The prison occupied two locations on the same street, the first c. 1329–1811, and the second 1811–1842. The image above is of the first Marshalsea in the 18th century.
|Population||Mainly debtors; also pirates, smugglers, and those accused of sedition|
|Managed by||The Knight Marshal of the British royal household|
|Edmund Bonner, John Dickens, Sir John Eliot, John Baptist Grano, Ben Jonson, John Selden, George Wither|
The Marshalsea was an infamous prison in England, located on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark, now part of London. From at least the 14th century until it closed in 1842, it housed a wide variety of prisoners, including men under court martial for crimes at sea and "unnatural crimes," and well-known intellectuals and political figures accused of sedition. It became most closely associated with imprisoning London's debtors, the length of their stay determined largely by the whim of their creditors.
Run privately for profit, as were all prisons in England until the 19th century, the Marshalsea looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned as an extortion racket. For prisoners who could pay, it came with access to a bar, shop and restaurant, as well as the crucial privilege of being allowed out during the day, which meant debtors could earn money to satisfy their creditors. Everyone else was crammed into one of nine small rooms with dozens of others, possibly for decades for the most modest of debts, which increased as unpaid prison fees accumulated. A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death within a three-month period, and that eight to ten prisoners were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.
The prison became known around the world in the 19th century through the writing of the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there in 1824 for a debt to a baker. Forced because of that to leave school at the age of 12 for a job in a factory, Dickens based several of his characters on his experiences, most notably Amy Dorrit, whose father was also a Marshalsea debtor.
Much of the prison was demolished in the 1870s, though some of the buildings were used into the 20th century, housing an ironmonger's, a butter shop and a printing house for the Marshalsea Press. All that is left of it now is the long brick wall that marked the southern boundary of the prison, the existence of what Dickens called "the crowding ghosts of many miserable years" marked only by a plaque from the local council. "[I]t is gone now," he wrote, "and the world is none the worse without it."
Etymology, Marshalsea Court
"Marshalsea" or "marshalcy" referred to the "office, rank, or position of a marshal," derived from the Anglo-French mareschalcie. The word was believed in the 16th and 17th centuries to derive from marshal + see, for seat, but in fact it comes from marshal + cy, as in "captaincy." "Marshal" originally meant farrier, from the Old Germanic marh ("horse") and scalc ("servant"), later becoming a title bestowed on those presiding over the courts of Medieval Europe.
Marshalsea was originally the name of the Marshalsea Court. Also called the Court of the Verge, the Court of the Steward and Marshal, and the Court of the Marshalsea of the Household of the Kings of England, it was a special jurisdiction of the English royal household that emerged around 1290, when the staff and domestic rules of the Lord Steward and Knight Marshal began to constitute a judicial body. It assumed jurisdiction over members of the household living within "the verge," defined as within 12 miles (19 km) of the King's person, wherever that might be. This means it was an ambulatory court, moving around the country with the King. The court dealt with trespass, contempt and debt.
In practice the court was often used for private disputes among people unconnected with the royal household, and its definition of "verge" extended beyond 12 miles. The prison was originally built to hold prisoners being tried by the Marshalsea Court and the Court of the King's Bench, to which Marshalsea rulings could be appealed, but its use was soon extended, and the term "Marshalsea" came to be used for the prison itself.
Southwark local // was settled by the Romans around 43 CE. It served as an entry point into London from southern England, particularly along Watling Street, the Roman road from Canterbury, which ran into Southwark's Borough High Street. As a result it became known for its travellers and inns, including Geoffrey Chaucer's Tabard Inn, and its population of criminals hiding out on the wrong side of the old London Bridge. The itinerant population brought with it poverty, prostitutes, bear baiting, theatres – including Shakespeare's Globe – and, inevitably, prisons. In 1796, there were five in the area: the Clink, King's Bench Prison, the White Lion, the Borough Compter and the Marshalsea, compared to just 18 in London as a whole.
Debt in England
Before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869 abolished debtors' prisons, men and women in England were routinely imprisoned for debt at the pleasure of their creditors, sometimes for decades. When the breadwinner was jailed, their families were left to depend on charity, so the prisoners would often take their families with them. As a result, entire communities sprang up inside the debtors' jails, with children born and raised there. Other European countries had legislation limiting imprisonment for debt to one year, but debtors in England were imprisoned until their creditors were satisfied, however long that took. When the Fleet Prison closed in 1842, some debtors were found to have been there for 30 years.
The law offered no protection to people with assets tied up by inheritance laws, or to those who had paid their creditors as much as they could. Because prisons were privately administered, whole economies were created around the debtor communities, with prison keepers charging rent (the so-called "jailor's fee"), bailiffs charging for food and clothing, attorneys charging legal fees in fruitless efforts to get the debtors out, and creditors, often tradesmen, increasing the debt simply because the debtor was in jail. The result was that the prisoners' families, including children, often had to find employment simply to cover the cost of the imprisonment, the debts accumulating to the point where there was no realistic prospect of release.
According to a petition presented to parliament in 1641, around 10,000 people in England and Wales were in prison for debt. Legislation began to address the problem from 1649 onwards, though it was slow to make any real difference. Helen Small writes that, under George III (1760–1820), new legislation prevented debts of under 40 shillings leading to jail – roughly £583 today – but even the smallest amounts would quickly exceed that once lawyers' fees were added. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act 1813, debtors could request release after 14 days in jail by taking an oath that their assets did not exceed £20, but if any of their creditors objected, they had to stay inside. Even after a lifetime in prison, the debt remained to be paid.
Prisons in England
Until the late 19th century, imprisonment alone was not regarded in Britain as a punishment, at least not by those imposing it. Prisons were intended only to hold people until their creditors had been paid, or their fate decided by judges: usually execution, the stocks, flogging, the pillory or the ducking stool. Before the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, convicts were also sent to one of the American colonies, a process known as penal transportation, often for the most minor offence. When that stopped, they were held instead in disused ships called hulks, which were moored in the Thames, and at Plymouth and Portsmouth, with the intention that they be transported somewhere at some point. According to The National Archives at Kew, the establishment of these hulks marked the first involvement of central government in Britain in the administration of prisons.
In 1787 penal transportation to Australia began, lasting until 1867. A number of prisons were built by central government during this period to hold convicts awaiting transportation, most notably Millbank, built in 1816, but also Parkhurst (1838), Pentonville (1842), Portland (1848), Portsmouth (1850), and Chatham (1856).
Prison reform gathered pace with the appointment of Sir Robert Peel as Home Secretary in 1822. Before the Gaols Act 1823, then the Prisons Act of 1835 and 1877, prisons such as the Marshalsea were administered by the royal household and run for profit – almost entirely without regulation – by private individuals who purchased the right to manage and make money from them. Prisoners had to feed and clothe themselves and furnish their rooms. If food was supplied, it was bread and water, or something confiscated from the local market as unfit for human consumption. Anyone unfortunate enough to have no money for food, and no one to bring it in for him, simply died of starvation. Robert Hughes writes that jailors assumed the right to chain prisoners with as many iron fetters as they chose, charging for their removal one at a time, the "easement of irons." He writes that the practice, known as the "trade of chains," survived into the 1790s. In the Bishop of Ely's prison, prisoners unable to pay for easement of irons were chained to the floor on their backs, with a spiked collar around the neck and heavy iron bars over the legs, until they somehow found the money.
The Marshalsea occupied two buildings on what is now Borough High Street, the first from the beginning of the 14th century, and possibly earlier, at what would now be 161 Borough High Street, between King Street and Mermaid Court.
Robyn Adams writes that by the late 16th century the building was crumbling and insecure. In 1799 the government reported that it had fallen into a state of decay and would be rebuilt 130 yards (119 m) south on Borough High Street, on the site of the White Lion prison, also called the Borough Gaol. This was where the second Marshalsea was situated from 1811 until it closed in 1849, at what is now 211 Borough High Street. Much of it was demolished in the 1870s, when the Home Office took over responsibility for running prisons, though parts of it existed into the 1950s at least, providing rooms and shops to rent.
Although the first Marshalsea survived for 500 years, and the second for just 38, it is the latter that became widely known, thanks largely to Charles Dickens. Trey Philpotts writes that every detail about the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit has a referent in the real Marshalsea of the 1820s. Dickens rarely made mistakes and did not exaggerate; if anything, Philpotts writes, he downplayed the licentiousness of Marshalsea life, perhaps to protect Victorian sensibilities. Most of our information about the first Marshalsea comes from John Baptist Grano (1692–c. 1748), one of George Frederick Handel's trumpeters at the opera house in London's Haymarket. Grano was jailed for a debt of £99 (worth £11,000 today), and kept a detailed diary of his 458-day incarceration in the first Marshalsea from 30 May 1728 until 23 September 1729.
First Marshalsea (ca. 1329–1811)
The first Marshalsea was set slightly back from Borough High Street, its buildings measuring no more than 150 by 50 feet. There is no record of when it was built, but there is an early reference to it in 1329, when Agnes, wife of Walter de Westhale, surrendered herself there for having committed "trespass by force and arms" on Richard le Chaucer and his wife Mary, relatives of the writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Agnes has allegedly helped her daughter Joan to marry their son John, who was only 12 years old and did not have their consent.
Most of the first Marshalsea, as with the second, was taken up by debtors; in 1773, debtors within 12 miles of Westminster could be imprisoned there for a debt of 40 shillings. It also held a small number of men being tried at the Old Bailey for crimes at sea. The prison was technically under the control of the Knight Marshal, but it was let out to private individuals who ran it for profit. In 1727, for example, the Knight Marshal, Sir Philip Meadows, hired John Darby, a printer, as prison governor, who in turn leased it illegally to William Acton, a butcher (see below). Acton paid Darby £140 a year – roughly £16,592 – for the right to act as resident warden and chief turnkey, and an additional £260 for the right to collect rent from the rooms, and sell food and drink.
The prison had separate areas for its two classes of prisoner: the master's side, which housed about 50 rooms for rent, and the common side, consisting of nine small rooms into which 300 people were locked up from dusk until dawn. Room rents on the master's side were ten shillings a week in 1728, with most prisoners forced to share. (Ten shillings in 1728 was £58 in 2009 using the retail price index, or £773 using average earnings.) John Grano paid 2s 6d – two shillings and six pennies – for a room with two beds on the master's side, shared with three other prisoners: Daniel Blunt, a tailor who owed £9, Benjamin Sandford, a lighterman from Bermondsey who owed £55, and a Mr. Blundell, a jeweller.
The inmates called the prison the castle. There was a turreted lodge at the entrance, as with the older Oxbridge colleges, with a side room known as the pound, where new prisoners would wait until a room was found for them. The courtyard leading out of the lodge was called the park. It had been divided in two by a long, narrow wall, so that prisoners from the common side could spend their daylight hours there without being seen by those on the master's side, who preferred not to be distressed by the sight of abject poverty, especially when they might themselves be plunged into it at any moment. The wives, daughters and lovers of male prisoners were allowed to live with them, so long as they behaved themselves and someone was paying their way. Women prisoners who could pay the fees were housed in the women's quarters, known as the oak.
There was a bar run by the governor's wife, and a chandler's shop run in 1728 by a Mr and Mrs Cary, both prisoners, which sold candles, soap and a little food. When John Howard (1726–1790), one of England's great prison reformers, visited the Marshalsea on 16 March 1774, he found the shop being run by a man and his family who were not prisoners, and who were living in five of the rooms intended for inmates on the master's side. There was a coffee shop run in 1729 by a long-term prisoner, Sarah Bradshaw, and a chop-house called Titty Doll's run by another prisoner, Richard McDonnell and his wife. There was also a tailor and a barber, and prisoners from the master's side could hire prisoners from the common side to act as their servants.
Howard reported that there was no infirmary, and that the practice of "garnish" was in place (see below), whereby new prisoners were bullied into giving money to the older prisoners upon arrival. During his visit, the taproom, or beer room, had been let to a prisoner who was living "within the rules" of the King's Bench prison, which meant he was formally incarcerated in the King's Bench, but for a fee was allowed to live outside, within a certain radius of the prison. Although legislation prohibited jailors from having a pecuniary interest in the sale of alcohol within their prisons, it was another rule that was completely ignored. Howard reported that 600 pots of beer were brought into the Marshalsea one Sunday from a public house, because the prisoners did not like the beer available in the taproom. Rioting and drunkenness were the only ways the prisoners could be made to "disregard the confinement," he wrote.
Prisoners on the master's side rarely ventured to the common side. John Baptist Grano went there just once, on 4 August 1728, writing in his diary that, "I thought it would have kill'd me." There was no need for other prisoners to see it, John Ginger writes. It was enough that they knew it existed to keep the rental money, legal fees and other gratuities flowing from the prisoner's families, fees that anywhere else would have seen them living in the lap of luxury, but which in the Marshalsea could be trusted merely to stave off disease and starvation.
By all accounts, living conditions in the common side were horrific. In 1639 prisoners complained that 23 women were being held in one room without space to lie down, leading to a revolt, with prisoners pulling down fences and attacking the guards with stones. Prisoners were regularly beaten with a "bull's pizzle," a whip made from a bull's penis, or tortured with thumbscrews and a skullcap, a vice for the head that weighed 12 lb (5.4 kg). What often finished them off was being forced to lie in the strong room, a windowless shed near the main sewer, next to the many cadavers awaiting burial. Dickens wrote of it that it was "dreaded by even the most dauntless highwaymen and bearable only to toads and rats." One apparently diabetic army officer, ejected from the common side because other inmates had complained about the smell of his urine, was moved to the strong room, where he died. His face was eaten by rats within three or four hours of his death, according to a witness.
During the wardship of William Acton in the 1720s, the income from charities, collected from various begging bowls in circulation around Southwark and intended to buy food for inmates on the common side, was directed instead to a small group of trusted prisoners who policed the prison on Acton's behalf. The same group swore during Acton's trial in 1729 for murder (see below) that the strong room was the best room in the house. Ginger writes that Acton and his wife, who lived in a comfortable apartment near the lodge, knew they were sitting on a powder keg. "When each morning the smell of freshly baked bread filled ... the yard ... only brutal suppression could prevent the Common Side from erupting," he writes.
1729 Gaols Committee
The common side did erupt after a fashion in 1728 when Robert Castell, an architect and debtor in the Fleet prison, who had been living in lodgings outside the jail within the rules, was taken to a "sponging house" after he refused to pay a higher prison fee to the Fleet's notorious warden, Thomas Bambridge (died c. 1750). Sponging houses were private lodgings where prisoners were incarcerated before being taken to jail; they acquired the name because they squeezed the prisoner's last money out of him as if he were a sponge. When Castell arrived at the sponging house on 14 November he was forced to share space with a man who was dying of smallpox, and as a result became infected and died less than a month later.
Castell had a friend, James Oglethorpe (1696–1785), a Tory MP who became known years later for founding the American colony of Georgia. He began to ask questions about the treatment of debtor prisoners, which resulted in the appointment in February 1729 of a parliamentary committee, the Gaols Committee, which he chaired. The committee visited the Fleet on 27 February and the Marshalsea on 25 March. Commissioned by Sir Archibald Grant (1696–1778), William Hogarth accompanied the committee on its visit to the Fleet, sketching it, then later painting it in oil. In the painting (see below right), Grant is standing third from the right. The art historian Horace Walpole (1717–1797) wrote of the painting in 1749: "The scene is the committee. On the table are the instruments of torture. A prisoner in rags, half-starved, appears before them. The poor man has a good countenance, that adds to the interest. On the other hand is the inhuman gaoler. It is the very figure that Salvator Rosa would have drawn for Iago in the moment of detection."
The committee was shocked by the prisoners' living conditions. They reported back to parliament that they had found, "the sale of offices, breaches of trust, enormous extortions, oppression, intimidation, gross brutalities, and the highest crimes and misdemeanours." In the Fleet they had found Sir William Rich, a baronet, in irons. Unable to pay the prison fee, Rich had apparently been burned with a red-hot poker, hit with a stick and kept in a dungeon for ten days for having wounded the warden with a shoemaker's knife. In the Marshalsea they found that prisoners on the common side were being routinely starved to death:
All the Support such poor Wretches have to subsist on, is an accidental Allowance of Pease, given once a week by a Gentleman, who conceals his Name, and about Thirty Pounds of Beef, provided by the voluntary Contribution of the Judge and Officers of the Marshalsea, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; which is divided into very small Portions, of about an Ounce and a half, distributed with One-Fourth-part of an Half-penny Loaf ... When the miserable Wretch hath worn out the Charity of his Friends, and consumed the Money, which he hath raised upon his Cloaths, and Bedding, and hath eat his last Allowance of Provisions, he usually in a few Days grows weak, for want of Food, with the symptoms of a hectick Fever; and when he is no longer able to stand, if he can raise 3d to pay the Fee of the common Nurse of the Prison, he obtains the Liberty of being carried into the Sick Ward, and lingers on for about a Month or two, by the assistance of the above-mentioned Prison Portion of Provision, and then dies.
Confinement in the sick ward did not necessarily make the last month of life any easier:
The Committee saw in the Women's Sick Ward many miserable Objects lying, without Beds, on the Floor, perishing with extreme Want; and in the Men's Sick Ward yet much worse: For along the Side of the Walls of that Ward, Boards were laid upon Trestles, like a Dresser in a Kitchen; and under them, between those Trestles, were laid on the Floor, one Tire [tier] of sick Men, and upon the Dresser another Tire, and over them hung a Third Tire in Hammocks.
On the giving of Food to these poor Wretches (though it was done with utmost Caution, they being old allowed at first the smallest Quantities, and that of liquid Nourishment) one died: The Vessels of his Stomach were so disordered, and contracted, for want of Use, that they were totally incapable of performing their Office, and the unhappy Creature perished about the time of Digestion.
Trial of William Acton
As a result of the Gaols Committee's inquiries, several key figures within the jails were tried for murder in August 1729, including Thomas Bambridge of the Fleet, and William Acton of the Marshalsea. Given the strongly worded report of the Gaols Committee, the trials were major public events. Ginger writes that, when the Prince of Wales's bookseller presented his bill at the end of that year, two of the 41 volumes on it were accounts of William Acton's trial.
The first case against Acton was for the murder of Thomas Bliss, a debtor. Unable to pay the prison fees, he had been left with so little to eat that he had tried to escape by throwing a rope over the wall, but his pursuers severed it and he fell 20 feet into the prison yard. Wanting to know who had supplied the rope, Acton beat him with a bull's pizzle, stamped on his stomach, placed him in "the hole" – a small damp space under the stairs, which had no floor, and was too small to lie down or stand up in – then in the strong room.
Originally built to hold pirates, the strong room was just a few yards from the prison's sewer. It was never cleaned, had no drain, no sunlight, almost no fresh air – the smell was described as "noisome" – and was full of rats and sometimes "several barrow fulls of dung." A number of prisoners told the court that it contained no bed, so that prisoners had to lie on the damp floor, often next to the corpses of previous inhabitants. But a group of favoured prisoners Acton had paid to police the jail told the hearing there was indeed a bed. One of them said he often chose to lie in there himself, because the strong room was so clean; the "best room on the Common side of the jail," said another. This, despite the court's having heard that one prisoner's left side had mortified from lying on the wet floor, and that a rat had eaten the nose, ear, cheek and left eye of another.
Bliss was left in the strong room for three weeks wearing a skullcap (a heavy vice for the head), thumb screws, iron collar, leg irons, and irons round his ankles called sheers. One witness said the swelling in his legs was so bad that the irons on one side could no longer be seen for overflowing flesh. His wife, who was able to see him through a small hole in the door, testified that he was bleeding from the mouth and thumbs. He was given a small amount of food but the skullcap prevented him from chewing; he had to ask another prisoner, Susannah Dodd, to chew his meat for him. He was eventually taken to the sick ward, and died a few months later.
The court was told of three other cases. Captain John Bromfield, Robert Newton, and James Thompson all died after similar treatment from Acton: a beating, followed by time in "the hole" or strong room, before being moved to the sick ward, where they were left to lie on the floor in leg irons.
So concerned was Acton for his reputation that he requested the indictments be read out in Latin, but his worries were misplaced. The government wanted an acquittal to protect the good name of the Knight Marshal, Sir Philip Meadows, who had hired John Darby as prison governor, who in turn had leased it to Acton. Acton's favoured prisoners had testified on his behalf, introducing contradictory evidence that the judge could not ignore. A stream of witnesses spoke of his good character, including his butcher, brewer, confectioner and solicitor – his coal merchant thought Acton "improper for the post he was in from his too great compassion" – and he was found not guilty on all charges. The Gaols Committee had succeeded in drawing attention to the situation in England's jails, but reform had eluded them.
Though most of the prisoners in the Marshalsea were debtors, the prison was regarded as second in importance only to the Tower of London; from the 14th century onwards, minor political figures were held there instead of in the Tower, mostly for sedition and other kinds of inappropriate behaviour. William Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1885 that it was full of "poets, pirates, parsons, plotters; coiners, libellers, defaulters, Jesuits; vagabonds of every class who vexed the souls of men in power ..."
It became the main holding prison for Roman Catholics suspected of sedition during the Elizabethan era. Bishop Bonner, the last Roman Catholic Bishop of London, was imprisoned there in 1559, supposedly for his own safety, until his death 10 years later. William Herle, a spy for Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief adviser, was held there in 1570 and 1571. In correspondence about Marshalsea prisoners he suspected of involvement in a plot to kill the Queen – the so-called Ridolfi plot – Herle wrote of a network within the prison for smuggling information out of it, which included hiding letters in holes in the crumbling brickwork for others to pick up. Robyn Adams writes that the prison leaked both physically and metaphorically.
Intellectuals also regularly found themselves in the Marshalsea. The playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637), a friend of Shakespeare, was jailed in 1597 for The Isle of Dogs, a play regarded as so inappropriate that it was immediately suppressed, with no known extant copies. On 28 July that year the Privy Council was told it was a "lewd plaie that was plaied in one of the plaie houses on the Bancke Side, contaynynge very seditious and sclandrous matter." The poet Christopher Brooke was jailed in 1601 for helping the 17-year-old Ann More marry John Donne without her father's consent. George Wither, the political satirist, wrote his poem "The Shepherd's Hunting" in 1614 in the Marshalsea; he was held for four months for libel over his Abuses Stript and Whipt, 20 satires criticizing revenge, ambition and lust, one of them directed at the Lord Chancellor.
Nicholas Udall (1504–1556), vicar of Braintree and headmaster of Eton College, was sent there in 1541 for buggery and suspected theft, though his appointment in 1555 as headmaster of Westminster School suggests the episode did his name no lasting harm. When Sir John Eliot (1592–1632), the Vice-Admiral of Devon, was moved to the Marshalsea in 1632 from the Tower of London for questioning the right of the King to tax imports and exports, he described it as leaving his palace in London for his country house in Southwark. The jurist John Selden (1584–1654) was jailed there in 1629 for his involvement in drafting the Petition of Right, a document limiting the actions of the King, regarded as seditious although it had been passed by Parliament. Colonel Thomas Culpeper (1637–1708) ended up in the Marshalsea in 1685 or 1687 for striking the Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (1640–1707), on the ear.
Second Marshalsea (1811–1842)
When the prison reformer James Neild (1744–1814) visited the prison in December 1802, just 34 debtors were living there, along with eight wives and seven children. Neild wrote that it was in "a most ruinous and insecure state, and the habitations of the debtors wretched in the extreme." The government had already acknowledged in 1799 that it had fallen into a state of decay. A decision was made to rebuild it 130 yards south (119 m), on the site of the White Lion prison, also known as the Borough Gaol.
Construction began at 150 High Street – now called Borough High Street – on the south side of Angel Court and Angel Alley, two narrow streets that no longer exist. The site was just north of St George's Church, the location of the 16th-century White Lion prison or "Borough Goal" [sic], as it is known on Richard Horwood's 1792 map of London (see left). Eventually costing £8,000 to build – £442,467 today – it opened in 1811 with two sections, one for Admiralty prisoners under court martial, and one for debtors, with a shared chapel that had been part of the White Lion. In 1827, 414 out of its 630 debtors were there for debts under £20.
James Neild visited the Marshalsea again during the first year of the new building's existence, publishing a description of it in 1812. This was supplemented by reports from the Committees and Commissioners on the State and Management of Prisons in London and Elsewhere, published between 1815 and 1818. More material is available in a pamphlet called "An Expose of the Practice of the Palace, or Marshalsea Court," written in 1833 by an anonymous eyewitness.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870) became a major source of information about the second Marshalsea after his father, John Dickens, was sent there on 20 February 1824, under the Insolvent Debtor's Act 1813. He owed a baker, James Kerr, £40 and 10 shillings, a sum equivalent to £2,939 in 2013.
Twelve years old at the time, Dickens was sent to live in lodgings with Mrs. Ellen Roylance in Little College Street, Camden Town, from where he walked five miles (8 km) every day to Warren's blacking factory at 30 Hungerford Stairs, a factory owned by a relative of his mother's. He spent 10 hours a day wrapping bottles of shoe polish for six shillings a week to pay for his keep. His mother, Elizabeth Barrow, and her three youngest children, joined her husband in the Marshalsea in April 1824. Dickens would visit them there every Sunday until he found lodgings in Lant Street, closer to the prison, in the attic of a house belonging to the vestry clerk of St George's Church. This meant he was able to breakfast with his family in the Marshalsea and dine with them after work.
His father was released after three months, on 28 May 1824, but the family's financial situation remained poor, and Dickens had to continue working at the factory, something for which he reportedly never forgave his mother. He subsequently wrote about the Marshalsea and other debtors' prisons in three novels, The Pickwick Papers (published in installments between 1836–1837); David Copperfield (1849–1850); and finally Little Dorrit (1855–1857), in which the main character, Amy, is born in the Marshalsea to a debtor imprisoned for reasons so complex no one can fathom how to get him out.
Like the first Marshalsea, the second was notoriously cramped. The debtors' section consisted of a brick barracks, a yard measuring 177 × 56 ft (54 m x 17 m), a kitchen, a public room, and a "tap room" or snuggery, where debtors could drink as much beer as they wanted, at fivepence a pot in 1815. The barracks was less than ten yards wide and 33 yards long (nine by 30 m) and was divided into eight houses, each with three floors, containing 56 rooms in all. Each floor had seven rooms facing the front and seven in the back. There were no internal hallways. The rooms were accessed directly from the outside via eight narrow wooden staircases, a situation regarded as a fire hazard, because the stairs were the only exits and the houses were separated only by thin lathe and plaster partitions.
Women debtors were housed in rooms over the tap room. Most of the rooms for men were 10.5 feet (3.2 m) square and 8.5 feet (2.6 m) square, with boarded floors, a fireplace, and a glazed window. Each housed two or three prisoners, and as the rooms were too small for two beds, prisoners had to share. The anonymous witness complained in 1833: "170 persons have been confined at one time within these walls, making an average of more than four persons in each room – which are not ten feet square!!! I will leave the reader to imagine what the situation of men, thus confined, particularly in the summer months, must be."
Much of the prison business was run by a debtors' committee of nine prisoners and a chair – a position held by Dickens's father, John – who were appointed on the last Wednesday of each month, and met every Monday at 11 a.m. The committee was responsible for imposing fines for rules violations, an obligation they appear to have met with enthusiasm. Debtors could be fined for theft; throwing water or filth out of windows or into someone else's room; making noise after midnight; cursing, fighting, or singing obscene songs; smoking in the beer room 8–10 am or 12–2 pm; defacing the staircase; dirtying the privy seats; stealing newspapers or utensils from the snuggery; urinating in the yard; drawing water before it had boiled; and for criticizing the committee, which the parliamentary commissioners wrote had "too frequently been the case."
As dreadful as the Marshalsea could be, it was a haven for some prisoners, especially if they had no prospect of employment, to the point where discharge might be used as a form of punishment; one Marshalsea debtor was discharged in 1801 for "making a Noise and disturbance in the prison." John Ginger writes that one of the few times John Baptist Grano let loose and cursed the Marshalsea, calling it the "vilest Gaol in the Three Kingdoms," was the night he found himself accidentally locked out of it. Dr. Haggage in Little Dorrit tells another prisoner:
We are quiet here; we don't get badgered here; there's no knocker, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man's heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man's at home, and to say he'll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money to this place. It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! ... we have got to the bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word for it. Peace."
Garnish and chummage
The tradition of "garnish" was still practised, so the first thing that confronted a debtor imprisoned for having no money was a request for money. Male prisoners were expected upon entry to make a donation to the prisoners' committee general fund of five shillings and sixpence when the commissioners reported to Parliament between 1815 and 1818, increased to eight shillings and sixpence by the time the anonymous witness was writing in 1833. Women were asked for a smaller sum. This allowed the prisoners to use the snuggery, where water could be boiled and meals cooked, and candles and newspapers obtained. Prisoners failing to pay the garnish were declared to be defaulters by the prison crier, had their names written up in the kitchen, and were sent to Coventry.
After garnish, prisoners were given a "chum ticket," which told them which room was theirs. Most were expected to "chum" with other prisoners. They would often spend the first night in the infirmary until a room could be made ready, and would sometimes spend three or four nights walking around the yard before a chum could be found, though they were already being charged for the room they did not have.
There was a strict principle of rotation, whereby the newest arrival was placed with the youngest prisoner who was living alone. A wealthier prisoner could pay his roommates to go away – "buy out the chum" – for half-a-crown a week, and could live by himself, while the outcast chum would either pay for lodgings somewhere else in the prison, or sleep in the tap room. The only prisoners not expected to pay "chummage" were debtors who had declared themselves insolvent by swearing an oath that their assets were worth fewer than 40 shillings. If their creditors agreed, they could be released after 14 days, but if anyone objected, they remained confined to the "poor side" of the building, near the women's side, receiving a small weekly allowance from the county, and money from charity.
The Admiralty division housed a few prisoners under naval courts-martial for mutiny, desertion, piracy, and what the deputy marshal preferred in 1815 to call "unnatural crimes". Unlike other parts of the prison that had been built from scratch in 1811, the Admiralty division – as well as the northern boundary wall, the dayroom, and the chapel – had been part of the old Borough gaol, and were considerably run down. The cells were so rotten they were barely able to confine the prisoners; in 1817, one actually managed to break through his cell walls. The low boundary wall together with the irregular use of spikes meant that Admiralty prisoners were often housed in the infirmary, chained to bolts fixed to the floor.
They were supposed to have a separate yard to exercise in, so that criminals were not mixing with debtors, but in fact the prisoners mixed often, and according to Dickens, happily. The parliamentary committee deplored this practice, arguing that the Admiralty prisoners were characterized by an "entire absence of all control," and were bound to have a bad effect on the debtors. The two groups of prisoners would retreat to their own sections during inspections, or as Dickens put it in Little Dorrit:
[At] certain constitutional moments when somebody came from some Office, to go through some form of overlooking something, which neither he nor anybody else knew anything about ... On those truly British occasions, the smugglers, if any, made a feint of walking into the strong cells and the blind alley, while this somebody pretended to do his something; and made a reality of walking out again as soon as he hadn't done it – neatly epitomizing the administration of most of the public affairs in this right little, tight little, island.
The presence of wives, lovers, daughters, and prostitutes was taken for granted. Visitors, including women, could come and go freely, and even live with the prisoners, without being asked who they were, so long as they behaved themselves. The female prisoners living on the women's side of the barracks were also allowed to mix freely with the men. The anonymous eyewitness reports that some of the rooms were specifically let out to prostitutes. The prison gates were closed from ten at night until eight the next morning, with a bell warning visitors half an hour before closing time, and an officer walking around the prison calling, "Strangers, women and children all out!"
Whether there as visitors or prisoners, women risked being "ruined," with or without their consent. The anonymous witness talks about the risk of rape, or of being tempted into prostitution: "How often has female virtue been assailed in poverty? Alas how often has it fallen, in consequence of a husband or a father having been a prisoner for debt?" The prison doctor lived outside the Marshalsea and would visit every other day to attend to prisoners, and sometimes their children – to "protect his reputation," according to one of the parliamentary reports – but would not attend to their wives. This left the women to give birth alone or with the help of other prisoners. A Marshalsea doctor told a parliamentary commission that he could recall having helped just once with a birth, and then only as a matter of courtesy, because it was not included in his salary.
Closure and abolition
The Marshalsea was closed by an Act of Parliament in 1842, and on 19 November that year, the inmates were relocated to the hospital at Bethlem if they were mentally ill, or to the King's Bench Prison, at that point renamed the Queen's Prison. On 31 December 1849, the Court of the Marshalsea of the Household of the Kings of England was abolished, and its power transferred to Her Majesty's Court of Common Pleas at Westminster.
The buildings and land were auctioned off in July 1843 and purchased by W.G. Hicks, an ironmonger, for £5,100. The property consisted of the keeper's house, the canteen – known as a suttling house – the Admiralty section, the chapel, a three-story brick building, and eight brick houses, all of it closed off from Borough High Street by iron gates. In 1869, imprisonment for debt was finally outlawed in England, except in cases of fraud or refusal to pay, and in the 1870s the Home Office demolished most of the prison buildings, though parts of it were still in use in 1955 as a store for George Harding & Sons, hardware merchants.
Dickens visited what was left of the Marshalsea on 5 May 1857, just before he finished Little Dorrit, when parts of it were being let as rooms or apartments. He wrote in the preface:
Some of my readers may have an interest in being informed whether or no any portions of the Marshalsea Prison are yet standing. I, myself, did not know, until I was approaching the end of this story, when I went to look. I found the outer front courtyard, often mentioned here, metamorphosed into a butter shop; and then I almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent "Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey," I came to "Marshalsea Place": the houses in which I recognized, not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose in my mind's eye when I become Little Dorrit's biographer ... [W]hosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered, if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years.
Location of the prison remains
All that remains of the Marshalsea today is the brick wall that marked the southern boundary of the prison, now separating the Local Studies library from a small public garden that used to be a graveyard. The boundary wall is marked on the garden side – on what would have been the external wall of the prison – by a plaque from the local council. The Cuming Museum has one of the prison's pumps, and the Dickens House Museum one of its windows.
The surviving wall is identified by English Heritage as the southern boundary of the prison, and runs along the narrow alleyway – now called Angel Place – that was the internal prison courtyard (see the images in the two sections above). The name Angel Place has led to confusion, because there used to be two alleyways on the north side of the Marshalsea – Angel Court and Angel Alley – the first of which Dickens refers to when giving directions to the prison remains in 1857. See Richard Horwood's 18th century map, which shows Angel Court/Angel Alley near the Borough Goal [sic], marked by the number 2.
The current Angel Place lies between Southwark's Local Studies Library at 211 Borough High Street, Southwark, London SE1 and the small public garden (see right) that was formerly St George's churchyard. It is just north of the junction of Borough High Street and Tabard Street. It can be reached by bus (numbers 21, 35, 40, 133, and C10); by underground on the Northern line to Borough tube station; or by train to London Bridge station.
- Philpotts 1991.
- Ginger 1998, p. 217.
- Ginger 1998, pp. 41–46.
- Darlington 1955; Journal of the House of Commons, 14 May 1729, 378a, cited in Ginger 1998, p. 45, footnote 14: "A Day seldom passed without a Death, and, upon the advancing of the Spring, not less than Eight or Ten usually died every 24 hours."
- Although the character, Amy (Little Dorrit), was based on Dickens's own experiences as a child, the nickname of Little Dorrit was that of a childhood friend of his, Mary Ann Mitton, later Mrs. Mary Ann Cooper. She lived with her parents in Clarendon Square in 1882, opposite the Dickens family, and the two became friends (The New York Times, 16 December 1906).
- Little Dorrit, pp. xxxvi, 59.
- "Marshal," "Marshalcy," and "Marshalsea," Oxford English Dictionary, 1989.
- From 1530 until 1698, the "verge" would have meant, for the most part, within 12 miles (19 km) of the Palace of Whitehall, which was the main residence of the royal family during that period. This explains why many of the sources refer to the jurisdiction of the court extending to 12 miles beyond Whitehall. Later sources refer to 12 miles within Westminster, when the main residence of the royal family was Buckingham Palace, which became the official residence in 1837.
- Jones 1970; Philpotts 1991, pp. 133–45.
- Ginger 1998, p. 95.
- McIntosh 1979.
- Philpotts 2003, p. 90.
- Mackay 1840, cited in Thornbury 1872, p. 17; Philpotts 2003, p. 90.
- There is some confusion regarding the names of the prisons in Southwark in the 18th century. Charles Knight (1841, p. 325) writes that there were five prisons in 1796: the Marshalsea, Clink, King's Bench Prison, Horsemonger Lane Gaol and the Borough Compter. Trey Philpotts (2003, p. 90) also writes that there were five, but lists them as the Marshalsea, Clink, King's Bench Prison, the White Lion and the Borough Compter. This article uses Philpotts's list.
- Cory 2000.
- Barty-King 1991, p. 38.
- UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Lawrence H. Officer (2010) "What Were the UK Earnings and Prices Then?" MeasuringWorth.
- Small 2003, p. 909.
- "Sources for convicts and prisoners", The National Archives; Philips 1991.
- Hughes 1988, p. 37.
- Phillips 2006.
- Griffiths 1884, p. 429, writes that, in the 18th century, some of the worst prisons in England were owned by the Dukes of Portland, Devonshire, Norfolk and Leeds; the Marquis of Carnarvon; Lords Salisbury, Exeter, Arundel and Derby; the Bishops of Salisbury, Ely and Durham; and the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.
- Sharpe 1903, pp. 234–246, retrieved 23 December 2007.
- Adams 2009.
- British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 8, p. 356, cited in Philpotts 1991; and Young 1932, also cited in Philpotts 1991.
- Philpotts 1991; Wheatley and Cunningham 1891, p. 476.
- Philpotts 2003, p. 8. Philpotts writes (pp. 115–116) that the only factual discrepancy he can find between the real and fictional worlds in Dickens, regarding the Marshalsea, is that Dickens locates the chandler's shop in the tap room, which Philpotts believes may not be correct.
- House of Lords Records Office, "An Account of the Prisoners in the Marshalsea, February 1729," cited in Ginger 1998, p. 25, footnote 99.
- There is some discrepancy between the sources regarding dates. "Chaucer's Life by Walter Skeat", Online Library of Liberty, retrieved 5 January 2007, gives the date of a court hearing in the case as 1326, but the Letter-Books of the City of London give the date that Agnes surrendered herself to the Marshalsea as 1329. See "Folios cxcii – cc: Feb 1328–9 -", Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: E: 1314–1337 (1903), pp. 234–246.
- Noorthouck 1773, pp. 678–690; also Hughson 1807, p. 495.
- Ginger 1998, p. 45.
- See conversion chart
- Ginger 1998, p. 44.
- Ginger 1998, p. 41.
- Dixon 1856, p. 166; Bouvier p. 598.
- Field 1850, p. 120.
- Brown 1831.
- Ginger 1998, pp. 46, 67.
- Ginger 1998, p. 215.
- Ginger 1998, p. 296.
- Dickens 1867b, p. 252.
- Cobbett 1813, p. 526ff; Hostettler 2009, p. 152.
- Cobbett 1813, p. 383ff.
- Walpole 1849, p. 724; Thornbury 1878.
- Lewis 2009, p. 20.
- Smollett 1766, cited in Trusler 1833, p. 138.
- The prisoner in irons is thought to be the Portuguese Jacob Mendez Solas. The painting was commissioned by Sir Archibald Grant, MP for Aberdeenshire, believed to be standing third from the right in the foreground. Sir John Perceval, first earl of Egmont, sits two chairs to the right of Oglethorpe. He later became president of the Georgia Trustees (Brown 2006). See The Gaols Committee of the House of Commons, National Portrait Gallery, accessed 26 June 2009.
- Ginger 1998, p. 218.
- Ginger 1998, pp. 218–219.
- Ginger 1998, p. 295.
- Cobbett 1813, p. 482ff.
- Corbett 1813, p. 550.
- Cobbett 1813, pp. 512ff, 526ff.
- Ginger 1998, pp. 296, 299.
- Pitofsky 2000.
- Morris and Rothman 1995, p. 351; Dixon 1885, p. 128.
- Vickers 2004, p. 25.
- Wheatley and Cunningham 1891, p. 477.
- Pritchard 1963.
- Carney 2001, p. 355.
- Walford 1878.
- Neild 1802, p. 207; also see Edward Cave, writing as "Sylvanus Urban", the fictitious letters editor of Gentleman's Magazine, replying to a reader's letter about the Marshalsea in 1803.
- This has led to confusion as there is currently an alley called Angel Place to the north of what remains of the southern prison wall. When standing in Angel Place, one stands on the site of the Marshalsea prison (see Wikimapia entry;Coordinates: ) and Richard Horwood's 18th century map, which shows Angel Court/Angel Alley near the Borough Goal [sic], marked by the number 2.
- Knight 1841, p. 325.
- Also see "Crime and Punishment", London Footprints, which writes of the White Lion: "This had been an inn prior to 1535 and became the Sheriff's Prison in 1540. The Surrey County, started in 1513, moved to the site in 1580 and a Bridewell of 1601 in 1654. The Bridewell, or House of Correction, had a chapel of 1661 which was later rebuilt in 1723. It closed in 1666 when prisoners were moved to the (Old) Marshalsea. The Surrey County was transferred to Horsemonger Lane in 1799."
- And Young 1932, pp. 220–21, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- Wade 1829, p. 124.
- Anonymous. "An Expose of the Practice of the Palace, or Marshalsea Court".
- Also see Philpotts 2003.
- Allingham 2004, and BBC News 2004.
- Darlington 1955 says he was imprisoned for £10.
- Allen 1988, cited in Philpotts 2003, p. 91.
- For the father's release date, see Allingham 2004.
- Philpotts 2003, p. 92.
- Neild cited in Small 1998.
- Philpotts 1991; Neild wrote that the tap room consisted of two rooms, not one as Dickens wrote (Neild cited in Small 1998).
- Anon, Expose, p. 6, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 637, cited in Philpotts 1991. There were six officers in addition to the keeper: the head turnkey (jailor) appointed for life by the Knight Marshal; a subordinate turnkey; two watchmen, one of whom would also be a third turnkey; a chaplain, and a doctor (British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 637, cited in Philpotts 1991).
- British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, pp. 631–632, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- Palace Court Rule Book, 1801–02, 22 May 1801, cited in Finn 2007.
- Ginger 1998, p. 299.
- Dickens, Little Dorrit, p. 67.
- Scribner's Monthly 1881.
- Anon, "Expose", pp. 7–8, cited in Philpotts 1991; Finn 2007, p. 143.
- Anon, "Expose", p. 8, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, p. 654, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 388, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- Little Dorrit, p. 61
- British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 391, cited in Philpotts 1991, and Philpotts 2003, pp. 94–95.
- Dickens, Little Dorrit, p. 61. The expression "right little, tight little island" comes from a patriotic song by Charles Dibdin (1745–1814):
Daddy Neptune one day to Freedom did say,
"If ever I lived upon dry land.
The spot I should hit on would be little Britain!"
Says Freedom "Why that's my own little island!"
Oh, it's a smug little island,
A right little, tight little island,
Search the globe round, none can be found
So happy as this little island.
—Charles Dibdin, 1841, cited in Philpotts 2003, p. 96.
- Philpotts 2003, p. 100.
- "Expose" 1833, p. 9, cited in Philpotts 1991.
- The Jurist, 1850, p. 359.
- Darlington 1955
- Little Dorrit, p. xxxvi.
- London Footprints.
- Remaining wall of the Marshalsea, English Heritage National Monuments Record:
- "SOUTHWARK TQ3279 BOROUGH HIGH STREET 636-1/5/104 (East side) 30/09/77 Wall forming north boundary of public gardens, formerly St George's Churchyard (Formerly Listed as: BOROUGH HIGH STREET (East side) Wall to north of Public Gardens formerly St George's Churchyard) II Churchyard wall, now boundary wall to public gardens. C18 with early C19 and later alterations. Dull red brick, the top 9 courses in London Stocks, with flat stone coping, part missing. Brick buttresses to north. Runs east–west, forming northern boundary to public gardens, formerly churchyard. Approx 4m high. Curved rebate about half way along. To east of this a pair of later segment-headed openings contain C20 wrought-iron gates. Some small openings, blocked; much patching and reinforcing with tie rods. Enamel plaque over entrances inscribed: 'This site was originally the MARSHALSEA PRISON made famous by the late Charles Dickens in his work Little Dorrit'. The wall formed the southern boundary of the Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens's father was imprisoned."
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