The Newgate Calendar is the original source that inspired 'Newgate novels', also known as the 'Newgate school' – derogatory terms applied to early 19th-century fiction that portrayed criminals' lives. Famously, it was a label applied to Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens’ contemporaries including William Makepeace Thackeray. This was much to Dickens’s horror – although the Calendar does appear twice in the novel (Chapter XX and Chapter XLIII), ‘the pages … soiled and thumbed with use’.
A record of criminal's crimes, testimonies and executions, The Newgate Calendar is a strange and gruesomely detailed mix of fact and sensational fiction. Crude woodcuts accompany each entry, illustrating the crime or the execution. For Oliver Twist, ‘The terrible descriptions were so real and vivid, that the sallow pages seemed to turn red with gore’. It ran to many editions and different copies, bearing the same name, were compiled by competing editors and publishers. It was extremely popular reading; Henry Mayhew records that displaced boys in lodging houses would read it aloud to a group.
Critics feared that books such as this, and novels in the same tradition, would not only inspire copycat crimes but also glamorise crime as a way of life that led to fame and posterity. Indeed, certain figures immortalised here – such as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin – are still known today.