Disease and Punishment – The Intertwined Histories of The Old Bailey and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

In Transferral, I’ve used the real locations of The Old Bailey  and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital because, historically and geographically, they embody the connection between sickness and crime that is central to the book.

They are separated by Newgate Street, but in the days of Newgate Prison there was an arch over the street. Among my changes to St. Barts, I’ve rebuilt the arch, linking the two buildings with a ‘Walk of Shame’ that sentenced criminals have to cross to face their punishment in St Bartholomew’s.

St. Bartholomew’s and Punishment – Smithfield Executions

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital is located in Smithfield, once the site of The Elms, an area used for public executions before Tyburn became the main site of London executions. Protestants and Catholics were both burned at the stake here. William Wallace of Braveheart fame was hung, drawn and quartered at this site on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, and there is a plaque in his memory on the West Smithfield side of the hospital, along with one to the Marian Martyrs (protestants burned by Bloody Mary).

St. Bartholomew’s and Crime – Bartholomew’s Fair

FairWest Smithfield was also the site of Bartholomew’s Fair, by the hospital. The fair became famous for its crime – prostitution, drunken violence and theft – as mocked in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fayre. It was this reputation that meant it was eventually shut down in 1855. The Newgate Calendar (subtitled The Malefactors’ Bloody Register – originally a monthly bulletin of executions that became a popular, moralizing account of crime and criminals) described the fair as “school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate itself”.

Newgate Prison and Disease – Typhus

NewgateNewgate Prison was first built in 1188 (not long after the founding of St. Barts in 1123). Predating and once joined to the Old Bailey, its cramped and airless cells soon developed a reputation for disease and sickness. The prison stank and typhus (known as ‘gaol fever’) was common, along with other sicknesses. Being sentenced to Newgate meant being sentenced to disease. It was common for more prisoners to die from illness than execution. In 1750 infected prisoners brought typhus into the Old Bailey courtroom itself. Sixty people died as a result, including the Lord Mayor.

From Newgate to St. Barts – Dissection

Newgate ExecutionAnother connection between the Old Bailey and St. Barts came in the form of corpses. With the Murder Act, 1751, bodies of executed murderers were made available for dissection (or left out to rot as a warning). This led to many bodies going from Newgate Prison (which replaced Tyburn as the main site of London executions) to St. Barts. One famous example was John Bellingham – the only person to have assassinated a British Prime Minister. He was hung outside Newgate in 1812, and his body given to St. Barts. You can visit his skull at St. Barts in the wonderful and creepy Victorian Barts Pathology Museum.

The Old Bailey/Newgate Prison and St. Barts are two of the most fascinating institutions in London. Here I have only touched on some of the connections between these sites in the over 800 years of history they share. If you want to read more on these and the rest of the city, I’d recommend Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City, and Peter Ackroyd’s more general but justifiably famous London: The Biography. My friend Simon has also pointed out the Old Bailey Online archives to me – an incredible rabbit hole of searchable transcripts of the famous court’s proceedings from 1674-1913.

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