Fleet Prison was a notorious London prison by the side of the River Fleet. The prison was built in 1197, was rebuilt several times, and was in use until 1844. It was demolished in 1846.
The prison was built in 1197 off what is now Farringdon Street, on the eastern bank of the River Fleet after which it was named. It came into particular prominence from being used as a place of reception for persons committed by the Star Chamber, and, afterwards, as a debtor's prison and for persons imprisoned for contempt of court by the Court of Chancery. In 1381, during the Peasants' Revolt, it was deliberately destroyed by Wat Tyler's men.
In 1666, during the Great Fire of London, it was burned down on the third day of the fire, the prisoners fleeing at the last moments. The then-warden of the prison, Sir Jeremy Whichcote, purchased Caron House in Lambeth after the fire to house the prison's debtors while the prison was rebuilt on the original site at his own expense.
During the 18th century, Fleet Prison was mainly used for debtors and bankrupts. It usually contained about 300 prisoners and their families. Like the Marshalsea prison, it was divided into a restrictive and arduous Common Side and a more open Master's Side, where rent had to be paid. At that time prisons were profit-making enterprises. Prisoners had to pay for food and lodging. There were fees for turning keys or for taking irons off, and Fleet Prison had the highest fees in England. There was even a grille built into the Farringdon Street prison wall, so that prisoners might beg alms from passers-by. But prisoners did not necessarily have to live within Fleet Prison itself; as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for loss of earnings, they could take lodgings within a particular area outside the prison walls called the "Liberty of the Fleet" or the "Rules of the Fleet". From 1613 on, there were also many clandestine Fleet Marriages. The boundary of the Liberties of the Fleet included the north side of Ludgate Hill, the Old Bailey to Fleet Lane and along it until the Fleet Market, and ran alongside the prison to Ludgate Hill.
The head of the prison was termed the warden, who was appointed by Letters patent. It became a frequent practice of the holder of the patent to farm out the prison to the highest bidder. This custom made the prison long notorious for the cruelties inflicted on prisoners. One purchaser of the office, Thomas Bambridge, who became warden in 1728, was of particularly evil repute. He was guilty of the greatest extortions upon prisoners, and, according to a committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of English gaols, arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons, and destroyed prisoners for debt, treating them in the most barbarous and cruel manner, in high violation and contempt of the laws. He was committed to Newgate Prison, and an act was passed to prevent his enjoying the office of warden.
During the Gordon Riots in 1780 Fleet Prison was again destroyed and rebuilt in 1781–1782. In 1842, in pursuance of an Act of Parliament, by which inmates of the Marshalsea, Fleet and Queen's Bench Prisons were relocated to the Queen's Prison (as the Queen's Bench Prison was renamed), it was finally closed, and in 1844 sold to the Corporation of the City of London, by whom it was pulled down in 1846.
(See "Category:Prisoners in the Fleet" below)
In 1601, the poet John Donne was imprisoned along with the priest who married him and the man who witnessed the match until it was proven that his wedding to Anne Donne was legal and valid.
One notable inmate was Samuel Byrom, son of the writer and poet John Byrom. Samuel Byrom was imprisoned for debt in 1725, and in 1729 he sent a petition to his old school friend, The Duke of Dorset, in which raged against the injustices of the system:
What barbarity can be greater than for gaolers (without provocation) to load prisoners with irons, and thrust them into dungeons, and manacle them, and deny their friends to visit them, and force them to pay excessive fines for their chamber rent, their victuals and drinks; to open their letters and seize the charity that is sent to them! And when debtors have succedd in arranging with their creditors, hundreds are detained in prison for chamber-rent and other unjust demands put forward by their gaolers, so that at last, in their despair, many are driven to commit suicide...gaolers should be paid a fixed salary and forbidden, under pain of instant dismissal, to accept bribe, fee or reward of any kind...law of imprisonment for debts influicts a greater loss on the country, in the way of wasted power and energies, than do monasteries and nunneries in foreign lands, and among Roman-Catholic peoples...Holland, the most unpolite country in the world, uses debors with mildness and malefactors with rigour; England, on the other hand, shows mercy to murderers and robbers, but of poor debtors impossibilities are demanded...- Manchester Times, 22 October 1862
Other notable inmates include:
- Sir Thomas Lodge (Lord Mayor of London) spent a short time in the Fleet after declaring himself bankrupt at the end of his term of Mayoralty, 1562-63.
- Francis Tregian the Younger. He is reputed to have used his time in prison to carry out work copying musical manuscripts.
- George Thomson (physician) (c. 1619 – 1676). Physician and medical writer, fought for the royalists under Prince Maurice during the English Civil War. He was captured by the parliamentary forces at Newbury in 1644, and imprisoned for a time here.
- Edmund Dummer (1651–1713) Surveyor of the Navy, founder of the Royal Navy docks at Devonport, Plymouth, Member of Parliament for Arundel and founder of the first packet service between Falmouth, Cornwall and the West Indies, died a bankrupt in Fleet debtors' prison.
- John Jones of Gellilyfdy, a Welsh antiquary and calligrapher who, repeatedly imprisoned between 1617 and the 1650s, used his time in prison to carry out work copying manuscripts.
- Moses Pitt – publisher who, in 1691, published The Cry of the Oppressed, a moving appeal on behalf of himself and all prisoners for debt across the nation.
- John Cleland – 18th century fighter for the freedom of speech in Great Britain
- William "Strata" Smith – who in 1815 created his famous geological map of England, Wales and Southern Scotland.
- Charles Hall – a notable economic thinker, and early socialist.
- William Penn – early champion of democracy and religious freedom, was imprisoned for debt in 1707.
- Theodore von Neuhoff, the only king of Corsica, in 1756, just before his death.
- Jørgen Jørgensen – a Danish adventurer who helped build the first settlement in Tasmania and for a short time in 1809 ruled over Iceland, after which he became a British spy and was later deported to Tasmania.
Notable fictional inmates
- Mr. Samuel Pickwick – protagonist of Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, who is imprisoned in the Fleet for refusing to pay fines stemming from a breach of promise suit brought against him by Mrs. Bardell. The book contains a vivid description of the life, customs and abuses of the prison.
- At the close of Shakespeare's play, Henry IV, Part 2 (Act V, Scene V), Falstaff is surprised when, instead of being promoted by the new king, the Chief Justice tells his officers to "Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet; /Take all his company along with him."
- In The Luck of Barry Lyndon, Lyndon spends the last nineteen years of his life in Fleet Prison.
- Near the end of "Tom and Jerry: Life in London" the Oxonian Bob Logic spends time in Fleet Prison for debt.
- 'The Fleet Prison', Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878), pp. 404–416. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45111 Date accessed: 24 November 2012.
- Thomas Bambridge, Dictionary of National Biography, accessed February 2010
- Anon (22 October 1862). "In prison for debt". Manchester Times (Manchester, England).
- MacDougall, Philip (September 2004). "Edmund Dummer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 6 October 2009.(subscription required)
- John Jones of Gellilyfdy, Dictionary of Welsh Biography, National Library of Wales
- Michael Harris, 'Pitt, Moses (bap. 1639, d. 1697)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Fleet Prison". Encyclopedia Americana.
- Julia Gasper, Theodore von Neuhoff, king of Corsica. The man behind the legend, University of Delaware Press, nov. 2012.