards, the nearest open spaces were Southwark Park and Kennington Park. The campaign was led by the Kyrie Society and the Metropolitan Public Garden, Boulevard and Playground Association (later the MPGA), and Lord Brabazon, Chairman of the latter organisation, wrote in a letter to The Times that if the land was converted into a recreation ground, it would become a source of health and enjoyment to a miserably poor and overcrowded neighbourhood. Surrey Council responded that it was not fair on residents in the further reaches of the county that resources should be allocated in this manner that would only benefit a few. They put the land up for auction but it went unsold as it failed to make the reserve price. Subsequently about an acre of land was leased on a short term basis for the provision of a playground.
The new playground, which had been laid out by the MPGA at a cost of £356, was opened in May 1884 by Mrs Gladstone. For the first year it was maintained by the MPGA until Newington Vestry took over its upkeep. In 1890, the Sessions House and adjoining land was allotted to the London County Council when the County of London was formed. Subsequently the LCC enlarged and added planting and play apparatus to the playground. A bandstand was erected and the prison walls and gatehouse, site of public executions, were pulled down. Only children were allowed into the playground except when there were Saturday concerts which attracted a large adult audience.
The park today is situated behind the Inner London Sessions House which was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century but, due to delays caused by the First World War, did not open until 1917. The bandstand in the park disappeared a long time ago but trees have matured and the park has two basketball courts available for free play, as well as two children's play areas.