Panopticons and Semi-Private Executions

Courtesy of Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend 1888
Courtesy of Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend 1888

I thought I’d open this blog with an image that I stumbled upon during my research this week. It contains two forms of shaming punishments adopted relatively infrequently in my period of study. I thought it was warranted, not least to show that hanging was the dreadful apex of a whole arsenal of bizarre and sadistic state punishments. Also, if I’m being honest, part of me posted it to see if we could revive the Drunkard’s Cloak – I have seen a few people on a Saturday night in town in the last few weeks who could do with a good cloaking. Anyway, I digress!

Now, I am not known for my map reading skills. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, I am known for my map reading skills in so far as everyone thinks I haven’t got any. So, it’s surprising that I’ve found myself so engrossed by maps in the last few weeks. As per the last few blogs I have been continuing on my quest to map the, now lost, sites of execution or buildings in anyway involved in capital punishment, in the North East.

Whilst working on this, I was very flattered to receive an email from a great, young historian whose work I hold in very high regard, asking my opinion on something related to this very subject. His question got me thinking about an area of my PhD that has been temporarily parked, owing to the last few months obsessive research into post death punishments on the criminal body. Namely, the changing nature and location of executions. Across my period 1750-1880, there is a steady retreat from executions being a wholly public spectacle to an entirely private one (behind the prison walls and without any public admittance – 1868 onwards). This has often been categorised as a simple transition from public to private, but I am not so sure. To my mind this ignores a very important transition when executions took place at the prison, but were still in view of the public – a sort of ‘semi-public/private’ execution if you will.  In this regard, Newcastle is a particularly interesting case study.

Newcastle was very late in adopting any changes in its application of execution. In London executions moved from Tyburn to Newgate prison in 1783 and, as discussed in last weeks blog, executions in Durham moved from the very public site at Dryburn to the Durham Courthouse steps in 1816, yet in Newcastle it wasn’t until 1850 that an execution took place at the prison (Patrick Forbes, 1850). Indeed there were only ever two of these semi-public executions in Newcastle (George Vass 1863 being the second and final).

The abolition after November 1783 of Tyburn executions in favour of a more closely-staged hanging ritual immediately outside Newgate prison can be read in two ways. Some see it as the product of an increasingly civilised society, moving away from forms of public violence deeming them to be both brutalising and relics of a bygone age. The other way to read this shift in both the locale and conduct of executions is best summarised by Devereaux and Wilf.

This…was clearly intended to render the hanging of convicted felons more psychologically imposing than the procedure at Tyburn seemed to be by that time.

Simon Devereaux, “The Abolition of the Burning of Women in England Reconsidered,” Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies 9, no. 2 (December 1, 2005): 13, doi:10.4000/chs.293.

Stephen Wilf goes further in suggesting that the intention of these changes was to effect the imagination more than the senses.

Georgian England embarked on a sophisticated experiment to construct an aesthetic theory of punishment. This experiment in punitive aesthetics changed the way capital punishment was inflicted during the course of the second half of the eighteenth century. English execution ritual, I will argue, underwent a broad shift from a spectacle designed to bombard the visual senses to one that sought to influence the imagination.

Steven Wilf, “Imagining Justice: Aesthetics and Public Executions in Late Eighteenth-Century England,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 5, no. 1 (2013): 53.

In other words, the increasingly hidden nature of punishment left the audience to fill the gap, a gap no doubt aided in the c19th by a burgeoning gothic literature. I am much more on board with the Devereaux and Wilf school of thought.

It is not entirely clear why Newcastle was so late to make the transition to this newer punishment. What we can say, is that it fits a pattern. As, in most areas of judicial punishment, Newcastle was frequently the last to the party (William Jobling, gibbeted on Jarrow Slake, was the second last person in England and Wales ever to face that punishment). Similarly, there are accounts that other more minor punishments continued in the region long after they had largely disappeared elsewhere.

The stocks had a longer reign in Newcastle than in many other places, Sykes records an instance of their application in 1826, when England had a General election, and there were two contests for the representation of Northumberland in one year. On Sunday, August 26, an enthusiastic joiner shouted “Bell for ever” so lustily that he disturbed the congregation of St. Nicholas and had a free sitting assigned to him in the churchyard stocks, on the eastern side of the north porch. We cannot say whether this was the last time they had a tenant on the Tyne.

Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend, 1888, 35,

One other reason may be the prison itself. Newgate Gaol was infamously poor and in desperate need of repair by the early 1800’s, but it wasn’t until 1820 that serious action was taken.

Newgate 1813
Newgate 1813

At the spring assizes in 1820, Newgate gaol was presented by the grand jury of the town, “as being out of repair, and inconvenient, insufficient, and insecure.” As both the common gaol and house of correction belonged to the corporation, and the inhabitants were subjected to the payment of county rates, “doubts were entertained with whom the legal liability rested of repairing and rendering the same convenient, sufficient, and secure.” In order to obviate these doubts, and to avoid the delay and expense of litigating the question, application was made to parliament for “An Act for building a new Gaol and a new House of Correction in and for the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne, and for other Purposes relating thereto.”

Eneas Mackenzie, ‘Public buildings: The new prisons,’ in Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Mackenzie and Dent, 1827), 218-224, accessed November 19, 2015,

This decision resulted in the demolition of Newgate and the building of a new prison on Carliol Square. The building commenced in 1823, the foundation stone being laid on June 4th, 1823. In John Wood’s 1827 map of Newcastle and Gateshead, we can see it marked clearly, an imposing size and labelled ‘New Jail.’ Similarly on the 1857 map below, we see it clearly.

Plan of Newcastle and Gateshead - Made by John Wood (1827). This copy is held in the Tyne and Wear Archives.
Plan of Newcastle and Gateshead – Made by John Wood (1827). This copy is held in the Tyne and Wear Archives.
Northumberland XCVII (includes: Gateshead; Newcastle upon Tyne; Whickham.) Surveyed: 1858

For current Newcastle residents the site is where World Headquarters (WHQ) and adjoining buildings are (see picture below). For anyone who has spent a Friday night in WHQ and thought you were in some sort of fetid, dank prison then you now know why. It is intriguing to me that a site on which thousands of people congregated to watch the punishment of a body, has now been replaced by two temples to the human body, in the form of ‘Body Zone’ gym and the strip club ‘For Your Eyes Only’. A clever writer would find a joke in there, but we’re stuck with me i’m afraid.

Modern day Carliol Square - the site of the former Gaol.
Modern day Carliol Square – the site of the former Gaol.

The Architect of this new prison was John Dobson, a man responsible for most of the grand buildings still remaining in Newcastle and the North East and he left no stone unturned in creating what he thought would be the perfect prison.

The architect sought the advice of more than one burglar of celebrity, and he gained some hints from these gentlemen which were calculated to frustrate their most brilliant feats for the future.

“Memoir of John Dobson … Member of the Royal Institute of British … : Margaret Jane Dobson , John Dobson : Free Download & Streaming,” Internet Archive, 56, accessed April 30, 2015,

In her memoir of her father, Margaret Dobson noted that

“The erection of this gaol marked a great and beneficient revolution in prison architecture.”


The revolution of which she spoke was regarding its internal layout.

“It was designed with radiating wings or passages, tending towards a common point, with a circular or elliptical building in the middle for the residence of the keepers, from which they could at all times, themselves unseen, inspect every part of the prison at a glance.


Dobson’s design was entirely in line with the principles of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (‘all-seeing’) Prison.

A building circular… The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed… from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or… without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.

Jeremy Bentham., Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts (London, 1798)

In other words a building in which prisoners would be simultaneously aware and unaware that they were under constant surveillance. Speaking on the Panopticon philosphy, Foucault stated that its ‘major effect’ was to,

induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison / Michel Foucault ; Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (London : Penguin, 1991., 1991), 201.

We can see this Panopticon design clearly in both Woods’ 1827 map and the latter map of 1858 pictured above. The radiating wings (5 in all, although Dobson originally had six planned are clearly marked).

Not everyone was a fan of Dobson’s prison though. Indeed, the report of the Gladstone Committee (1895), amongst others, spoke of Dobson’s designs in far less adulatory tones.

Fifteen years after its nationalization, the prison was described by Colonel Garsia as “the worst prison I have ever seen”; there is “no prison so bad as Newcastle.” The Commissioners wanted to close the prison after nationalization, and to use Morpeth instead, but were thwarted by magisterial opposition. The cost of building a replacement prison in Newcastle was too great, because of the expense of land, and “the compromise was that some little additions were made to the existing bad prison at Newcastle, which seemed to satisfy the requirements at the time.”And so a thoroughly unsuitable prison survived despite the protestations of the Commissioners.

Seán McConville, English Local Prisons, 1860-1900: Next Only to Death (Psychology Press, 1995), 196.

Either way it is clear that the prison was completed by the time of the next execution in Newcastle, that of Jane Jamieson (1829), yet this took place on the Town Moor. But why? More of which next week..

Distraction 1: Paris

I didn’t want to touch on the attacks in Paris last week as I feel that everything that can be said, has been and by all sides. However, it did trigger in me a desire to seek out more detailed discussions about Islam and so I have spent much of this week listening to various debates amongst Islamic and atheist scholars. One that really gripped me was between Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan, the motion ‘Is Islam a Religion of Peace.’ Both sides presented persuasive and constructive arguments, whilst providing robust criticism of the others point of view. Hitchen’s critique of the essential power vacuum in Islam, which allows multiple groups to claim supremacy and authority over the words of the Prophet was particularly interesting. Similarly Ramadan’s counter that Hitchen’s, in his Marxist tendencies, is prone to the very demagoguery that he so greatly fears in Islam and that perhaps it is the reader and not the text itself that is the cause of violence in Islam’s name. I do not begin to claim any knowledge on the subject, but I do hope for more robust debate like this between believers and non believers alike as that is the key to a safe and functioning society.

Distraction 2: Let there be light.

Durham Cathedral Lumiere Festival 2015
Durham Cathedral Lumiere Festival 2015

Amidst all the talk of warring religions and civilisations I found myself this week standing outside Durham Cathedral for the Lumiere Festival. The organisers lit the building with the French Tricolore at one point and then preceded to produce an incredible visual light display that left a vast crowd in silent awe. It was the perfect antidote to the weeks news –  a centre of religious worship becoming the site of great communal joy for people of all faiths and cultures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s