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Newgate Novel

The Newgate novel, or the Old Bailey novel, is a type of book published in England from the 1820s to the 1840s that glamorizes criminals’ lives.

Newgate novels were inspired by the publication of the Newgate Calendar: The Malefactors’ Bloody Register. It was originally a monthly bulletin that detailed the executions of late. But, its name was used in other publications to detail the lives of convicted criminals. Publishers wrote on the lives of people like Dick Turpin and John Wilkes. As time passed and interest in the subject matter grew, collections of stories were published.

The stories were sometimes embellished and somewhat fictional, but they were always interesting and sometimes even mentioned social issues. The Newgate Calendar and related publications were incredibly popular and likely found in homes throughout England. 

Newgate Novel definition and examples

Newgate Novel Definition

Newgate novels were books that glamorized the lives of criminals.

The stories might be changed somewhat to make them more interesting and shocking, not unlike the true crime genre today. Many of these novels were very controversial and criticized by certain high-ranking members of society. 

Examples of Newgate Novels

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens 

Oliver Twist is Dickens’ second novel. It was published as a serial from 1837 to 1839 then as a three-part book in 1839. It follows Oliver Twist, who was born in a workhouse and later sold into an apprenticeship. He escapes from this life to travel throughout London. He meets Artful Dodger, a gang member, and pickpocket. Here is a quote: 

My heart is set, as firmly as ever heart of man was set on woman. I have no thought, no view, no hope, in life beyond her; and if you oppose me in this great stake, you take my peace and happiness in your hands, and cast them to the wind.

The novel portrays the lives of criminals in Victorian London in a way that no other author ever had. It is also a social novel, one that draws the reader’s attention to issues of child labor and violence. 

Explore Charles Dickens’ poetry

Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth 

Rookwood is another excellent example of a Newgate novel. It was published in 1834 and discussed a legal dispute over the inheritance of Rookwood place. It takes place in 1737 at the Manor, where a legend suggested that a death would follow after a branch of a specific tree was broken. The house owner dies after such a branch breaks, and a series of events follow that include a love affair and controversial debates about the ownership of the estate. Here is a quote from the beginning of the book: 

Within a sepulchral vault, and at midnight, two persons were seated. The chamber was of singular construction and considerable extent. The roof was of solid stone masonry, and rose in a wide semicircular arch to the height of about seventeen feet, measured from the centre of the ceiling to the ground floor, while the sides were divided by slight partition-walls into ranges of low, narrow catacombs.

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton was published in 1830. It tells the life story of a man who works as a criminal and leads the life of a high-class gentleman. The book received a great deal of interest after it was published, like most Newgate novels. Clifford is a highwayman during the French Revolution. He falls in love, is arrested, and brought to trial. Here is a quote from the first chapter:

“If you are like him,” she muttered, “I will strangle you,—I will! Ay, tremble, you ought to tremble when your mother touches you, or when he is mentioned. You have his eyes, you have! Out with them, out,—the devil sits laughing in them!  

The novel is most famous for its opening lines: “It was a dark and stormy night….”

Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth

This novel is often considered the peak of all books within the Newgate genre. It was published in 1839 and detailed the life of a known thief, Jack Sheppard. He was hanged in 1724 and was renowned for his ability to escape captivity. The novel became somewhat notorious in its popularity, inspiring (supposedly) some men to engage in the same practices of pick-pocketing. Here is a quote: 

Thames Darrell’s fears were not, however, groundless. Danger, in the form he apprehended, was lurking outside: nor was he destined to enjoy long repose. On receiving the warning note from the ostler, Jack Sheppard and his companion left Willesden, and taking—as a blind—the direction of Harrow, returned at night-fall by a by-lane to Neasdon, and put up at a little public-house called the Spotted Dog.


Why Dickens novels are called Newgate novels?

Some of Dickens’ novels, such as Oliver Twist, have been labeled as Newgate novels because they glamorize, to an extent, crime. Twist falls in with a group of young pickpockets in the novel.

Who wrote Newgate novels?

Numerous authors between 1820 and the end of the 1840s wrote Newgate novels in England. These authors were interested in stories about criminals and knew that the public was too. They included William Harrison Ainsworth and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. 

What was the Newgate Calendar? 

This calendar was a regular publication, initially, that detailed the recent executions. The name was used by other authors who wrote biographies of these criminals and then later used to describe a whole genre of novels

Related Literary Terms 

  • Chronicle Novel:  a long novel, or one in a series of novels, that follows at least two generations of a family or group.
  • Dime Novel: a form of short, cheap fiction popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. 
  • Epistolary: a book made up of a series of documents, usually letters, diary entires, or newspaper clippings.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.

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