Horsemonger Lane Gaol (also known as the Surrey County Gaol or the New Gaol) was a prison close to present-day Newington Causeway in Southwark, south London. Constructed between 1791 and 1799 to a design by George Gwilt, this was once the largest prison in the county of Surrey, and was adjacent to Sessions House, a court building also designed by Gwilt. It was built to replace the old county gaol housed at what had been the nearby ‘White Lion Inn’ on Borough High Street, Southwark (informally called the ‘Borough Gaol’) dating from the Tudor period.
Horsemonger Lane remained Surrey’s principal prison and place of execution up to its closure in 1878. It was a common gaol, housing both debtors and criminals, with a capacity of around 300 inmates. In total, 131 men and four women were executed there between 1800 and 1877, the gallows being erected on the flat roof of the prison’s gatehouse. After Horsemonger Lane Gaol closed, its execution duties were transferred to the prison at Wandsworth.
Demolition started in 1880, with part of the site being converted into a children’s playground in 1884 and was completed in 1892, with the old gatehouse being used by the London County Council as a Weights and Measures office for a time. The present Inner London Crown Court was opened on the site in January 1921.
Some notorious murderers who were executed by hanging at Horsemonger Lane Gaol include the Mannings in November 1849 (see below) and the Brixton baby farmer Margaret Waters on October 11, 1870. Waters is believed to have killed at least 16 children.
Charles Dickens and the Mannings execution.
Charles Dickens attended an execution at Horsemonger Lane Gaol on the morning of Tuesday 13th November 1849, staying all night to witness the crowds gathering for the event. Maria and Frederick Manning were hanged on gallows erected on the flat roof of the prison’s gatehouse for murdering a friend, Patrick O’Connor for money.
At the time, the Manning’s case was a huge sensation in Victorian society, with a story that involved scandal and intrigue and particularly as one of the villans was a woman. Maria Manning was said to have been in a relationship with both men and the mastermind behind the murder plot out of greed. Maria’s infamy would later live on long after as a character in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors.
Up to 50,000 people are said to have gathered outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol for the event that morning and over 500 police were needed to control the crowds. Food, drink and souvenirs were on sale while others offered other entertainment to the baying crowd, including prostitution.
Dickens was not against capital punishment but he was so appalled by what he saw from the behaviour of the crowd that he wrote a strongly worded letter to The Times newspaper later that day. Charles Dickens was one of a number of influential people who campaigned against public executions and they were finally abolished in 1868.
Use in literature.
Dickens later based the character of Hortense in Bleak House on Maria Manning, while Mrs Chivery’s tobacco shop in Little Dorrit is located on Horsemonger Lane.
Horsemonger Lane Gaol was demolished in 1881 and the site is now a public park, Newington Gardens, opened by Mrs Gladstone on 5 May 1884.
The site is adjacent to the present Inner London Crown Court, opened in January 1921, and where the Sessions House, a former Court, once stood.
To visit Newington Gardens the nearest tube station is Elephant and Castle. Use our London Trail to view a number of other locations associated with Charles Dickens close to here in the Borough area.
Further Reading on The Circumlocution Office.
Click here to read the letter Charles Dickens wrote to The Times after witnessing the execution of the Mannings at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.
Click here to learn about the Marshalsea debtors prison, situated close to Horsemonger Lane Gaol and where John Dickens, father of Charles, was imprisoned.