N is for Newgate.

In October 1835, Dickens visited Newgate Prison. He was planning a piece for his Sketches by Boz to be published in 1836 – the work which would begin his years of fame.

Dickens describes the last moments of the condemned man in ‘the stone dungeon’ which is his last home, only ‘eight feet long by six wide.’ It is here that the prisoner wakes from a dream of escape: ‘Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in a momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.’

Fagin ends his criminal career in the same condemned cell, riven with terror, listening to the chimes of the clock which ‘came laden with one, deep, hollow sound – Death.’ And Chapter 42 of Oliver Twist ends with the scaffold in sight: ‘one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all – the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.’

During that visit to Newgate in which Dickens was accompanied by his illustrator, Hablot Browne, and the actor, William Macready, and his friend John Forster, Macready caught sight of Wainewright, a notorious murderer, with whom he had dined. Forster noted his ‘mean and fierce’ expression which showed him ‘quite capable of the cowardly murders he had committed.’

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