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The Marshalsea was a prison on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwarkmarker, now part of Londonmarker. From at least 1329 until it closed in 1842, it housed men under court martial for crimes at sea, including "unnatural crimes", political figures and intellectuals accused of sedition or other inappropriate behaviour, and—most famously—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 largely as an extortion racket. For prisoners who could afford the fees, it came with access to a bar, shop, and restaurant, and the crucial privilege of being allowed to leave the prison during the day, which meant debtors could earn money to pay off 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 during the 19th century through the writings of the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there in 1824 for a debt of £40 and 10 shillings. Forced to leave school at the age of 12 for a job in a factory, Dickens based several of his fictional characters on this experience, most notably Little Dorrit, whose father, like his own, was a Marshalsea debtor.

Much of the prison was demolished in 1849, though some of its buildings were used into the 20th century, housing an ironmonger's, a butter shop, and later a printing house for the Marshalsea Press. All that is left of it now is a long brick wall separating an unkempt public garden from a local history library, the existence of what Dickens called "the crowding ghosts of many miserable years" marked only by a plaque from the local council. "It is gone now," he wrote, "and the world is none the worse without it."

Background

Etymology, Marshalsea Court

"Marshalsea" is historically the same word as "marshalcy"—"the office, rank, or position of a marshal"—deriving from the Anglo-French mareschalcie. The word was believed in the 16th and 17th centuries to be 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 domestic rules and personnel 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 of the King's person, wherever that might be; it was therefore an "ambulatory" court, moving around the country with the King. It dealt with pleas of trespass, pleas of contempt, and cases of debt. In practice the court was often used for private disputes among people unconnected with the royal household, and its definition of "verge" went somewhat 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



Southwark ( , locally ) was settled by the Romans around 43 CE. It served as an entry point into London from southern England, particularly along Watling Streetmarker, the Roman road from Canterburymarker, which ran into Southwark's Borough High Streetmarker. As a result, it became known for its travellers and inns, including Geoffrey Chaucer's Tabard Innmarker, 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 Globemarker—and, inevitably, prisons. In 1796, there were five within its boundaries: the Clinkmarker, King's Bench Prisonmarker, the White Lion, the Borough Comptermarker, and the Marshalsea, compared to just 18 in London as a whole.



Debt in England

A 1904 artist's impression of the young Charles Dickens, forced at age 12 to leave school to work in a shoe-blacking factory, because his father had been sent to the Marshalsea.
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. They would often take their families with them, the only alternative for the women and children being the shame of uncertain charity outside the jail, so that entire communities sprang up inside the debtors' prisons, 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 Prisonmarker closed in 1842, some debtors were found to have been there for 30 years.

The law offered no protection for people with assets tied up by inheritance laws, or for 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 the 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 be sent to work simply to pay the costs of keeping their breadwinner in prison, 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 £ in 2009 —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 started being held instead in disused ships called hulks moored in the Thames, and at Plymouth and Portsmouth, with the intention that they would be transported somewhere at some point. According to The National Archivesmarker 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, mostly notably Millbankmarker, built in 1816, but also Parkhurstmarker (1838), Pentonvillemarker (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 so-called "trade of chains," a practice that 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 round the neck and heavy iron bars over the legs, until they somehow found the money.

Marshalsea: two locations

London in 1300, showing Southwark in the south.
The blue dot marks the location of the first Marshalsea, the earliest reference to which is from 1329.
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. In 1799, the government reported that the prison had fallen into a state of decay, though Robyn Adams writes that it was already crumbling and insecure by the late 16th century, and decided to rebuild it 130 yards (119 m) south on Borough High Street, on the site of the White Lion prison, also called the Borough Gaol. The second Marshalsea functioned as a prison from 1811 until 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 to the real Marshalsea of the 1820s. Dickens rarely made mistakes and did not exaggerate; if anything, 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–ca. 1748), one of Handel's trumpeters at the opera house in Haymarketmarker, who kept a detailed diary of his 458-day incarceration in the first Marshalsea—for a debt of £99—from May 30, 1728 until September 23, 1729.

First Marshalsea (ca. 1329–1811)

The first Marshalsea in 1773.
This image shows the southern front of the north side of the prison.
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, by helping her daughter, Joan, 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 Baileymarker 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 £ in 2009 —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 to sell food and drink.

Master's Side

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 is £58 in 2009 using the retail price index or £773 using average earnings.) John Grano paid 2s 6d (two shillings and six pennies, pronounced "two and six"; £14 in 2009) 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 Bermondseymarker 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.

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 18th-century prison reformers, visited the Marshalsea on March 16, 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 Howard's 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 was allowed to live outside, within a certain radius of the prison, for a fee. 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, one Sunday, 600 pots of beer were brought into the Marshalsea from a public house, because the prisoners didn't like the beer that was available in the taproom. Rioting and drunkenness were, in fact, the only ways to get the prisoners to "disregard the confinement", he wrote.

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, called "the Oak".

Common Side

Instruments of torture used on the prisoners, 1729.
Prisoners on the Master's Side rarely ventured to the Common Side. John Baptist Grano went there just once, on August 4, 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 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 lbs. What often finished them off was being forced to lie in the Strong Room, a windowless shed near the main sewer, next to human carcasses awaiting burial, of which there was a plentiful supply. Dickens wrote of it that it was "dreaded by even the most dauntless highwaymen and bearable only to toads and rats". One 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 only to die and have his face 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 prisonmarker, 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. Sponging houses were private lodgings where prisoners were incarcerated before being taken to jail. They acquired the name from their habit of squeezing the prisoner's last money out of him as if he were a sponge. When Castell arrived at the sponging house on November 14, he was forced to share space with a man who was dying of smallpox, and as a result he became infected and died himself less than a month later.

Castell had a friend, James Oglethorpe, a Tory Member of Parliament (MP), who became known a few 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 February 27 and the Marshalsea on March 25. Commissioned by Sir Archibald Grant (see image on the right; Grant is standing third from the right), William Hogarth accompanied the committee on its visit to the Fleet, sketching it, then later painting it in oil. The art historian Horace Walpole wrote of the painting in 1849:



The committee was shocked by the conditions prisoners were living in. 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:

The men's sick ward, 1729


Not that being in the sick ward necessarily made the last month of life any easier:

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. John 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 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 said 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, 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.

Notable prisoners

Though most of the prisoners in the Marshalsea were debtors, the prison was regarded as second in importance only to the Tower of Londonmarker, and several political figures were held there, 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, and vagabonds of every class.

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 until his death 10 years later, supposedly for his own safety. William Herle, a spy for Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I's chief adviser, was held there in 1570-1571. In correspondence with the Queen's advisers regarding Marshalsea prisoners he suspected of involvement in a plot to kill her—the so-called Ridolfi plot—Herle reveals an efficient 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. Ben Jonson, the playwright, a friend of Shakespeare, was jailed in 1597 for The Isle of Dogs, regarded as so inappropriate that it was immediately suppressed, with no known extant copies; on July 28, the Privy Council was told it was a "lewd plaie that was plaied in one of the plaie houses on the Bancke Sidemarker, 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 the Marshalsea in 1614, while being held for four months for libel, based on his Abuses Stript and Whipt, 20 satires criticizing revenge, ambition, and lust, one of them directed at the Lord Chancellor.

Nicholas Udall, vicar of Braintree and headmaster of Etonmarker, was sent there in 1541 for buggery and suspected theft, though his appointment in 1555 as headmaster of Westminstermarker suggests the episode did his name no lasting harm. In 1632, Sir John Eliot, the Vice-Admiral of Devon, after being sent to the Marshalsea from the Tower of London for questioning the right of the King to tax imports and exports, described the move as leaving his palace in London for his country house in Southwark. John Selden, the jurist, 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 even though it had been passed by Parliament, and Colonel Culpeper in 1685 or 1687 for striking the Duke of Devonshire on the ear.

Closure

When James Neild, the reformer, visited the prison in December 1802, just 34 debtors were living there, along with eight wives and seven children. Neil 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 called the Borough Gaol.

Second Marshalsea (1811–1842)



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—£ 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, the prison reformer, visited the second Marshalsea during its first year in 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, and later by a pamphlet called "Expose", written in 1833 by an anonymous eyewitness.

Dickens connection

Charles Dickens described the Marshalsea in Little Dorrit.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870) became another major source of information about the second Marshalsea after his father, John, was sent there as a debtor on February 20, 1824, under the Insolvent Debtor's Act of 1813, because he owed a baker, James Kerr, £40 and 10 shillings, a sum equivalent to £ in .

Twelve years old at the time, Dickens was sent to live in lodgings with Mrs. Ellen Roylance in Little College Street, Camden Townmarker, 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. There 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, and from then on, Dickens would visit them 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 May 28, 1824, but the family's financial situation remained poor, and Dickens had to continue working at the factory, something he reportedly never forgave his mother for. 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.

Debtors

This plan of the second Marshalsea was drawn up in 1842 when it was closed and the land was sold; see interactive version.
The eight dwelling houses for debtors were divided into 56 rooms.
Women and those paying higher prison fees were housed on the southern side (the churchyard side) near the prison water pump and the suttling house.
Poorer male prisoners were housed on the northern side, facing Angel Alley.


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 square (0.98 m2) and 8.5 feet square (0.79 m2), 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 between eight and ten in the morning, or twelve and two in the afternoon; 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 ... 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 a debtor imprisoned for having no money was confronted with was a request for money. Prisoners were expected upon entry to make a donation to the prisoners' committee general fund—it was 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 didn't 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.

Admiralty prisoners

The remaining wall of the second Marshalsea, photographed from a public garden that used to be the graveyard of St. George's church.


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 so rotten they were barely able to confine 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 weren't 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.British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 391, cited in Philpotts 1991, and Philpotts 2003, pp. 94–95.

The two groups of prisoners would retreat to their own sections during inspections, or as Dickens put it, 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."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 foundSo happy as this little island.
—Charles Dibdin, cited in Dibdin 1841, cited in Philpotts 2003, p.

96.

Women

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 November 19 that year, the inmates were relocated to the hospital at Bethlemmarker if they were mentally ill, or to the King's Bench Prison, at that point renamed the Queen's Prison. On December 31, 1849, during the reign of Queen Victoria, 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—called 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 it on May 5, 1857, just before he finished Little Dorrit, when some of it was being rented out as rooms or apartments. He wrote in the preface:


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 Museummarker has one of the prison's pumps, and the Dickens House Museum one of its windows.

Location of the prison remains

Angel Place at night, and the library that stands on the prison site.
The surviving wall is identified by English Heritage as the southern boundary of the prison, and runs along the narrow alleyway that was the internal prison courtyard pictured above right, now called Angel Place. The name 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.

Angel Place (see left) lies between Southwark's Local Studies Library at 211 Borough High Streetmarker, Southwark, London SE1 and the small public garden that was formerly St George's churchyard. It is just north of the junction of Borough High Street and Tabard Streetmarker. It can be reached by bus (numbers 21, 35, 40, 133, and C10), by underground on the Northern line getting off at Borough tube stationmarker, or by train to London Bridgemarker.

See also



Notes

  1. Philpotts 1991.
  2. Ginger 1998, p. 217.
  3. Ginger 1998, pp. 41–46.
  4. Darlington 1955; Journal of the House of Commons, May 14, 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."
  5. 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, December 16, 1906).
  6. Little Dorrit, pp. xxxvi, 59.
  7. Oxford English Dictionary 1989; Kirkpatrick 1983; also see Grimm and Grimm 1854–1960.
  8. From 1530 until 1698, the "verge" would have meant, for the most part, within 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.
  9. Jones 1970(a), pp. 1–29; Jones 1970(b); Philpotts 1991, pp. 133–45.
  10. McIntosh 1979.
  11. Ginger 1998, p. 95.
  12. Philpotts 2003, p. 90. Also see Cowan 2000.
  13. Mackay 1840, cited in Thornbury 1872, p. 17; Philpotts 2003, p. 90.
  14. 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 also writes that there were five, but lists them as the Marshalsea, Clink, King's Bench Prison, the White Lion, and the Borough Compter. (2003, p. 90). This article uses Philpotts's list.
  15. Cory 2000.
  16. Barty-King 1991, p. 38.
  17. Small 2003, p. 909.
  18. "Sources for convicts and prisoners", The National Archives; Philips 1991.
  19. Hughes 1988, cited in Griffith 1993, p. 162.
  20. 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.
  21. Sharpe 1903, pp. 234–246, retrieved December 23, 2007.
  22. British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 8, p. 356 cited in Philpotts 1991; and Young 1932, also cited in Philpotts 1991.
  23. Philpotts 1991; Wheatley and Cunningham 1891, p. 476.
  24. 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.
  25. House of Lords Records Office, "An Account of the Prisoners in the Marshalsea, February 1729", cited in Ginger 1998, p. 25, footnote 99.
  26. There is some discrepancy between the sources regarding dates. "Chaucer's Life by Walter Skeat", Online Library of Liberty, retrieved January 5, 2007, gives the date of a court hearing in the case as 1326, but the Calendar of letter-books of the city of London: E: 1314-1337 (1903) gives 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, retrieved December 25, 2007. There is a reference to a "prison of the marshalsea at York" in 1324, but it's not known to be connected to the Marshalsea in Southwark; see "Edward II, vol 5, part 1, p. 13, University of Iowa.
  27. Noorthouck 1773, pp. 678–690, retrieved December 24, 2007; also see Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911; and Hughson 1807, p. 495.
  28. Ginger 1998, p. 45.
  29. See conversion chart
  30. Ginger 1998, p. 41.
  31. Other well-known 18th-century prison reformers were William Blackstone, William Eden, Sir George Onesiphorus Paul, James Neild, and Jeremy Bentham. See Cooper 1976, pp. 73–93.
  32. Dixon 1856, p. 166; Bouvier p. 598.
  33. Field 1850, p. 120.
  34. Brown 1831.
  35. Ginger 1998, p. 44.
  36. Ginger 1998, pp. 46, 67.
  37. Ginger 1998, p. 215.
  38. Ginger 1998, p. 296.
  39. Dickens 1867b, p. 252.
  40. Cobbett 1813, p. 530; Hostettler 2009, p. 152.
  41. Cobbett 1813, p. 383ff.
  42. 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 June 26, 2009.
  43. Lewis 2009, p. 20.
  44. Smollett 1766, cited in Trusler 1833, p. 138.
  45. Ginger 1998, p. 295.
  46. Corbett 1813, p. 550.
  47. Cobbett 1813, p. 482ff.
  48. Cobbett 1813, p. 512ff, p. 526ff.
  49. Ginger 1998, p. 296, 299.
  50. Pitofsky 2000.
  51. Dixon 1885, p. 128.
  52. Adams 2009.
  53. Vickers 2004 p. 25.
  54. Wheatley Cunningham 1891, p. 477.
  55. Pritchard, pp. 337–345.
  56. Carney 2001, p. 355.
  57. Walford 1878, pp. 57–75, retrieved December 24, 2007; also see Howell et al, 1816–1828.
  58. 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.
  59. British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 8, p. 356 cited in Philpotts 1991; and Young 1932, also cited in Philpotts 1991.
  60. 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 you stand in Angel Place, you are standing on the site of the Marshalsea prison (see Wikimapia entry; ) and Richard Horwood's 18th century map, which shows Angel Court/Angel Alley near the Borough Goal [sic], marked by the number 2.
  61. 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.
  62. Wade 1829, p. 124.
  63. Philpotts 2003.
  64. Allingham 2004; BBC News 2004. Darlington 1955 says he was imprisoned for £10.
  65. Allen 1988, cited in Philpotts 2003, p. 91.
  66. Allingham 2004
  67. British Library
  68. Philpotts 2003, p. 92.
  69. Neild cited in Small 1998.
  70. Philpotts 1991; Neild wrote that the tap room consisted of two rooms, not one as Dickens wrote (Neild cited in Small 1998).
  71. Philpotts 2003, p. 92.
  72. Expose, p. 6, cited in Philpotts 1991.
  73. 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).
  74. British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, pp. 631–632, cited in Philpotts 1991.
  75. Palace Court Rule Book, 1801-02, May 22, 1801, cited in Finn 2007.
  76. Ginger 1998, p. 299.
  77. "Expose", pp. 7–8 cited in Philpotts 1991; Finn 2007, p. 143.
  78. "Expose", p. 8 cited in Philpotts 1991.
  79. The Pickwick Papers, p. 654, cited in Philpotts 1991.
  80. British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 388, cited in Philpotts 1991.
  81. Little Dorrit, p. 61
  82. British Parliamentary Papers:Prisons 8, 1971(b), cited in Philpotts 2003, p. 100.
  83. British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 8, pp. 363, 412 cited in Philpotts 1991.
  84. "Expose" 1833, p. 9, cited in Philpotts 1991.
  85. British Parliamentary Papers: Prisons 7, p. 559; Prisons 8, p. 417, cited in Philpotts 2003, p. 100.
  86. The Jurist, 1850, p. 359.
  87. Darlington 1955
  88. Scribner's Monthly 1881.
  89. London Footprints.
  90. The English Heritage National Monuments Record describes the remains as: *SOUTHWARK TQ3279 BOROUGH HIGH STREET 636-1/5/104 (East side) 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. Remaining wall of the Marshalsea, English Heritage National Monuments Record.


References



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