As black as a Newgate's knocker
What's the meaning of the phrase 'As black as Newgate's knocker'?
What's the origin of the phrase 'As black as Newgate's knocker'?
The expression 'As black as Newgate's knocker' is generally believed to refer to the heavy iron knocker on the gate of Newgate Prison, London. That belief may be correct but, then again, it may not. Read on...
This is one of many English similes that are used to indicate blackness:
As black as a crow
As black as a raven's wing
As black as ink
As black as Hell
As black as Hades
As black as death
As black as the grave
As black as your hat
As black as thunder
As black as midnight
As black as pitch
As black as soot
As black as tar
... pretty much anything in fact, so long as it conjures up thoughts of darkness.
Newgate Prison was a notoriously grim and forbidding place. It was rebuilt several times before being replaced by The Central Criminal Court, more widely known as the Old Bailey.
Public executions took place outside Newgate and it isn't surprising that it became synonymous with dark deeds. The knocker itself was probably singled out because of the alliteration with 'Newgate' rather than any special property although, as can be seen from the accompanying picture of the actual knocker from the door of the jail, it is indeed an uncompromising, black, cast-iron affair (bearing in mind that, given the many knockers that the prison must have had over the centuries, it is safer to say this is a picture of a Newgate knocker, rather than the Newgate knocker).
'Newgate's knocker' was a synonym for age and toughness by the 18th century; for instance, in this piece from The Batchelor: or, Speculations of Jeoffry Wagstaffe, Esq, 1769:
Dear Jack, I wish your old dad would tip off [the perch, that is, die], that you might come once more: damn it, he is as old as the knocker of Newgate, but I think as tough as a gad. [a bar of iron]
The phrase 'as black as Newgate's knocker' originated in the mid 19th century. The earliest example of it that I can find in print is in The Cornishman, March 1881, in a column that explained dialect phrases from difference parts of England for a Cornish audience:
"As black as Newgate knocker" is a Cockney phrase.
There is another meaning of a Newgate knocker. It was the slang name of a form of hairstyle which had hanging curls in the shape of a club. This is known of in print since a century before Newgate knockers were said to be black. In the Kentish Gazette, July 1781 we find this account:
Mr Julep... he usually wore an handsome full-bottomed grizzle wig and a suit of clothes properly adapted to his profession and age. But now mark the change which an attachment to the reigning mode had wrought in my good neighbour: the pompous grizzle had been laid aside for the spruce club stiled [called] a Newgate Knocker.
Whether the 'as black as Newgate knocker' derived from the name of the hairstyle or directly from the prison we can't now be sure.
See other 'as x as y similes'.