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Horsemonger Lane Gaol

Gaol Park

Newington Gardens now occupies the site of Horsemonger Lane Gaol which alongside the adjoining Session House, was erected in accordance with an Act passed in 1791 ‘for building a new common gaol and sessions house, with accommodations thereto, for the county of Surrey’. The prison was, at the time of its erection, the largest in the county of Surrey and consisted of two portions, one occupied by debtors and the other much larger portion by people arrested on criminal charges. Charles Dickens came here on November 13th 1847 in order to see the crowd of spectators which regularly formed at the time of public execution and so gather materials for some of those vivid pictures of London life contained in his novels.

Gaol Park

Horsemonger Lane Gaol was closed in 1878 and when it was pulled down the Surrey justices permitted a portion of the site to be used as a public playground until it might be sold or utilised for other purposes. The playground was laid out by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and opened to the public by Mrs Gladstone on May 5th 1884. The Association also maintained it for a short time, but in the following year the management was transferred to the Vestry of Newington. Long after the gaol was abolished the lofty external wall and the massive gatehouse were retained, and the recreation ground still, therefore, presented a very prison-like appearance. The Park was popularly known as ‘Gaol Park’ for many decades.

Nothing now remains of the gaol except the memories of some notables incarcerated on this site, they include:

Edward Marcus Despard (1751 – 21 February 1803)
Protestant Irishman, found guilty of high treason, and sentenced, with six of his fellow-conspirators (John Wood and John Francis, both privates in the army, carpenter Thomas Broughton, shoemaker James Sedgwick Wratton, slater Arthur Graham, and John Macnamara), to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sentencing of the conspirators was the last time in British history that anyone was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Prior to execution the sentence was commuted to simple hanging and beheading, amid fears that the draconian punishment might spark public dissent. Despard was executed on the roof of the gatehouse at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, in front of a crowd of at least 20,000 spectators, on 21 February 1803.

Marie Manning (1821–1849) was a Swiss domestic servant who was hanged outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol, England, on 13 November 1849, after she and her husband were convicted of the murder of her lover, Patrick O'Connor, in the case that received a name of "Bermondsey Horror". It was the first time a husband and wife had been executed together in England since 1700.

The novelist, Charles Dickens, attended the execution, and in a letter written to The Times on the same day, he wrote that, "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." He later based one of his characters—Mademoiselle Hortense, Lady Dedlock's maid in Bleak House—on Manning's life.

James Henry Leigh Hunt (19 October 1784 – 28 August 1859)
In 1813, a newspaper attack on the Prince Regent, based on substantial truth, resulted in prosecution and a sentence of two years' imprisonment at the Surrey County Gaol. Hunt's visitors in prison included Lord Byron, John Moore, Lord Brougham, Charles Lamb and others, whose acquaintance influenced his later career. The stoicism with which Leigh Hunt bore his imprisonment attracted general attention and sympathy.

William Chester Minor, also known as W. C. Minors (June 1834 – March 26, 1920)
Haunted by paranoia, on February 17, 1872 he fatally shot George Merrett, who Minor believed had broken into his room. After a pre-trial period spent in London's Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Minor was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in the asylum at Broadmoor.

Reverend Robert Taylor (1784–1844)
At the start of April 1831 Taylor was again indicted for blasphemy over two Easter sermons in the last days of The Rotunda. He was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane Gaol whence he sent protesting letters to The Times, but his pleas were snubbed by the Home Secretary. In a letter to W.Watts he described his physical decline and fear that "the Christians have determined to kill me.... I never expect to leave this Bastile but Heels foremost. Your greatly obliged Murdered Friend, Robert Taylor."

Dickens Square S.E.1
Dickens Square, opposite Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Recalling Charles Dickens association with this area

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