Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

Who among us would be there today?  What was it like?
by Wanda Luce
Ready for a laugh before considering the grim and macabre?  Well, as much as I have always loved Dickens, it was only this last year when I watched the new production of Little Dorrit with Mathew MacFayden that I heard of the Marshalsea, but since I only heard the word and did not see it written, I was visualizing the word as “Marshalcy.”  All the way through, I was puzzling over the word and what it meant in that context.  I kept making a mental note to look it up but never got around to it.  So, in my mind, Mr. Dorrit kept saying “Marshalcy” and not the actual word  “Marshalsea.”  I would love to know if I had any company in rolling that word around in my mind.  When I at last learned the real name of this debtors’ prison, I decided to share with you the truly horrible place that it was.  Its example of some men’s brutal inhumanity makes me wonder if some of our fellow beings don’t belong to some lower order of creature.  How ready so many on this globe are to inflict cruelty upon their fellow beings! 
The first Marshalsea reposed in all its barbarous in-dignity on the south bank of the Thames River in Southwark from the 1300s until it was rebuilt in the early 1800s.  Apparently too few of our fellow mortals (or at least the ones who held the power) cared enough the suffering there over five and a half centuries to come up with a more humane solution.  Tragic is what it is.  Incomprehesible is what it I,s as well.
Those sent to the Marshalsea were guilty of various crimes.  Some had committed crimes at sea, like piracy or smuggling.  Others were sentenced for “unnatural crimes,” like  homosexuality.  Dissenters likewise found themselves closed up inside its walls.  Bonner, the bishop of London at the time of Elizabeth's accession, was incarcerated in Marshalsea for ten years because he refused to take the oath of allegiance.  Imagine if one of our religious leaders was sentenced to ten years in Federal Prison because he refused allegiance to President Obama.  Politicians and intellectuals accused of sedition as well as debtors also found themselves shut up in the Marshalsea. 
For the most part, London debtors stayed as long as their creditors chose to have them incarcerated.  It is estimated that in 1641 around 10,000 people in England and Wales were in prison for debt.  In 1729 a parliamentary committee reported that 300 had died there within a three-month period and that eight to ten died every 24 hours in warmer weather. 
Charles Dickens  At the tender age of twelve, Charles Dickens was forced to leave school and work in a shoe-blacking factory after his father was sent to the Marshalsea.   Of this he writes in David Copperfield, “I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone.”
Entire families removed to the Marshalsea or sprang up there, and many were incarcerated for decades.  Other European countries limited imprisonment for debt to one year, but in England, debtors stayed in prison until their creditors were satisfied.  And the prison-keepers charged rent (jailor’s fee); bailiffs charged for food and clothing; attorneys charged legal fees; and creditors often increased the debt simply because the debtor was in jail. 
The prisoner’s family members, including children, often had to be sent to work on the outside to pay for the family’s keep.  Usually the only food supplied by the prison was bread and water or something from a local market that was no longer fit for human consumption.  Those who had no money for food or anyone to bring it to them simply died of starvation.
Until the 1790s, jailors could chain prisoners with as many iron fetters as they wanted and then charge to remove them one at a time.  In the Bishop of Ely’s prison, those prisoners who were unable to pay for the removal of these chains were chained to the floor on their backs and forced to wear a spiked collar around their necks.  Heavy iron bars were also clamped over their legs until somehow they found money to pay for an “easement of irons.”   It seems impossible that anyone could inflict so much misery on another.                                                     Tools of Torture
In 1639, twenty-three women were held in one room without space to lie down.  Some prisoners were regularly beaten or tortured with thumbscrews and a skullcap.  Others were forced to lie in a windowless shed called the Strong Room near the main sewer where rats ran wild and cadavers awaited burial.   According to a Gaols Committee formed in 1729, they found “the sale of offices, breaches of trust, enormous extortions, oppression, intimidation, gross brutalities, and the highest crimes and misdemeanours.”  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 anaccidental 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.”

One prisoner, a debtor named Thomas Bliss, could not pay the prison fees and had been left with so little to eat that he tried to escape.  William Acton, prison ward of the Marshalsea in the 1720s, left Bliss in the filth of the Strong Room for three weeks wearing a skullcap, thumb screws, an iron collar, leg irons, and irons around his ankles.  According to one witness the swelling in his legs fully covered the leg irons on one side.  His wife testified that he was bleeding from his mouth and thumbs and could not eat because of the skullcap.   Eventually he was taken to the sick ward, but he died a few months later.
Extremely humble legislation began to be introduced from 1649 onwards.  Under George III debts of under 40 shillings did not demand jail time.  The Insolvent Debtors Act of 1813 allowed a debtor to request release as long as his assets did not exceed £20.  If the creditor did not agree, the debtor stayed in prison, some even for life.  As a result of the Gaol Committee’s inquiries, key figures in the administration of several of the jails were tried for murder.
The Marshalsea was divided into two sections for its different classes of prisoners:  the Master’s Side with about 50 rented rooms was reserved for those of the higher classes who had a way to pay more for their keep.  The Common Side had only nine small rooms.  It was not uncommon for as many as 300 debtors to be locked up in those nine rooms from dawn to dusk.  Wives, daughters, and lovers of male prisoners were allowed to live with them, so long as they behaved and paid their keep.  Women who could afford to pay the fees were housed in separate quarters called “the Oak.”
 A new Marshalsea was built and stood from 1811-1842, but conditions were also horrific.  It is the second one that Dickens made famous in his novels.  In 1842 Parliament ordered the Marshalsea closed.  The mentally ill were sent to Bethlem Hospital and the rest to the King’s Bench Prison.
Dickens visited the Marshalsea after it closed as a prison, and its rooms were being let as apartments.  He wrote:

“[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."                             The Old Wall still stands today.
Thanks to Wikipedia for the bulk of the information in this post.
Link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshalsea_Prison

I have a great fascination with history and write Regency-era romances.  For more information, I hope you will visit my blog http://wandaluce.blogspot.com/


  1. Thanks for sharing. A truly frightening bit of history given that accident or act of God could cause someone to be unable to pay a debt (as opposed to a deliberate act). And thus end up in such a horrible place. Also, I find it very odd - how was someone supposed to pay off the debt if they were starving to death in prison?

  2. I really enjoyed learning more about the Marshalsea. I always liked the movie "Little Dorritt" and had wondered about the prison. Thanks for sharing : )

  3. I'm glad we don't have prisons like that now. There are so many people in debt because of this crappy economy. UGH! But I really enjoy reading your blogs my dear friend. You're so smart!

  4. A ghastly piece of history but one that is well borne in mind.

  5. Er, whilst I am clearly not in favour of the inhumanity in general which has been practised throughout the course of history, I think it is important to not compare what they did in the 1600s with what is deemed acceptable in the West today, but if one must compare to do so within their own context. So a fairer assessment might be how did Marshalsea compare to the Tower or indeed to prisons in France of the same period?

    It's also important to recognise that however dire we consider the British legal system and its prisons of the period, it's also a time of steady progress. Not perhaps as fast as we would like to see it, but nonetheless it existed.

    The rebuilding of Marshalsea and its use thereafter in 1811 was in fact, great progress--in 1812 Parliament voted to separate debtors and their families from felons in prison. This was huge. It may not seem so to us, but it was. And it was the work of those same committed humanitarians as had led the fight for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves.

    So, however, rubbishy and infernally awful we (the British) were we were still the vanguard of the human rights movement.

  6. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsApril 26, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    Excellent information, I am sure we all had some distant relatives that were in that situation...Great reading, interesting history...


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