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The Marshalsea Debtor's Prison

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Poverty-stricken Londoners found themselves sent to the Marshalsea Prison until they could pay off their debts or until their creditors decided they'd been punished enough and signed their release. Some of the poor wretches inside did not get out except in a shroud or cheap coffin.

This 18th century engraving shows the Marshalsea as similar to any townscape of the era.

This 18th century engraving shows the Marshalsea as similar to any townscape of the era.

The Origin of the Marshalsea

The prison opened to welcome its inmates in the 14th century. A chronicler notes that “it housed men under court martial for crimes at sea, including those accused of 'unnatural crimes,' political figures and intellectuals accused of sedition.” But, for the most part it was where those who couldn't pay their bills were sent.

It did not fit our collective image of a prison with ranges and barred cells. It was more like a section of any city at the time and even had a shop, a restaurant, a barber's shop, and a tailor, all run by inmates. A public house was operated by the governor's wife.

The prison was surrounded by a high wall with guards posted at its gate.

Technically, the place was run by the Knight Marshal, who was an appointee of the Royal Household. In practice, its operation was sold to private individuals who turned it into a extortion racket.

Those inside the Marshalsea were charged fees for the pleasure of being inside where they were provided with food and lodging. The charges were added to their unpaid debts putting many on a treadmill they could never get off.

The men's sick ward in the Marshalsea in the 18th century.

The men's sick ward in the Marshalsea in the 18th century.

Debtor's Prison Class System

Those with some money enjoyed privileges of better accommodation and the ability to leave the prison during the day to earn a living. They lived in what was called The Master's Side.

Bribes to jailers, strictly illegal but part of the daily commerce of the prison, could produce a bare minimum of comfort. This begs the question that if inmates had money to pay off corrupt officials, why didn't they use that money to pay off the debts that put them in the Marshalsea in the first place? The only conclusion that can be reached is that the debts far exceeded any income they might have.

When a family's breadwinner, usually the husband, was consigned to debtor's prison his family often went with him. The wife and children could leave the jail to work and earn money to pay off the debt and the prison fees.

The Common Side was an altogether different kind of place. It was screened off from the Master's Side so the more privileged inmates might be spared catching a glimpse of the scrofulous paupers.

Those without the wherewithal to pay the jailers were confined to small rooms with many other prisoners. In such crowded conditions, the death rates were horrendous. The food given to prisoners in the Common Side was not sufficient to sustain life, so death from starvation became an issue.

According to the historical website, The Circumlocution Office, “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.”

Informative Video About Marshalsea Prison

Charles Dickens and the Marshalsea

John Dickens, the father of the great Victorian novelist, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for a debt he owed to a baker. Dickens described his father as “a jovial opportunist with no money sense,” and modelled his character Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield after him. John Dickens, his wife Elizabeth, and the family's four youngest children moved into the Marshalsea. Charles remained outside.

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The debtor's prison episode had a profound impact on 12-year-old Charles that remained with him for the rest of his life. He was forced to drop out of school and work in a factory that made shoe blacking to help the family's finances. He was paid six shillings a week for 10 hours work a day.

Ripped out of the middle-class life he had known before his father's bankruptcy, Charles now came face to face with the social injustice of the capitalist system. Children worked long hours for low pay in appalling conditions.

An artist's impression of an exhausted Charles Dickens asleep at his work bench.

An artist's impression of an exhausted Charles Dickens asleep at his work bench.

The character of the oppressed and abandoned child appears many times in the novels of Dickens—Oliver Twist, Little Nell, Pip. The central character in his 1857 novel, Little Dorrit, is the daughter of a man consigned to the Marshalsea. Amy Dorrit is born and raised in the Marshalsea and supports her father through needlework outside the prison.

In a preface to the book, Dickens spoke of visiting the location of the Marshalsea and wrote about “the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years.”

The novel was a satire on Britain's class system as well as the inflexible government bureaucracy that allowed places like the Marshalsea to exist.

Amy Dorrit leaves the Marshalsea Prison.

Amy Dorrit leaves the Marshalsea Prison.

Prison Reform

By the start of the 19th century, some people of conscience started to agitate for improvements in the Marshalsea. In 1802, prison reformer James Neild visited the establishment. He was following in the footsteps of another reformer, John Howard, he inspected the Marshalsea in 1774.

Neild found “a most ruinous and insecure state, and the habitations of the debtors wretched in the extreme.” Neild's report and the work of others prompted government wheels to groan slowly into action, and a new Marshalsea Prison was opened in 1811. But, the second Marshalsea had a short life before it was closed in 1842.

The buildings were repurposed for several decades before being mostly demolished in the 1870s, although a small portion remained in use as a hardware store into the mid-1950s.

As more enlightened times arrive, laws around debt changed so that those who became insolvent were no longer subjected to the misery of a debtor's prison. However, in the “Land of the Free” it's still possible to be imprisoned over debts.

Why Does the US Still Have 'Debtors' Prisons?

Bonus Factoids

  • Marshalsea jailers were in the habit of shackling inmates and then charging them a fee to have the chains removed; it was known as easement of irons.
  • In 1729, the then deputy keeper of the Marshalsea, William Acton, was brought to trial to face the allegation of involvement in the murder of four inmates. Through high-level political intervention, Acton was acquitted. It seems some important people did not want the public to known what was going on in the prison.
  • In 18th century Britain, it was not uncommon for people to own and operate private prisons. Prison reformer John Howard wrote about prisoners held in a jail owned by the Bishop of Ely who were chained to the floor. Howard also inspected a jail owned by Lord Arundel in which prisoners were held in tiny cells whose doors were not opened for a month.
All that's left of the Marshalsea today is this wall.

All that's left of the Marshalsea today is this wall.

Sources

  • “The Marshalsea Prison.” The Circumlocution Office, undated.
  • “The Blacking Factory and Dickens's Imaginative World.” George P. Landow, victorianweb.org, October 14, 2002.
  • “Marshalsea Prison.” dickenslit.com, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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