Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Authentic Newgate Christianity

My old nan was an inveterate Cockney. I remember how hard my grandad had worked to find some cure - aversion therapy with jellied eels, exorcisms, week-long courses with upper-class Anglicans. They all failed, and to her dying day she'd still drink gin from a tea cup, without tonic.

One of my nan's expressions, on seeing my cherubic face when I had been, for example, burying my brother in the manure heap or bog-snorkelling, was "you're as black as Newgate's knocker." Which was, I suppose, black from the dirt of all the poor people banging on it. Or it was black-leaded or something. The past is indeed another country. They all smell funny there.

But these ramblings are really sparked by this BBC article on the Revd Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate in the early 19th century.  Cotton was quite an enthusiast - shouting about the pains of hell even after the felon bound was pushed off his ladder. We should remember that before the Victorians modernised hanging, introducing a nice long drop to break the villain's necks, they would just hang there until they choked to death. In the days of truly public hangings, friends would often grab and pull on the condemned people's legs, to try and throttle them quicker - a relative mercy.

Certainly a mercy compared to hanging there, gasping for breath and losing control of one's bodily functions, while Mr Cotton screamed at you that there was worse to come unless you repented.

It is to be presumed that Mr Cotton believed he was actually performing a good service to the condemned. This was, to be fair, the ultimate last-chance saloon (although hanging, being a bit inexact in those days, could occasionally be cured if you could get the hang-ee down and to a friendly doctor, dodging the vivisectionists on your way down Fleet Street). Mr Cotton could be read as that sign in the film Cat Balou - when Cat is about to be hanged - that says "Where will you spend eternity?" Which again is either terribly gloating, or a last desperate attempt to snatch a brand from a fire.

The alternative, of course, is that Cotton was what Blackadder referred to as a "gloater". Far from caring about the soul of the soon-to-be-departed, he was actually enjoying their fate - and the extended punishment that lay ahead of them. He was, after all, told off for frightening condemned men. Which is some achievement. Not everyone can lower the mood at an execution.


  1. A fascinating but chilling artefact Cotton's little black book.
    I inherited a mildewed handwritten volume that had once belonged to an army surgeon in the early 19th c. As I read through, looking at the meticulously painted microscope slides and the detailed notes, it slowly dawned on me that he was trying to find out about malaria and was doing so by experimenting with prisoners in India and doing autopsies on their corpses after execution.

  2. Fascinating. Nothing like a New Scientist feature on Death, now this, to aid the post-breakfast digestive processes.

  3. I was actually more interested in your Cockney childhood. Seeing as a Cockney by definition has to be someone born within the sound of Bow Bells, i.e. within listening distance of St Mary Le Bow in Cheaside.

    Given that the bells were inoperable due to wartime damage between 1941 to about 1968, loads of people who define themselves as Cockneys (I include myself in this) are in fact, pseudo Cockneys. Pretending to be something that they are not.

    However, given the the Arch Druid hails from Suburbia, it is only a remote possibility that she would have been digging in the dirt in the back yard, more likely in the pile of horse much outside the stables.

    And the Arch Druid having a cut glass accent knows full well that the playing fields of Roedean, her alma mater, would have precluded even the scholarship girls from attending there. And even if they did, they'd have been cleaning the hockey boots, not playing God's best sport.

    1. Ern, your critique is valid right up to the first sentence. Nowhere in my post do I claim Cockney birth for myself.

      No,the maternal grandparents had to leave the Smoke after one of Mr Hitler's bombs landed on the neighbouring whelk,liquor and old joanna factory. A stream of boiling parsley sauce and black keys poured down the street and in through their front door. My nan said the first she knew of it was an evil gurgling sound in a pentatonic arrangement, and the unusual sight of whelks embedding themselves in the walls in a pebble-dash arrangement.

      It was often said that Londoners could take it, but my nan thought enough was enough after such a bizarre bombardment. My granddad borrowed a van and set off for the north, asking my nan to carry their caged bird and keep up. The rest, of course, is history.

    2. That sounds like the ye Old London Ditty

      "My Old man, said follow the van, and don't dilly dally on the way. You can't trust a Special like an Old Time Copper, when you can't find your way home"

  4. My Grand Parents remained in London throughout the blitz, albeit, probably most of the time in the Basement or huge air raid shelter they built at the rear of the flats they live in.

    My parents generation were all in Uniform in foreign climes such as Egypt, Italy, Burma and Blackpool. One or two even did the double European tour. To France, back to England via Dunkirk, off to Egypt, across to Italy and up into Austria. Mind you the travel arrangements were a bit bumpy along the way. One even spending 3 years at Adolf's pleasure after a particularly unpleasant episode in Egypt.


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