Just alongside Borough High Street in Southwark, south London, stood the small debtors’ prison, the Marshalsea. Charles Dickens‘s father, John Dickens, was imprisoned here for debt in 1824. Charles was only 12 years old at the time. This was to become Dickens worst memory, which was to haunt him for the rest of his life. He was put into lodgings at nearby Lant Street, and sent out to work in a boot blacking factory, on the site of present day Hungerford Bridge.
For the rest of his life Dickens was haunted by the Marshalsea Prison was speaking from personal experience when he describes it in Little Dorrit. It dominates the story, the heroine of which is a debtor’s daughter, born and raised within its confines. The actual Marshalsea prison, which dated from medieval times, closed in 1842 and was demolished soon afterwards. In a preface to an 1857 edition Dickens wrote that the Marshalsea ‘is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it’.
In the Borough High Street, near St. George’s Church, and on the same side of the way, stands, as most people know, the smallest of our debtors’ prisons, the Marshalsea. Although in later times it has been a very different place from the sink of filth and dirt it once was, even its improved condition holds out but little temptation to the extravagant, or consolation to the improvident. The condemned felon has as good a yard for air and exercise in Newgate, as the insolvent debtor in the Marshalsea Prison.
The Marshalsea was an infamous prison in England, located on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark, now part of London. From at least the 14th century until it closed in 1842, it housed a wide variety of prisoners, including men under court martial for crimes at sea and “unnatural crimes,” and well-known intellectuals and political figures accused of sedition. It became most closely associated with imprisoning 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 as an extortion racket. For prisoners who could pay, it came with access to a bar, shop and restaurant, as well as the crucial privilege of being allowed out during the day, which meant debtors could earn money to satisfy 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 in the 19th century through the writing of the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there in 1824 for a debt to a baker. Forced because of that to leave school at the age of 12 for a job in a factory, Dickens based several of his characters on his experiences, most notably Amy Dorrit, whose father was also a Marshalsea debtor.
Much of the prison was demolished in the 1870s, though some of the buildings were used into the 20th century, housing an ironmonger’s, a butter shop and a printing house for the Marshalsea Press. All that is left of it now is the long brick wall that marked the southern boundary of the prison, the existence of what Dickens called “the crowding ghosts of many miserable years” marked only by a plaque from the local council. “[I]t is gone now,” he wrote, “and the world is none the worse without it.”
The site of the former prison is located just off Borough High Street, Southwark
Further Reading (external sources).