When you think of the area of Borough in London nowadays, usually Borough Market springs to mind. Borough Market is an upscale food and drink market near London Bridge that has been in existence one way or another for the last 1000 years. In previous centuries, this area was definitely less pleasant and more dangerous… and home to Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison.
In the 18th century, many people who were in jail were there because they couldn’t pay off their debts. The poorest of London’s poor were held at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. The richer ones were transferred to other debtor’s prisons with better facilities.
18th Century Debtor’s Prisons
Debtor’s prisons were for-profit enterprises that were used to house people who couldn’t pay their debts. While in prison, they were charged for their time in jail! If they could pay prison fees, they could be sent to work and a part of their wages used to pay off their debt.
If imprisoned debtors couldn’t pay their prison fees, the fees just accumulated and got added to the original debt. It was a vicious cycle for the poorest of the poor. People actually starved to death in debtor’s prisons because they couldn’t pay for food.
Needless to say, living and working conditions in these prisons were harsh and corruption was rife. For example, jailers could chain up their prisoners and then remove their chains for payment.
Some European countries had laws that debtors could only be jailed for up to a year but in Britain, debtors were jailed until their creditors were happy. Britain did not outlaw imprisonment for debt (except for cases involving fraud) until 1869.
Opened in 1373, Marshalsea was a notorious prison south of the Thames River in Southwark. Only the ruins remain because Marshalsea was closed in 1842 and its prisoners divided between Bethlem Hospital (the infamous Bedlam) if they were mentally ill and other prisons.
The church of St. George the Martyr next door was used as the burial ground for debtors who died while at Marshalsea.
Dickens and Marshalsea
“Marshalsea is gone and the world is none the worse without it.”
– Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison when he was 12 years old. This traumatic event made a huge impression on the young boy who was sent to lodgings and forced to work at a factory full-time to pay for his upkeep. His mother and sisters joined his father at Marshalsea. Luckily for Dickens, his father was released after 3 months.
Dickens’ novel Little Dorritt is about a girl who is born and grows up in Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Her father is in jail and the family joins him. It was common for entire families to join the debtor in prison.
The Ruins of Marshalsea
The surviving remains of Marshalsea exist on Angel Place in Southwark (Borough tube stop on the Northern Line).