Mansions of misery: Visiting the Marshalsea prison’s dark past with Jerry White

When a committee of MPs investigating the state of the country’s gaol’s visited the Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Borough in 1729 the conditions they reported were appalling. Wards were “excessively Crowded, Thirty, Forty, nay Fifty Persons having been locked up in some of them not Sixteen Foot Square”. Many of the inmates were seen to be starving and disease was rife.

Prisoners were cooped up in rooms for hours on end and so, noted the Gaol’s Committee, “they are forced to ease Nature within the Rooms, the Stench of which is noisome beyond Expression”. As fever spread, those that could afford it were transferred to sick wards. On the men’s side were found “eleven miserable men” while in the women’s area were “seven miserable Objects lying without Beds on the Floor, perishing with extream Want”.

Presiding over this terrible institution was a local butcher called William Acton who paid John Darby, the deputy marshall, £140 a year for the lease of the gaol. He ran it as a private operation with the sole purpose of making as much money as he could from inmates and maximising the profits of his franchise.

Acton even went as far of stealing charity money, according to the Gaol’s Committee, which had it have been properly distributed “would have prevented the Starving to death many miserable Wretches”. The MPs were apparently so moved by what they witnessed “that they made a very bountiful Contribution, out of their own Pockets’ to support the Sick, ordering the attendance of an apothecary and nurses”.

So after the reports had been published what became of Acton, the “brutal gaoler”? Following a series of trials, where he was charged, but not found guilty of murdering inmates, he was removed from the prison. Acton eventually became the landlord of a nearby pub, which he ran until his death in 1748. But it was not the end of misery for those unfortunate to find themselves committed to the Marshalsea.

While medieval torture instruments which had been kept in the prison for many years were removed and other small improvements made, “ripples made by the Gaols Committee in 1729 were quickly stilled,” writes historian Jerry White in a fascinating biography – Mansions of Misery – on the institution. “The Marshalsea would very much go on in the way it always had for some generations to come”. The MP’s report did nothing to halt Acton’s immediate successors from farming as much money out of prisoners as they could.

The 18th century Marshalsea prison which was documented in 1729 may have vanished without physical trace (it was originally located by the present-day Mermaid Court, off Borough High Street), but its 1811 replacement near to where John Harvard Library stands retains an original boundary wall. It was on the latter site that Charles Dickens’s father was imprisoned in 1824 when the author was aged 12.

Site of second Marshalsea prison, Borough

It’s thanks to Charles Dickens and others that vivid accounts of what the prison would have been like inside were produced, but what White’s well-researched volume provides is a dive into the lives of some of the institution’s fascinating inmates. The accounts he presents from the Marshalsea – which finally closed in 1842 – are tragic, yet give us an interesting glimpse into the past.

‘Hell on epitome’

The first traces of the Marshalsea, which would in time become regarded as “hell in epitome”, date back to the 1330s when the “good men” of the Borough were given permission to build a new courthouse with a prison attached.

In medieval times, the institution was stormed a number of times, including by Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 and then again by Jack Cabe in 1450. It became a prison for political prisoners and dissenters from the 15th century onwards. And during the Reformation and counter Reformation a number of key figures were locked up inside the Marshalsea.

But its during the 18th century that we start to know more about what the Marshalsea looked like and how it operated as a place for holding debtors. The aforementioned 1729 report provides considerable detail, including how the plusher accommodation was provided on the so-called “master’s side” (24 rooms occupied by 80 prisoners), while on the “common side” 281 prisoners were crammed into 16 rooms. There was also a workroom, chandler’s shop and coffee room, as well as an alehouse in a separate building. And this 1772 account paints a vivid picture of what it was like to pass into the Marshalsea:

“As you quit the main street, a dirty court presents itself to your view, which is terminated by large gates, closed with a massy bar of iron, fastened with an enormous padlock. The top of the high wall over it is guarded by a chevaux de frize, to prevent unhappy prisoners making their escape. By a narrow door, which you go up three steps to, on your right hand, and which is secured with a weighty chain and a large lock you enter through a dirty room, which is the station of the turnkey. The horrid clanking of the chain, or the dreadful sound of the lock, is sufficient to terrify you; but when you descend into the prison, it is wretched almost beyond description. Houses, which are apartments for the prisoners, with scarce a window, except in those who inhabitants can afford to pay for them.”

What White describes in his book is a consumer society, not dissimilar today, with people spending beyond their means (or gambling away what little they had) and getting into debt. With credit so easy to come by in the 18th century, if all the businesses where tabs were held or individuals that had provided loans, asked for them to be settled at the same time, some would have faced trouble. Following an arrest, they could very quickly find themselves inside a debtor’s prison (for John Dickens it was down to a debt of £10).

Joshua Reeve Lowe was an optician who in 1840 achieved near celebrity status who apprehended a gunman who had shot at Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s carriage as they took an early evening drive through Green Park. He was persuaded to move his shop from the City to St James’s, but this ruined him because the “Nobility, Gentry, &c” didn’t come, leaving him with unsold stock and suppliers bills he couldn’t meet.

Lowe closed his West End shop within just a few weeks and moved to near Waterloo Road, but it was too late for his personal finances and in December 1841 he was taken to the Marshalsea where he remained for nine months. After spending some time in the Queen’s prison, he traded briefly as an optician nearly Borough High Street. But the hero soon died, aged just 37, probably as a result of a chronic pulmonary tuberculosis. Spending times in London’s prisons can only have helped this disease develop.

Daniel Defoe suggested there were more prisons in London “than any City in Europe” in the 1720s. He said there were 22 ‘public gaols’ and 119 ‘Spunging Houses’ (where debtors would go while they were awaiting admission to a prison proper), but there were many others. Of all the London institutions, the King’s Bench was most prestigious, while the Marshalsea was seen as the lowest.

It was of course bad enough getting into debt, but tricks were often played on illiterate people so that they signed a note they couldn’t read, which showed that the debts exceeded by far the value of goods they had received on credit. And once taken into sponging houses, during the 24 hours they were held their they could be charged excessive amounts for wine, the right to smoke or for merely receiving a pen and paper.

Different experiences

The Methodist founder John Wesley, who preached at the Marshalsea’s chapel in 1739 and 1753, was critical of the prison, describing it as “a nursery of all manner of wickedness. Oh shame to man that there should be such a place, such a picture of hell upon earth!” But terrible as it would have been, the conditions faced by prisoners did vary.

One of the most fascinating accounts that White presents is that of John Baptist Grano, a once-celebrated musician of Italian stock, who while he was in the Marshalsea for 16 months during 1728 and 1779 kept a diary. Even though he had a number of different sources of income whilst in the prison (including gifts from parents, fees from teaching in a room above the jail and performing concerts), he struggled to make ends meet.

But he was highly regarded by William Acton who called him into his private apartment to play the flute or trumpet, or sing to amuse him and his friends. And we hear of him eating “an exceeding fine Leg of Mutton and Turnips as also pretty piece of Roast veal” and on another occasion “a Noble Buttock of Beef and Turnips and the fine quarter of Lamb and Sallad we bought the Night before”.

From the mid 1760s newspapers started to carry adverts from prisonners asking for alms from people. We read in one of a “Industrious Widow, with Seven Children” who wanted helped to establish her in “some small way of business”. Some of the language in the adverts became very emotive:

“CASE OF DISTRESS – TO LADIES – The Advertiser makes this appeal on behalf of his distressed Wife and Five innocent children, four of whom are girls, the eldest being thirteen years of age, without a prospect of their being educated, or in any way provided for, through the Advertiser, their father, having been reduced from comparative affluent to positive want, and is now in the Marshalsea prison, for a debt of ten pounds five shillings, and eight pounds ten shillings expenses; having had his furniture and bedding taken from him, his wife and children have nothing to lie upon but the bare boards, with nothing to cover them but their day apparel.”

There were of course a number of ways for prisoner to get themselves out of the Marshalsea – paying off debts was just one of them. For example during the American Revolutionary War a recruiting officer visited debtors jails “offering to release all those prisoners whose debts amount to less than ten pounds,” on the condition that they joined “his Majesty’s service either by sea or land”. And I found it fascinating to discover in White’s book that those that could afford it would upgrade themselves to what was considered a better prison, such as the King’s Bench or the Fleet.

You would have thought that after a stint in the Marshalsea, discharged inmates would want to go as far away from the prison as possible and never return, but that wasn’t always the case it seems. “It is testimony to the conviviality of the Marshalsea master’s side that many prisoners revisited after their discharge,” said White. “Sometimes no doubt that was for charity’s sake, regaling their friends with food and drink brought in from outside or bought in the prison.”

Site of orginal Marshalsea prion, Borough

John Dickens’s Marshalsea

By 1761 the Marshalsea prison buildings were considered “mean and ruinous” and another commentator said in 1766 that they “run to much decay”. Others said that the common-side rooms had “hardly a pane of glass in the the windows” and that the stairs were “so dark and ruinous, that it is dangerous to go up and down without a candle” even during the day.

But it took until 1811 for the old Marshalsea to be closed. It was replaced by a cooperage and around 1823 a five-storey drapery emporium was built on the site. The 50 remaining inmates were taken to the new county gaol, which also took on the function of the new Marshalsea prison. Accessed by a narrow gateway off Borough High Street, which lay between Ruck, a cheesemongers, and the Crown inn, this is site that tourists come to today when they want to see traces of this notorious institution.

White said the gaol was “long and narrow” and that the “main block of the prison was new, a double-terrace of eight back-to-back four-storey houses, some of them double-fronted with rooms either side of the the passage and staircase.” Of the 56 rooms split amongst these buildings, seven were allocated to the common (poor) side, while another seven were allocated to women prisoners and others were used by the turnkeys and their families, but most (36 rooms) were used for male prisoner’s on the master’s side.

The beer served at the Marshalsea’s tap was supplied by Charington’s at the tap and while it didn’t seem to be that liked by prisoners, it was a place where collegians could “take their wives and families” and the place was kept “clean for them, and take a penny a pot for that; it has long been the custom of the place.” Around 1828 John Sartain was taken by a friend as a visitor to the Marshalsea and he provided a description of the ale room:

“A cheerful fire blazed in a grate in one corner of the room and seemed to give more light than the two candles, stuck in the necks of bottles, that stood on a long table of rough boards. Seated on long, rude benches at each side of the table were seven or eight persons, two or three of them women, and some were intent upon a game of cards… At the further end, away from the players and the lights, were three well-dressed men in conversation across the table.”

That we know so much about the Marshalsea in the first half of the 19th century is partly down to the fact that a famous author’s father was imprisonned in the gaol. John Dickens was by many accounts a generous man, but through borrowing from numerous individuals and businesses and struggling to keep up with the financial demands of sustaining a large family, he ran up debts and in 1824 ended up in the Marshalsea.

Many of Charles Dickens works, not least Little Dorrit, were influenced by the experience of his father being detained in the Marshalsea. And even in later life he remembered that “even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children… and wander desolately to that time in my life”.

While the standard of the new Marshalsea buildings was an improvement on the crumbling structure of the old prison, it still had its faults. There was probably even less outdoor space for inmates to exercise and the privies outside were said in 1815 to “smell very bad” but, despite petitions from prisoners worried about cholera, nothing was done about them.

By John Dickens’s time the system of reward for the deputy marshal or keeper had also changed, so they no longer relied solely on farming money out of debtors for an income. The position attracted a salary paid by the treasury, which was intended to stamp out (but didn’t completely eliminate) corruption. As for John Dickens, his son’s biographer said the “family lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for long time out of it”.

But when John was released from the Marshalsea in 1824 under the provisions of the new Insolvent Debtors Act, which had been passed that year (and essentially enabled creditors to cut their losses by accepting a portion of a debtor’s total assets), his financial woes were far from over. He lost his house again through incurring more debts and Charles backed a bill to stop him returning inside. John’s son, who was by now becoming famous, in the end went as far as taking out adverts in all leading London newspapers to say he would only be responsible for his and his wife’s debts – in other words not settling those of his father.


The new Marshalsea didn’t last as long as the original institution. Just three decades after it opened, the remaining few remaining debtors that were left when it finally closed its doors in 1842 were to the nearby Queen’s prison.

Closing the Marshalsea had in reality been on the cards for sometime as “injustices and overall ineffectiveness of the laws of imprisonment for debt had long been apparent,” according to White. But the real trigger was the passing of Lord Cottenham’s Act in 1838 which “removed the ability to proceed against the person of the debtor without proving the debt and obtaining an order of the court, at the same time making it easier to take action against the debtor’s property”.

Following the introduction of the new law, prisoner numbers dropped dramatically at the Marshalsea and the institution became expensive to run. Parliament decided in March 1842 to close the gaol and newspapers said that it was pulled down, with its contents sold at auction. But that wasn’t completely true.

Many of the old buildings remained for some time, providing accommodation for poor families and vagrants. Even in 1900 a “great portion” was said to be still standing, with part of the site used for businesses, such as printers. The main quarters of the Marshalsea had been completely devoted to industry by 1923.

The end for the main old Marshalsea prison block came when, between 1968 and the end of 1970s, new municipal offices were built for the new Borough of Southwark, with a library opening onto Borough High Street. It is on this site that the old debtor’s gaol once stood. But while the prison itself may have gone, part of the old wall that would have separated the institution from St George the Martyr still stands, providing a link with the Marshalsea’s dark past.

Surving wall of the second Marshalsea prison, Borough (the prison Dickens would have known)

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