Street View: 5
Address: 1 Newgate Street


Although Tallis does not give an occupation for the Rev. Cotton, it is not very difficult to work out that he was the Ordinary at Newgate prison. On the 17th of December 1791, young Horatio Salusbury Cotton, the 17-year old son of Robert Salusbury Cotton of Reigate, matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, and went on to receive his B.A. four years later.(1) He became the curate at Peasemore in 1796, the vicar at Desborough in 1800, changed to the combination curate/schoolmaster at Cuckfield Grammar School in 1805 and from 1810 could be found at Hornsey.(2) In the baptism register from St. Mary, Hornsey, we find an entry Cotton probably wrote himself for the baptism on 28 September 1810 for Lynch, the son of Cotton and his wife Caroline Amelia. Lynch had been born on 22 November 1806 at Cuckfield.

from the 1799 map by Horwood

Cotton’s house marked by red arrow on the 1799 map by Horwood

In 1821, a batch of three children for Horace and Caroline are baptised on 4 August 1821 at Christ Church in the City of London: Elizabeth Berkeley (born 8 February 1808), Emma (born 8 October 1810) and Stapleton (born 8 May 1814). The address for the family is Newgate Street which is directly linked to his appointment as Ordinary of Newgate Prison on 29 July 1814.(3) We know so precisely because a committee conducted an investigation into the state of some prisons and Cotton was questioned as one of the employees. He states that although he has been in office since 29 July 1814, he has not yet (that is in April 1815 when the committee questions him) had his instructions in writing, “the Town Clerk has promised to send them two or three times, but there has been delay”. We know that Cotton earned £400 a year beside £6 from Lady Barnardiston’s Gift, and was given a house to reside in.(4) After his retirement in 1838, he received a pension of £300.(5)

Cotton's House and part of the prison wall from Tallis's Street View map

Cotton’s House and part of the prison wall from Tallis’s Street View map

Because the house was given to him to live in, Cotton’s name on a list of voters was objected to on the grounds that he was not the owner or tenant. The house belonged to the City and for as long as anyone could remember it had always been occupied by the ordinary. The poor rate for the property, although in the name of Cotton, had in fact been paid by the City. It was ascertained that Cotton was only allowed to live in the house as long as he was the ordinary and that he could not claim any rights towards the property. His name on the voters’ list was struck off.(7)

sale of books

In 1838, Sotheby’s sold the Collection of Books on Angling, the Property of the Rev. H.S. Cotton, Late Ordinary of Newgate which included some of his father’s books. In subsequent sales more of Cotton’s books and prints were sold off and the third portion contained “an extraordinary collection of tracts relating to criminals, lives of notorious thieves, felons, &c.”(6) One item which has turned up is a notebook by Cotton on those condemned to death during his tenure, not just their names, but also his personal observations, although it was against the rules to do anything of the sort. The notebook has come onto the market and Peter Berthoud wrote an excellent post on it, see here.

Cotton's bookplate

Cotton’s bookplate (Source: Houghton Library)

Thomas Wontner was the schoolmaster at Newgate prison at the same time as the Reverend Cotton was the ordinary there. Wontner wrote in his Old Bailey Experience(8) that a clergyman of the church of England was appointed by the alderman of the City to minister to the spiritual needs of the prisoners, “and more particularly to afford consolation to the unhappy men who come under the sentence of death”. According to Wontner, “there is not a more fit individual for the situation in the whole body of ministers belonging to our church establishment” than Cotton who had “an excellent heart” and “sound judgement; and, above all, is a determined enemy to cant and dissimulation”. Well, maybe just a bit too determined, as Cotton had to be censured by the authorities for “harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily”. Cotton’s job was not made easy as the various denominations to which the City’s aldermen belonged, caused them to allow all kinds of people in to administer consolation to those sentenced to death with the result that the prisoner, in stead of a few quiet last hours after having his mind prepared with the help of the official ordinary, was beset by other ministers who, according to Wontner, only managed to inflict “additional punishment to that which the law has already awarded to the man, torturing and distracting his mind”. And whilst Wontner applauds their zeal, he condemns their interference. The only one allowed to see the prisoner in his last hours should be the Newgate ordinary as he has “great experience among criminals”.

W. Thomson, Dr. Cotton, ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant (Source: Tate Gallery)

W. Thomson, Dr. Cotton, ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant (Source: Tate Gallery)

Source: peterharrington.co.uk

Source: peterharrington.co.uk

Wontner had another problem and that was the abundance of lurid adventure stories, figuring “robbers, pirates and loose women”. These stories so influenced young boys that it was almost inevitable that they turned to crime. He blamed the national school system where the boys were “taught to read entirely from the Scriptures, and never see any other book of interest. It is highly probable, if books of general history were put into their hands, and their tastes directed to substantial food for their mind, by which they might acquire a desire for the knowledge of facts instead of fiction, they might be excited to a better kind of reading, and much of the mischief avoided.” Wontner does not deny that the Scriptures are of the first importance, but “little works of morality, with natural and general history, are decidedly the most proper for their years.” Wontner was not the only one to think that a diet of exclusively dry religion was not the best way to prepare the prisoners for a new life outside the prison walls. That new life was frequently on the other side of the planet as transportation was considered a just punishment for even minor offences. While in the late 18th century, prisoners were given prayer books and bibles, in the 19th century, the realisation that more could be achieved by varying the reading material took hold. The S.P.C.K. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) changed their list of books suitable to be given to prisoners from one exclusively filled with religious material to one where secular literature was listed amongst the society’s own publications. That is not to say that they were willing to provide the material that included the “robbers, pirates and loose women” Wontner objected to, but more general books on history, voyages, travel and biography were selected as suitable.(9) Wontner wrote in his Old Bailey Experience that “with the assistance of the Rev. Mr. Cotton and Mrs. Fry, I succeeded in obtaining a stock of these books; and I am satisfied, from my experience with nearly five hundred boys, that no other is so well calculated to engage their attention.” One famous visitor to Newgate, Charles Dickens, wrote about the situation in the prison in one of his Sketches by Boz and it comes complete with a description of the chapel. According to Dickens it was not much: mean, unpainted, dingy and bare. But worse of all was the condemned pew below the reading desk where the unfortunates to be put to death were placed on the Sunday before their execution.(10)

Newgate Chapel from W.J.Loftie, London City (1891)

Newgate Chapel from W.J.Loftie, London City (1891)

In 1838, Cotton retired to Reigate, Surrey, where he died on 7 June 1846, 72 years old (his wife had died in 1842). His will is short and he leaves his copyhold of the Manor of Colley at Reigate to his two sons Lynch and Stapleton. Lynch also gets the quarto Baskett Bible that Cotton had inherited from his grandfather. Daughters Emma and Elizabeth get a cottage and the residue of the estate. Cotton had named George William Rillett Potter of Basinghall Street executor, but he declined and probate was granted to daughter Emma.(11)

You can read more on the controversial approach towards the Newgate prisoners by the Rev. Cotton in Naomi Clifford’s blog post on him (here).

(1) Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1714 (1888-1892).
(2) http://www.db.theclergydatabase.org.uk
(3) Report from the Committee on The King’s Bench, Fleet, and Marshalsea Prisons, &c. (1815).
(4) Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons and Command, volume 33. Account and Papers relating to Crime (session 1831-1832).
(5) The Necessity of Reforming the Corporation of London, Demonstrated by a Plain Statement of Facts (1843).
(6) Advertisements for future sales in Sotheby’s Catalogue of a Valuable Collection of Books (1837).
(7) The Standard, 2 November 1836.
(8) Thomas Wontner, Old Bailey Experience. Criminal jurisprudence and the actual working of our penal code of laws (1833).
(9) Janet Fyfe, Books Behind Bars. The Role of Books, Reading, and Libraries in British Prison Reform, 1701-1911 (1992).
(10) Charles Dickens, “A visit to Newgate” in Sketches by Boz (1837) Online here.
(11) National Archives, PROB 11/2046.


<– 2 Newgate Street