‘The poorest inmate’s faced starvation and if they crossed the jailers, torture with skullcaps and thumbscrews followed.’
Back in Victorian times, being in debt and unable to pay was a serious crime, so much that there were special debtors’ prisons to incarcerate financial criminals. These accounted for nearly half of all prisons in Britain. It is safe to assume the Marshalsea Prison in South London was a very tough prison. Many stories state how prisoners died whilst in this prison through inhumane and despicable treatment. One fact is clear: it was the most notorious prison in London. Situated in Southwark just five minutes from Borough Tube Station, it held a variety of prisoners over the centuries. It is a known fact that over half of the prison inmates in prisons in the eighteenth-and nineteenth centuries were in jail because of debts.
Marshalsea was one of the four principal debtors’ prisons active in London during the nineteenth century. Run privately for profit, as were all English prisons until the 19th century, it functioned as an extortion racket. Debtors who could afford the prison fees had access to a bar shop and kept the crucial privilege of being allowed out during the day, which gave them a chance to earn money for their creditors. They crammed everyone else into one of nine small rooms for years, for the most modest debts, which increased as unpaid prison fees accumulated. The poorest faced starvation and if they crossed the jailers, torture with skullcaps and thumbscrews would follow. A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death within three months and that eight to ten were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.
Some prisoners even took their families to live with them in prison, accepting the prison as their new home. When Charles Dickens’s father was imprisoned at the Marshalsea, he took his wife and youngest children to live with him while Charles, then 12 years old, boarded with a family friend. The prison became known around the world in the 19th century through the writing of Dickens.
The Victorian era was rife with poverty and devastation. From workhouses, child labour, slums, crime, prostitution and disease, the 19th century was overwhelmed with desolation for the working class. With these desperate conditions to contend with, it is easy to see how many people became victims to the cruel debtor system that dominated the nineteenth century. Meagre earnings meant people could afford daily essentials, and so they turned to purchase items through credit. These credits were ever growing, and people often found themselves unable to cope with their arrears. People contended with extremes to escape their arrears. However, for those left with no alternative, their only option was the unkind, challenging world behind the iron gates of Marshalsea.
The Bankruptcy Act of 1869 stopped people from being imprisoned for nominal fees, however, before they passed this act creditors were free to send their debtors to prison for any sum of money, large or small. Because of these relaxed guidelines, Marshalsea was overcrowded and congested. While in prison, debtors worked to pay off their debts, they also paid fees for their keep within the jail. If the prisoners could not pay these fees, it would not be unheard of for inmates to be tortured.
The prison became known through Charles Dickens’s works, whose father was imprisoned in this prison for a debt of 40 pounds and 10 shillings when the novelist was twelve years old. Because of his father’s imprisonment, it forced Dickens to leave school and work in the factory to support himself. The experience profoundly affected Dickens, and the imprisonment of debtors in the Marshalsea prison is a frequent theme in his novels, such as Little Dorrit and The Pickwick Papers.
They demolished much of the prison in the 1870s, although parts were used as shops and rooms into the 20th century. A local library now stands on the site. All that is left of the Marshalsea is the long brick wall that marked its southern boundary.
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