Black as Newgate’s knocker
In these desperately politically correct days it is a brave person who wades into a discussion of shade and colour but there are times when you are compelled to describe the darkness of something. There are a number of similes in the standard formulation of as x as y you can use that will not make your hearer blanche but if you looking for something a little recherché, why not consider as black as Newgate’s knocker?
There are two possible origins for this phrase, although they both may flow from the same source, Newgate prison, upon whose site the Old Bailey now stands. It was rebuilt five times before it was finally closed in 1902 and demolished two years later. Newgate had a fearsome reputation, housing criminals and debtors and from 1783 it was a place of execution, initially the felons were dispatched from a platform outside the gaol but later the executions were held indoors.
The knocker on the front door would be a symbol of terror. It had to be used to summon a guard who would then admit the prisoner to what was a noisy, foul, fetid cesspit of humanity. Whether the knocker was black is open to some debate. Its association with the grim fate awaiting prisoners and death would be enough to ascribe dark characteristics to do it. There is, however, a black door knocker, said to be the original, mounted on a block of wood from the prison which is used as a gavel at ceremonial dinners held in the Lord Mayor’s and Sheriff’s Dining Room at the Central Criminal Court.
References to the Newgate knocker began to appear in the mid eighteenth century, it has a pleasing alliteration, after all. In James Hoey’s The Batchelor; or, Speculations of Jeoffry Wagstaffe, Esq of 1769 it is used to describe something aged and tough, a figurative reference to the prison regime but one easy to understand; “Dear Jack, I wish your old dad would tip off, that you might come once more: damn it, he’s as old as the knocker of Newgate, but I think as tough as a gad”. A gad was an iron bar.
I associate the 18th century with ridiculous, over the top fashions worn by the upper classes but the lower orders, particularly fashionable young men and especially costermongers, were not impervious to the siren call of fashion. The Kentish Gazette in July 1781 described a Mr Julep who had given up a full-bottomed grizzle wig for a “spruce club stiled a Newgate Knocker”. This hair-do involved a lock of hair being twisted from the temple on either side of the head back towards the ear, making a shape rather like the figure six.
It was a relatively long-lived fashion, references to it can be found dating to the middle of the next century. To be flash, according to one lad interviewed by Henry Mayhew for his London Labour and the London Poor of 1851, the hair “ought to be long in front, and done in figure-six curls or twisted back to the ear Newgate knocker style”. John Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words of 1859 helpfully commented that “the shape is supposed to resemble the knocker on the prisoners’ door at Newgate”. Two years later a correspondent to the Illustrated Times of London described a mob as “bull-necked, heavy-jawed, and with the hair dressed after a fashion known among its patrons as the Newgate knocker style”.
There is no direct association of the hair style to the colour black. Of course, many sporting the style would have black hair but the simile seems to be of a later date. The Cornishman in March 1881 helpfully included a column which investigated the oddities of dialects from around the country. It described “as black as Newgate knocker” as “a Cockney phrase”. I suspect that the origin is the knocker on Newgate prison which as well as spawning this rather colourful but later simile but also gave its name to a popular hairstyle. There is no reason to think that the hairstyle gave rise to the phrase.