Little Dorrit, Dickens and debt: The remains of Marshalsea prison in Borough
Discover the history of one of London’s most famous prisons, where Charles Dickens’ father John was jailed.
Up until the late 19th century, there were dozens of prisons in central London. While a few, such as The Clink or the Tower of London – are still standing (albeit without prisoners), most have been long demolished. One of these lost London prisons may have been closed for over 170 years, but its name has been immortalised thanks to Charles Dickens (1812-1870).
The Marshalsea prison stood in Southwark for nearly 500 years. The Marshalsea originally opened at what is now 161 Borough High Street in 1373. The name is adapted from the old English word “marshalcy” which means “the office, rank, position of a Marshal”. In its early years, it housed men accused of crimes at sea, as well as other ‘land’ crimes. Among the famous prisoners of Marshalsea included the playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who was imprisoned in 1597 for his “lewd” play The Isle of Dogs, which caused much offence and was suppressed by order of Queen Elizabeth I. Prior to prison reform in the 19th century, prisons were run for private profit. Prisoners had to pay for rent, food and clothes and furnish their own cells. A community sprung up within Marshalsea, with shops and restaurants being run by prisoners.
By the late 16th century, the prison was already in bad condition, but it wasn’t until 1799 the government decided it was time to rebuild. The new Marshalsea was rebuilt 130 yards at the current site of 211 Borough High street, costing £8,000. When it opened in 1811, it was split into two sections – one for debtors and another for mariners under court marshal. By the 18th and 19th century, debt was responsible for nearly half of England’s prison population. Usually, those in debt only spent a few months in the prison. Conditions were cramped and unpleasant, with sometimes up to four people sharing a cell measuring 10ft 10in by 8ft high.
Marshalsea became world famous when it was included in Dickens’ writings, including Little Dorrit, David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers. In many of Dickens’ novels, he had been inspired by real-life people and events. When it came to Marshalsea prison, he had first-hand experience of how terrible it was after witnessing his father John (1785-1851) and his family jailed there. Charles was just 12 years old when his father John was imprisoned over a £40 debt to a baker in February 1824. As was common practice at the time, John’s wife Elizabeth and their younger children soon joined him at Marshalsea. Charles’ age meant he was forced to leave school and get a job at Warren’s Blacking Factory in Charing Cross to pay for his lodgings in Camden Town. The young Dickens had to work a 10 hour shift wrapping bottles of shoe polish, as well as a five mile commute on foot, earning just six shillings a week. On the weekends, Charles would see the conditions of Marshalsea as he visited his family behind bars. Eventually, the youngster managed to find closer lodgings in Lant Street in Borough, which meant he could have breakfast and dinner with his family daily in the Marshalsea. These visits meant Charles was nearly a part-time resident of Marshalsea and gave him a deep knowledge of prison life which would inspire him later in life. Many Dickens’ fans may know his character Amy Dorrit from Little Dorrit, who was born and lives in Marshalsea after her debtor father William spends decades in the prison. John Dickens was eventually released after three months in May 1824. John ended his son’s employment, despite his wife’s wish for Charles to continue working there. This caused a major conflict between Charles and his mother Elizabeth, for which the author never forgave her. He later wrote: “My father said I should go back no more, and should go to school… I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.”
The Marshalsea was closed in 1842 with inmates being relocated to the nearby Queen’s Prison or the Bethlem Hospital in St George’s Fields if they were mentally ill. The buildings and surrounding land were bought at auction by ironmonger W.G. Hicks for £5,100 in July 1843. Hicks’ new purchase contained eight brick houses, a three-storey brick building, chapel, canteen, keeper’s house and Admiralty section. By the 1870s, the Home Office ordered the demolition of most of the buildings, although some parts survived into the mid 20th century. Hardware merchants George Harding & Sons were using parts of Marshalsea for their business in 1955. Before his death in 1870, Dickens passed the remains of Marshalsea, which left him feeling blue. Referring to the Marshalsea as “the crowding ghosts of many miserable years”, he declared: “It is gone now and the world is none the worse without it.”
Today, a long brick wall that mark the southern boundary of Marshalsea is all you can see today. The wall is sandwiched between the small alley Angel Place running alongside the John Harvard library, and St George’s Churchyard Garden. The garden-facing wall features a black plaque commemorating the prison’s existence. One of the Marshalsea’s windows can be found in the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury. Meanwhile, there are also nods to the prison and Dickens in the surrounding area, including Marshalsea Road, Little Dorrit Park and the Charles Dickens Primary School.
- Marshalsea Prison’s walls can be found on Angel Place (off Borough High Street), SE1 1YY. Nearest station: Borough.
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