Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fleet Prison-London

By Katherine Pym
Fleet Prison was around since the time of William the Conqueror. The term Fleet comes from Saxon times which loosely means ‘a large enough stream to navigate’. Records show it could handle a dozen ships loaded with merchandise, and barges of considerable size and weight. The tide flowed as high as Holborn Bridge. At low tide, the water was still at least five feet deep. 

Fleet Ditch
Throughout the years, the Fleet river became fouled with all manner of excrement and garbage. In 1606, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen demanded it be cleaned. Eventually, it disappeared with an open thoroughfare over it, called Farringdon Street.

From the Doomsday survey, the Fleet Prison was held in conjunction with the See of Canterbury and the English Crown. Between the kings and archbishops, the wardenship of the prison passed down from one knight to another beginning with the family of Leveland in County of Kent. For over one hundred years, this family held custody of the king’s palace in Westminster and Fleet Prison, and any monies these garnered.

Custody of the Fleet could be bought for high prices. In 1594, it was held by Sir Robert Tyrrel, Knight, who sold it to Sir Henry Lello for the considerable amount of £11,000.

From the 15th through mid 17th centuries, the Fleet was called the prison of the Star Chamber, or Court of the Privy Council wherein the inhabitants were of the upper crust--political and religious dissidents. After being judged by those of the Star Chamber they were thrust in the Fleet. Sir Walter Raleigh, charged with treason, resided there for a time. The Star Chamber had supreme jurisdiction of the Crown. It stood by itself. No other courts could challenge the Star Chamber. The Privy Counselors sent the higher people of the land to the Fleet without appeal. There were no juries and no witnesses. They could inflict heavier punishments than any other court.

This was abolished by an act of parliament in July 1641. After this, the Fleet became a debtor’s prison. It was also a paying prison. There were no freebies there. The prisoner paid for everything. He’d pay for his food and lodgings, pay for the guard to turn the key to his cell. He’d pay for putting on and removal of his shackles. The warden and his officers received monies for all things in Fleet Prison. A debtor could leave the prison for a day or so, only if the family paid the guard a day’s wages to compensate for loss of monies garnered through fees.

The warden received 20d per day from every man in the prison. Some wardens abused their power. During the reign of Charles II, a warden named Mr. John Huggins allowed several persons to escape from the Fleet. One fellow, who owed more than £10,000 was allowed to travel to France to conduct his affairs. The warden extorted money from folk as they fled the prison. His superiors declared him guilty of ‘notorious breaches of trust’.

The amount of monies depended on who the prisoner was. For instance, during the reign of Elizabeth I while still the prison of the Star Chamber, an Archbishop, Duke or Duchess were to pay £21, 10s, and zero pence for a week’s worth of food. They also paid for anything beyond normal, such as wine: £3, 6s, 8d. A yeoman paid for his weekly fare £1, 14s, 4d. If he wanted wine, it was another 5s. A poor man had no food. If he could pay for weekly fare, it would cost him 7s, 4d.

The poor devil who couldn’t pay was allowed a moment at grilled door that looked out on the street. There he begged for a coin or two. This beggar would not be allowed in the upper floors with the more well-to-do, but in the cellar, or Bartholomew Fair. These people generally died quickly from ‘Gaol Fever’.

Mid 17th and into the 18th century the Fleet became notorious for its Fleet marriages. Fifty to sixty couples were married per week in the Fleet ‘Chapel’ by ministers in prison for debt. The marriage shop in Fleet became big business, and for a fee, with no questions asked, couples were married. These weren’t children marrying, either. The average age for men and women marrying during the 17th century were in the mid to late twenties.
Marriage paperwork was almost nonexistent. Clergy in prison for debt hid behind the walls to keep from being fined for these marriages. If caught, they would be fined £100. If not caught, these clergy could amass piles of money in this business.

Around 1710-1753, these marriages expanded to a sanctuary area outside the prison, where clergy imprisoned for debt could make a living. This gave the clergy freedom to marry customers day or night. The certificates issued looked official, mostly stamped paper. For a fee, false entries of marriages were entered in registers. If the bride was pregnant, the entries could be backdated. Witnesses afterward were not easy to find.

This all ended with the Marriage Act of 1753.

For more information on the chaos of marriage during the 17th century, please see Viola, A Woeful Tale of Marriage, set in London 1660.

For the information in this blog, I am grateful for the following resources:
  • Uncertain Unions, Marriage in England 1660-1753, by Lawrence Stone
  • The Fleet, A brief Account of the ANCIENT PRISON CALLED “THE FLEET”, IN THE CITY OF LONDON, Abolished by Act of Parliament, 1842 etc.
  • London, The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd


  1. Thanks, Katherine. A most interesting and informative post. I found when I was writing a book set in 1643 I could find little information on the Fleet. This is a keeper

  2. Such amazing facts on Fleet Prison. Can you imagine the unfairness of life for some folks in those days?? We are so very fortunate now, what a great article.


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