Published date: 28 November 2008

David Thomas examines the reality behind Charles Dickens’ fiction – what were Victorian debtors’ prisons really like and how accurate was Dickens’ portrayal of them?

Author: David Thomas Duration: 47:54

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Thank you all very much for coming. What I’m going to be doing, today, is talking about … well, it’s called The Real Little Dorrit, and it’s really looking at how Dickens’ fictionalised account of life in the Marshalsea Prison compares with the reality of life in debtors’ prisons, in the early 19th century.

So, can I just ask who’s been watching Little Dorrit on the television?

[Show of hands]

Not bad. And, who’s read the book?

[Show of hands]

I’ll try not to give away the ending, for those of you who have been watching it on the television. So, let’s start.

This is the account of the admission register to the Marshalsea Prison, which is one of our records. And really, the big event in Dickens’ life is in 1824, when his father, John Dickens, was arrested for debt, and imprisoned in the Marshalsea, and as a result, Charles, who was only 12 at the time, had to go and work in the famous blacking factory off The Strand, where he stuck labels on bottles for six shillings a week.

What’s interesting about this is that Dickens’ family’s disgrace wasn’t known about in Charles Dickens’ time. He told his wife, and he told his friend, John Forster, and he writes about it in an unpublished, fragmentary autobiography. But nobody, during Dickens’ lifetime, knew that his family had been, sort of, you know, put in … in the Marshalsea. And so, when we read Little Dorrit, now, we can see that Mister Dorrit was, you know, a fictionalised representation of Dickens’ father, and that Little Dorrit, in some ways, was … was Dickens himself. I mean, there are some differences, which you might be able to figure out. [Laughter]. But, generally … generally … But, at the time … at the time it was published, nobody knew, and it’s only when Forster published his … his biography of Dickens, after Dickens’ death, that people learn about this awful secret.

That’s the old Marshalsea. That was where John Dorrit was imprisoned, and the Dorrit family lived. Prisons were a major theme in Dickens’ writing. If you read Sketches by Boz, there’s this famous description of … a visit to the condemned cell in Newgate, and his final, unfinished novel, Edwin Drood’s got a scene in the condemned cell, as well. And, in between, he describes the burning of Newgate in Barnaby Rudge, Fagan’s last night in the condemned cells, and the storming of the Bastille, in A Tale of Two Cities.

But today, I’m going to focus on debtors’ prisons. An imprisonment for debt was a recurring theme in Dickens’ writing. In his first novel, Mister Pickwick is the defendant in an action for breach of promise of marriage, brought by his landlady, Missus Bardell. She had misunderstood Mister Pickwick’s announcement that he was going to employ a servant, and believed he was offering to marry her. This is an easy mistake to make, happens all the time. [Laughter]. Pickwick loses the case, and believing that he’d suffered a miscarriage of justice, refuses to pay damages and costs. As a result, he’s sent to the fleet prison.

In David Copperfield, Mister Micawber, another representation of Dickens’ father, is imprisoned in the King’s Bench. Little Dorrit’s a much more ambitious novel. It’s a prison novel. It opens … and … and this is where they get it slightly wrong on the televised version, but it opens with this mysterious scene in Marseilles prison. Little Dorrit, as you know, is born in the Marshalsea, and all the characters in that novel live under the shadow of debt and imprisonment, and everybody in that novel is some … somehow touched by that.

Dickens was so deeply affected by his father’s disgrace that it really had a, sort of, profound psychological impact on him. So much so that he can’t bring himself to write Little Dorrit, until after his father’s dead. And, he can’t even bring himself to visit the old Marshalsea prison until after he’s finished the novel. In that, sort of, awkward period between finishing the novel and having it published, he goes to make a final visit to the … the Marshalsea. But, he can’t bring himself to do that, between the day his father was released, and … and then. But, even after he writes Little Dorrit, he’s still interested in the subject, and in 1867 he publishes, in-house … in … All the Year Round, three articles by a Commercial Traveller, who got into trouble, and was imprisoned for debt. This is a genuine account. It’s not a fictionalised account of what happens.

So, what was imprisoned for debt about, and why was it done? Well, the idea dates back to the 13th century, when the Crown had the right to put people in prison if they owed them money. I mean, just as it does, today. You read about little old ladies being put in prison for not paying their council tax. Well, it had the same right in the 13th century. And, in the 13th century, it gave that right to lay individuals, so that lay individuals could use … could use the Crown’s right to imprison people if they owed them money. This wasn’t a very sensible thing to do, because obviously, if you owe somebody money, and they put you in prison, what do you lose? Your job, and you can’t pay your debts. And, this is what happens to Dickens’ Commercial Traveller. He gets sacked soon after he … he’s admitted to prison.

So, why did people do it? What were the reasons for putting people in prison for debt? One obvious reason is malice. People owe people money, and you know, the creditors were very malicious, and they did it in order to get revenge on their debtors. But, you can’t measure this, because every person who’s ever written a book about being in prison for debt says, it wasn’t my fault, Gov, it was all the fault of the bank who lent me the money. This is a kind of familiar theme, which you can read about in the papers today. So, malice is a possibility, but a hard one to test.

In other cases, debtors really did have money, and they just refused to pay their debts. There’s a case of a prisoner who was in Southampton Jail, in 1844. He’d been there since 1814, and he had some property, and he refused … to sell the property to pay his debts. That’s it, I’m not paying. Well, you can stay in prison. Oh, all right. And, he stayed there for 30 years, and eventually dies in prison, having refused to sell this property, which would have cleared his debts and got him freed.

Another reason is … is simple first-mover advantage, because, often, people owed lots of money to different people. If you could get them arrested first, there was a good chance you’d get paid, and all the other creditors could go hang. So, I think, people tried to … get debtors arrested early on, so they could get their debts paid. And, Dickens’ Commercial Traveller was arrested by a tailor to whom he owed £34. The tailor managed to get ten pounds off him, and eventually he had him arrested. And, once in Whitecross Street, it turned out that his total debts were about £340, owed to three or four creditors, each of whom was trying to get a share of the man’s assets. But, the … the most significant reason, I believe, for putting people in prison for debt, was a … was a way of putting pressure on their friends and relatives to pay the debt, so they’d be released. And, creditors believed that the potential disgrace of having your son, or father, or daughter in the Marshalsea would encourage their parents or children to open their wallets.

The … the Commercial Traveller only got out of prison because his father-in-law guaranteed his debts. And, in the Pickwick Papers, Dickens describes the behaviour of a fellow prisoner, in the … Sheriff’s Officer’s house, while Mister Pickwick is waiting to go to the Fleet:

‘”Give me a sheet of paper, Crookey,” said Mister Price, to the attendant, who, in dress and general appearance, looked something between a bankrupt grazier, and a drover in a state of insolvency; “and a glass of brandy and water, Crookey, d’ye hear? I’m going to write to my father, and I must have a stimulant, or I shan’t be able to pitch it strong enough, into the old boy.”‘

The process of … of sending a person to a debtors’ prison is what Dickens describes. A creditor swears out an affidavit before court, claiming that he or she was owed money. The court could then issue a writ, called a Capias ad satisfaciendum, know as a ‘’, in Dickens’ day. This instructs the sheriff to take the defendant, and keep him safely, so that he may have his body in court on a return day, to satisfy the plaintiff. That’s the only Latin we’re getting, so don’t worry.

The normal process was for the debtor to be arrested by a bailiff or sheriff’s officer, and then taken to what was called a sponging-house, usually the officer’s own house. There, the debtor would be persuaded that they should pay their debts, otherwise, they faced a court appearance, and a debtors’ prison. Sponging-houses were notoriously uncomfortable, and in 1894 a Montagu Williams remembers sponging-houses, in his Down East and Up West.

‘”Ah, my dear fellow, you’ve never seen a sponging-house! Ye gods! What a place! I had an apartment, they were pleased to call a bedroom to myself, certainly, but, if I wanted to breathe the air, I had to do so in a cage in the back garden, iron bars all round, and about the size of one of the beast receptacles at the zoo. For this luxury, I had to pay two guineas a day, a bottle of sherry cost a guinea, and a bottle of Bass, half-a-crown, and food was on the same sort of economical tariff.”‘

And then, Dickens describes the same process in the Pickwick Papers: Mister Pickwick is summoned from his bed, by Namby, an officer of the Sheriff’s, and taken to his house in Coleman Street.

‘The coach having turned into a very narrow and dark street, stopped before a house with iron bars to all the windows; the doorposts of which were graced by the name and title of “Namby, Officer to the Sheriffs of London;” the inner gate having been opened by a gentleman who was endowed with a large key for the purpose, Mister Pickwick was shown into the “coffee room”. This coffee room was the front parlour, the principal features of which were fresh sand and stale tobacco smoke.’

The role of Sheriff’s Officer was a lucrative one. The Commercial Traveller describes how they were wealthy, lived in highly respectable streets, and gave dinner parties. And, Mister Pickwick had to wait half an hour or so for Mister Namby, who had a select dinner party, and could, on no account, be disturbed before.

The normal practice was for people of … to stay for a few days in the sponging-houses, to see if they could raise the money, and get out of trouble. So, our Commercial Traveller spends seven days at the house in Bream’s Buildings, before he accepted the inevitable, and went to Whitecross Street prison. Pickwick spent less than a day there, being determined not to pay his debts. And, after some discussion with his lawyer, he sets off for the Fleet.

Imprisonment for debt was originally very different from bankruptcy. Bankruptcy was intended to deal with the normal upheavals of trade. So, the law recognises that merchants run certain risks. Ships could sink, warehouses could burn down, and trading partners could default. Bankruptcy gave merchants a way of dealing with these crises. By making all their assets available to their creditors, and going through a court process, a trader could get a … a clean break, and start again. So, bankruptcy was restricted to traders who had large sums of money, above, say, £100. We get a glimpse of the bankruptcy process in Nicholas … Nickleby, with the failure of Mister Mantalini’s business, where he goes bankrupt.

Imprisonment for debt, was, as we’ve seen, a much cruder mechanism, to force smaller debtors to pay up. People who owed as little as two pounds could be imprisoned for debt as late as 1827, when the limit was raised to £20. During Dickens’ lifetime, the two legal processes came closer together. This began in 1813, when the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors was established.

The court allowed debtors to petition to be released on condition that they handed over all their assets to the court, and made any future income or asset subject to its jurisdiction. The court appointed a provisional assignee, to control the property, and a broker to value it. The court’s processes were complex, and expensive. It cost about £10 to go through the procedure. And, there’s a wonderful description in the Pickwick Papers, which I’m going to indulge myself by reading:

‘In a lofty room, ill-lighted, and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit, nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen, in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There’s a box of barristers on their right hand, there’s an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left, and there’s an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court. And, the place in which they sit is the Insolvent Court, itself.

It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood by the general consent of all the destitute, shabby, gentile people in London, as their common resort and place of daily refuge. It’s always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and not being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain. There are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered at sale in all Houndsditch in a 12 month; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving shops between Tyburn, and Whitechapel could render decent between sunrise and sunset.

It mustn’t be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so … indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise. And, the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small, portable dinners, wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs, or sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish. But, no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward …

A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it who wears a coat that was made for him, nor a tolerably fresh or wholesome looking man, in the whole establishment …

But the attorneys, who sit at a large bare table below the commissioners, are, after all, the greatest curiosities. They have no fixed offices. Their legal business is being transacted in the parlours of public houses, or the yards of prisons, where they repair in crowds and canvas for business, after the manner of omnibus cads. They’re of a greasy and mildewed appearance, and if they can be said to have any vices at all, perhaps drinking and cheating are the most conspicuous among them. Their residences are usually on the outskirts of “the Rules”, chiefly lying within a circle of one mile from the obelisk in St. George’s Fields. Their looks are not prepossessing and their manners are peculiar.’

Beat that for a description. [Laughter].

The court was a result … was a success, in that it provided a way out of prison for people who might otherwise have had no escape, but it wasn’t successful as a way of recovering unpaid debts. And, in 1840, it was estimated that no dividend was paid, in 95% of cases. Often the cases end just inconclusively. And, if you … in … in terms of the Dickens’ case, if you look at the London Gazette for 1825, available from The National Archives’ website, you’ll … you’ll see there’s a hearing being called at Rochester because Richard Newnham, the assignee of John Dickens, had declined to act. But, what happened, and whether the debts were collected seems uncertain. What is certain, is that there was deliberate fraud, to avoid assets being seized by the court and by creditors.

Until Dickens’ day, many prisoners were kept in ordinary criminal prisons. They were held in Newgate until 1815, when the city of London opened the new Debtors’ Prison in Whitecross Street. But, the great majority of debtors in London were housed in specialist debtors’ prisons, the Fleet, which is the bottom of Farrington Road, and two south of the river, in the borough, the King’s Bench, and the Marshalsea. What’s surprising is that these debtors’ prisons weren’t terrible, medieval relics full of dungeons and clanking chains, and cobwebs. They might have had cobwebs, but in Dickens’ day, they were mostly modern buildings. And, the Marshalsea was a brand new building, the one I showed you was … this is the old building, but the one that Dickens knew was built in 1811, and … in Angelcourt, near Borough … near where Borough Tube Station now is … it wasn’t there then.

One of the minor … curiosities of Little Dorrit is that, in the period in which it’s set, this … this move took place, but Dickens doesn’t mention it. Whitecross Street was even newer, having been opened in 1815. The King’s Bench was older. It was built in 1758, in Saint George’s Field, south of Borough Station. It was partly burned in the Gordon Riots and then again in 1799. The Fleet was destroyed during the Gordon Riots, and rebuilt in 1781 to two. There was a, sort of, hierarchy among these prisons, and Whitecross Street was absolutely at the bottom.

[Shows image]

This is the common ward in Whitecross Street. It was much closer to a … a regular criminal prison than the others. The debt … debtors slept in large rooms, as you can see, referred to as wards, and these were subdivided into small, corrugated iron compartments, each containing a narrow bed and a small sink. The movements of the prisoners were tightly controlled and visiting hours were limited. Mister Pickwick’s lawyer told him: ‘You can’t go to Whitecross Street, impossible. There are 60 beds in a ward, and bolt’s on 16 hours out of the 24.’ And Dickens’ Commercial Traveller describes the iron-clad doors, the barred gates, and the beds, which, from their size, must have been intended for thin schoolboys, and their hardness for Trappist monks.

However, there are two classes of people in Whitecross Street. There are ordinary debtors, and there are debtors who are also citizens of London. So, if you were a citizen of London, and were in Whitecross Street, you had much more luxurious accommodation. And, this is a room reserved for a … you know, a person who was a citizen of London, and a debtor. You might not think it’s luxurious, but compared with the … the previous room, it certainly was. It’s a bit like today, you know? If you owe the bank a thousand pounds, you get into trouble. If the banker … banker loses a billion pounds, they get lavish bonus … Oh, sorry, never mind. [Laughter].

The other prisons were slightly better, since accommodation was sin … in single or shared rooms, and they offered a range of entertainments and diversions to inmates. The parliamentary committees looking at prisons tended to find that the Fleet was in better condition, and better run than either the King’s Bench, or the Marshalsea. Unlike the … the other prisons, which served the main … like, the main courts, the King’s Bench, and so on, the Marshalsea served the Palace Court, so there’s King’s Bench, and there’s the Palace Court, which was the small … the court, which the Marshalsea served. It was a very old institution, which by the 19th century just dealt in small debts.

Arthur Clennam, the hero of Little Dorrit, was told by his legal advisor: ‘I should prefer to your being taken on a writ from one of the superior courts, if you have no objection to do me that favour. It looks better.’

And then, there were the Admiralty prisoners. A small area in the Marshalsea was reserved for a range of seamen who’d been convicted of crimes against Naval discipline, refusing to obey orders. And also, for people who’d committed offences against Admiralty Law, smugglers and pirates. Dickens describes the prison within a prison, and described how the smugglers habitually consorted with the debtors, who received them with open arms. But relations weren’t always so good. In the 18th century, the debtors in the Marshalsea petitioned against the corrupting influence of these seafarers, pirates, and smugglers; but attitudes change, and by 1815, the parliamentary committee was worried about the effect on these young men, warrant officers, and midshipmen, of exposure to the riot, and licentious behaviour of the other inmates of the Marshalsea.

This complaint expresses one of the paradoxes of imprisonment for debt. Debtors weren’t criminals. They were imprisoned for purely civil offences. As a consequence, they were fairly leniently treated. As Mister Pickwick discovered, money was, in the Fleet, just what money was out of it, and that it would instantly procure him almost anything he desired. It could even buy a sort of freedom. Both the King’s Bench, and the Fleet allowed prisoners to live outside the walls. The Fleet had an area around the prison for about a mile and a quarter in … in circumference, called The Liberty. Prisoners who could provide security and pay off a part of their debt could live there. There was also a similar arrangement round the King’s Bench, called The Rules.

In 1776, about a third of prisoners lived outside the King’s Bench. Not only was the Fleet cleaner and better run than the King’s Bench, it also held a further advantage. Persons living within The Rules had access to the London Coffeehouse, and the Belle Sauvage Public House. And, these real-life prisoners could drink with the fictional Sam Weller, and his father, who hung out there in the Pickwick Papers. The King’s Bench Rules excluded public houses.

Many prisoners carried on their normal trades inside debtors’ prisons. Some provided services to other inmates, catering or laundry, others ran the sporting facilities. The racquets court in the Fleet were let out to prisoners, who charged for their use. And Harriet Hart, who was a notoriously difficult prisoner in the Marshalsea, carried on her trade of feather hat making, there.

So, what was life really like for debtors? It’s … it’s very really hard to say, at this distance, it is … it’s a difficult question. There are certainly, in the 18th century, examples of very cruel treatments, beatings, and the use of manacles. In 1784, 15 debtors in Gloucester were sleeping on straw. Things had improved by Dickens’ day, although, as late as 1811, it was claimed that a prisoner had died of want in the Marshalsea. Most prisons had two sides: the master side, and the common, or poor side. Common side prisoners were those without means, who had free accommodation in the prison, that’s generous, and were eligible for a statutory payment of three shillings and sixpence a week, as well as charity payments. And, Dickens tells us there used to be a kind of iron cage in the wall of the … Fleet Prison, within which was posted some man of hungry looks who, from time to time, rattled a money box, and exclaimed in a mournful voice, ‘pray, remember the poor debtors. Pray, remember the poor debtors.’

[Shows image]

This is a picture of begging at the Fleet. And, in the National Archives, we’ve got a book called the Begging Grate Book, which is in PRIS 10/6 , if you want to look at it, and it records the pathetically small amount of sums that these people collected on a daily basis from begging in the walls of the … the prison. What’s interesting is, obviously, people are humiliated by this … this was dreadful. But we know some very strange cases. We know that Mister Ledwell was in the King’s Bench in 1815. He’d been discharged from his debts, could have gone home, but he quite liked living there, and got lots of charity and various alms, and continued to live there, and they couldn’t do anything about him.

The master side of the prison was usually far larger. There were 24 common side prisoners in the King’s Bench, and 84 master’s side. And, although life for the occupants of these rooms wasn’t luxurious, it did offer its comforts. The King’s Bench, Fleet, and Marshalsea all had taprooms for the sale of wine, and beer, while the King’s Bench had a coffeehouse, and bake-house. In 1776, John Howard visits the Fleet, and describes how the prisoners played at fives, skittles, and tennis, and were often joined in their games by porters by … from the nearby Smithfield Market. On Monday nights, they had a wine club, and on Tuesday nights, a beer club. Mister Pickwick watched people playing racquets, during his time in the Fleet. And Mister Micawber, who was imprisoned in the King’s Bench early one morning, was seen to play a lively game of skittles before noon.

[Shows image]

So, let’s have a look … This is before the internet, and DVDs, you’ve got to remember. Beer was a very sensitive subject, and in 1771, the prisoners in the King’s Bench destroyed over 50 barrels of beer claiming that it had been watered. Even in Whitecross Street, the harshest of the debtors’ prisons, inmates were allowed to buy a pint of wine or two pints of beer a day. The sale of spirits was banned in prisons, but Mister Pickwick visited a Whistling shop in the Fleet, where prisoners could buy illicit spirits.

[Shows image]

And, this is a … a picture of a Whistling shop in the Fleet. One of the figures in this picture is Lord Cochran, who we’ll … we’ll learn rather more than we want to learn, later on during the talk.

‘Whether the prisons were cruel or harsh really depends on the attitude of the debtors.

“It strikes me, Sam”, said Mister Pickwick, leaning over the iron rail at the stair-head,  “It strikes me, Sam, that imprisonment for debt is scarcely any punishment, at all.”

“Think not, sir?” inquired Mister Weller.

“You see how these fellows drink and smoke, and roar,” replied Mister Pickwick. “It’s quite impossible that they can mind it much.”

“Ah, that’s just the very thing, sir,” rejoined Sam, “they don’t mind it; it’s a regular holiday to them-all porter and skittles. It’s t’other ones as gets done over, with this sort o’ thing: them down-hearted fellers as can’t swig away at the beer, nor play at skittles neither; them as would pay if they could, and gets low by being boxed up. I’ll tell you what it is, sir; them as is always a idlin’ in public-houses it don’t damage at all, and them as is always a workin’ when they can, it damages too much.”‘

Dickens is careful of really the most heart stopping moments, and the events of Mister Pickwick’s first day in the Fleet are well known.

‘”Oh,” replied Mister Pickwick, looking down a dark and filthy staircase, which appeared to lead to a range of damp and gloomy stone vaults beneath the ground “and those, I suppose, are the little cellars where the prisoners keep their small quantities of coals. Ah! Unpleasant places to have to go down to; but very convenient, I dare say.”

“Yes, I shouldn’t wonder if they was convenient,” replied the gentleman, “seeing that a few people live there pretty snug. That’s the Fair, that is.”

“My friend,” said Mister Pickwick, “you don’t really mean to say that human beings live down in these wretched dungeons?”

“Don’t I?” replied Mister Roker, with indignant astonishment; “why shouldn’t I?”

“Live! Live down there!” exclaimed Mister Pickwick.

“Live down there!” “Yes, and die down there, too, very often!” replied Mister Roker; “and, what of that? Who’s got to say anything against it? Live down there! Yes, and a very good place it is, to live in, ain’t it?”‘

But, I’ve tried to research these cellars, and I cannot find anything about them. There were certainly cellars in the Fleet Prison, and they were called Bartholomew Fair. But, I’m 99.9% sure that Dickens never visited them. I can’t find any evidence that they were the sort of hellholes which spring into your mind when you read that passage.

In the 1780s, they were used … they and the adjacent kitchen and public dining room were rented out to prisoners. They were between four and eight shillings a week. And, when the Parliamentary Commissioners visit the Fleet in 1818, they make no comment at all on these cells. I just think, kind of, Dickens made it up.

The practice of letting out rooms to prisoners was part of the regime which existed in all prisons up to the time of Dickens, not just debtors’ prisons, but criminal prisons, as well, where staff weren’t paid salaries. Instead, they earned their incomes by providing services to the prisoners. The turnkey, Mister Roker, rented to Pickwick a carpet, six chairs, a table, a sofa, bedspread, a teakettle, and various small articles, at the very reasonable rate of seven and 20 shillings, and sixpence, a week. Prisoners had to pay fees on admission and discharge, as well as room rents. And, these went to the official in charge of the prison, called the Marshal, or the Master.

In many cases, prisoners were kept in jail because they simply couldn’t afford to pay their fees and lodgings. As well as fees, the Marshal of King’s Bench got a share of the profits from the sale of beer, and the rent for the coffeehouse and bakery. The more junior staff, called turnkeys, made money by renting out rooms and furniture. In 1815, the Marshal of the King’s Bench was making a profit of £3,500 a year from the prison. The bulk of his income came from selling the rights to reside outside the prison, in The Rules. £3,500 a year is probably about £200,000 a year, now. The Parliamentary Commissioners of 1815 described the situation in the Fleet. The nominal head was the Warden, John Eyles. He’d been imprisoned … he’d been appointed, rather, in 1759. By 1815, he was an old man, and hadn’t visited the place since 1804. He contented himself with a salary of £500 a year. The prison was run by his deputy, Mister Nixon, who received a total of £2,600 a year from the fees paid by prisoners, plus the profits of the tap. Out of this, he paid £100 a year to his clerk, Mister Woodruff, who also got a fee of half a guinea for each person allowed to live within The Rules.

Nixon also employed three turnkeys, at half a guinea a week each. They also got a free room. He employed a man called Crier, who was scavenger and night watchman. He also paid a salary of £10 a year to an old man who was a prisoner, and acted as his clerk. And, he paid a chaplain £30 a year. He also had to pay costs and legal expenses when a prisoner escaped. His net income was £1,800 a year, or about £104,000 in modern money, plus free accommodation. And, everybody who went into prison, or who left, had to pay fees on admission, and fees on discharge. One of the curious features of debtors’ prisons was the practice known as chummage. And this is described by Dickens in the Pickwick Papers:

‘”Accommodation, eh?,” said that gentleman, consulting a large book; “plenty of that, Mister Pickwick. Your chummage ticket will be on twenty-seven, in the third.”

“Oh,” said Mister Pickwick. “My, what, did you say?”

“Your chummage ticket,” replied Mister Roker; “you’re up to that?”

“Not quite,” replied Mister Pickwick, with a smile.

“Why,” said Mister Roker, “it’s as plain as Salisbury. You’ll have a chummage ticket upon twenty-seven in the third, and them as is in the room will be your chums.”

“Are there many of them?” inquired Mister Pickwick, dubiously.

“Three,” replied Mister Roker. Mister Pickwick coughed.

“One of ‘em’s a parson,” said Mister Roker, filling up a little piece of paper, as he spoke, “another’s a butcher.”

“Eh?” exclaimed Mister Pickwick.

“A butcher, repeated Mister Roker, giving the nib of his pen a tap on the desk to cure it of a disinclination to mark.”What a thorough-paced goer he used to be, surely!”‘

So, the theory was, that if … if all the rooms in a prison were full, and occupied by one person, then the next prisoner to arrive would be directed to one of the rooms. The existing occupant of the room could either accept this new chum, or he could offer to pay him out. That’s to say, he could pay him five shillings a week, and the new prisoner would then go and rent a space in another room. As a consequence, the richer prisoners like Mister Pickwick could have rooms to themselves, while the poorer ones would have to sleep eight or nine to a room. So, the kind of lavish space of the room that the Dorrits live in is just, you know, nonsense.

In the Fleet, the system seems to have been fair, with newcomers being allocated to rooms in strict rotation. It was far different in the King’s Bench, where there were widespread abuses. Some of the turnkeys and waiters at the coffeehouse held rooms in the prison, in … which they let out to prisoners. One Mister Gore, a debtor, had acquired sole use of a room, which he let out while he lived outside the prison, in The Rules. Mister Pickwick’s horrified response to sharing a room with three other men, including a butcher, represents one view of life in debtors’ prisons. Some academics have argued that there was a real effort by the wealthier debtors to ensure that the social life of the prison replicated the nice distinctions of gentility, fortune, and class, they’d obtained in the outside world.

In 1814, debtors in Newgate complained that persons of the first respectability, whose walk in life exempts them from depraved associates, and with whom such association would greatly add to the pain and punishment of confinement. And, Little Dorrit is full of examples of this sort. There’s a very famous scene, where Mister Dorrit is deeply offended when the plasterer offers him halfpenny coins. And, Dorrit, himself, spends a lot time maintaining his status and social position, constantly reminding Amy that he’s … he’s a gentleman. But, there’s a different view, which is also set out in Dickens, which is that gradual exposure to poverty and despair did much to erode social distinctions. One of the points about Victorian Britain is, you could tell people’s occupation and social standing by the way they dressed. But, listen to Dickens’ description of the visitors coming to see relatives in the Marshalsea:

‘The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women; were made up of patches, and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own.’

And Dickens’ commercial traveller describes how, in Whitecross Street, ‘the most clean and trim looking among us became as careless and dirty as the rest.’ There were very small numbers of staff in these prisons. The King’s Bench had a Marshal, Deputy Marshal, three or four turnkeys, a clerk of the papers, and some tip staffs who took people to court and back. And, in these circumstances, the staff had no control over what went on inside the prison. Their only role was to prevent escapes, and there are descriptions, including those in Dickens’, of how new prisoners had to sit and be inspected by the turnkeys, so they would be recognised among the throngs of visitors, lawyers, and others, who crowded into the prisons.

[Shows image]

And, there’s Mister Dickens, sitting for his portrait. All the officials of the prison are … are looking at him, so they remember what he looks like, in case he tries to escape.

Life inside the prisons was pretty much regulated by the prisoners themselves. In the King’s Bench, in the 18th century, there were two elected bodies, one for the common side, and one for the master’s side. They tried to keep order, and arbitrate quarrels, while the master’s side corporation also supervised the letting of rooms, arranged cleaning, and even … enforced weights and measures rules in the shops. Dickens describes a similar fellowship in Little Dorrit. But, by his day, it seems to have been more of a drinking club. In Whitecross Street, in the 1860s, each ward elected a prisoner to act as caterer. He bought the food, and collected subsistence money from his fellow prisoners. The caterers’ accounts were very carefully scrutinised by a committee of debtors. It seems to have worked well, with an abundant quantity of plain food being provided, a breakfast of egg, bacon, bread, and tea, a cooked dinner at two pm, and tea with cold meats in the evening.

Little Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea, and her mother was attended by the drunken and shabby doctor, one of the prisoners. This isn’t a piece of literary exaggeration. In 1815, neither the King’s Bench, nor the Fleet had any medical staff, and both relied on the services of doctors who had the misfortune to get themselves imprisoned for debt. So, a bit difficult when they didn’t have a doctor. In 1815, Mister Burnet, a surgeon was confined in the King’s Bench, and provided medical services to his fellow inmates.

Quite large numbers of people were imprisoned. On one day, in 1826, there were 2861 people in debtors’ prisons, of whom 1,700 were in the four main London jails. Most people were like Mister Micawber, and Mister Pickwick, in that they stayed in jail for a very short time, most for less than six months. There were a few unfortunates, like Mister Dorrit, who stayed in prison for years. In 1844, only 49 prisoners had been in the Queen’s prison for more than three years, but of those, seven had been imprisoned in the 1720s, and one unfortunate in 1812. The debtors seemed, mostly, to have come from the ranks of small tradesmen. The prisoners in Whitecross Street, in 1828, included a hat maker, a shoemaker, a milkman, a confectioner, a horse dealer, a printer, and oyster shopkeeper, eight labourers, a poor widow, and a half-pay captain.

Those of you who read Smollett, and remember Peregrine Pickle, might remember the list of the people found in the coffeehouse of the Fleet: an officer, alchemist, attorney, three proprietors, three underwriters, a brace of poets, a baronet, and a night commander of the Bath.

A few well known people found their ways into debtors’ prisons. Sheridan, the playwright, was under arrest for debt in 1814. Hogarth’s father was imprisoned for debt. Theodor von Neuhoff, who was briefly King of Corsica, and until recently had a pub in Soho named after him, spent times in the King’s Bench. I think it’s now called the Slug and Ferret, or something – it was called the King of Corsica.

The most famous inmate of The King’s Bench in the early 19th century was Lord Cochran. He was a noble hero, but he got involved in a famous stock exchange fraud of 1814, and as a result was imprisoned in the King’s Bench. This is how he did it. And, he writes this kind of very self-aggrandising autobiography. How he describes it, he got some rope, and he climbed over from one wall to the other, and he climbed down a wall, and then he … he let go of the rope, and he kind of knocked himself out, but woke up just in time before dawn broke, and escaped. And, that was that. Except that none of the staff noticed that he’d escaped. He escaped on a … on a Monday, sixth of March, it was, in … 1815, and nobody noticed. And then, on Thursday … and this is like, the civil servant’s ultimate nightmare, what I’m about to describe to you now … on the Thursday, a committee of MPs decided to conduct an inspection of the prison. [Laughter]. And, they said to themselves, let’s go and see our mate, Lord Cochran, we know he’s in here. [Knocking] … on the cell door. No answer. Opened the door, no Lord Cochran. [Laughing]. A complete, kind of, nightmare for the Governor.

Anyway, eventually, Cochran gives himself up, and he pays his debts, and he goes to Chile, where he becomes a naval hero in Chile. And, there’s a memorial window to him, and there’s still a ship in the Chilean Navy named after him. One of the … the other alternatives to going to a debtors’ prison, if you had enough money, was to flee abroad. And, many slightly more wealthy debtors fled abroad, particularly to Boulogne. In 1857, there were 7,000 English people living in Boulogne, about a quarter of the town’s population. Harold Macmillan gave some of the flavour of this world in his famous speech on Selling the Family Silver:

‘In my younger days, I had friends who failed to make the distinction between capital and income, and they got on well. Then, the crash came, and they were forced to retire, either to some dingy lodging house in Boulogne, or if the trustees were more generous, to more decent accommodation in Baden-Baden.’

Dickens knew English exile community, as well, as he frequently travelled to the continent. Little Dorrit’s views of Venice, and you may not know she went to Venice, but she did, expressed his own opinions. It appeared, on the whole, to Little Dorrit, that this same society in which they lived, resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty much as people would come into the prison, through debt, idleness, relationships, curiosity, and a general unfitness for getting on at home. This was certainly true of those who lived in Boulogne. So many of them got into further trouble that the local debtors’ prison there was called ‘L’Hotel Anglais’ [Laughter].

It was also true of one of the villains of Nicholas Nickleby, Sir Mulberry Hawk. He lived abroad for some years, courted and caressed, and in high repute as a fine, dashing fellow, ultimately returning to this country, he was thrown into jail for debt. And there, perished miserably, as such high spirits generally do. Lots of other famous people lived abroad to escape their creditors: Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, she was in the King’s Bench twice, and the fled abroad to Calais, where she died in 1814. And, I think there’s a statue of her there.

Another was George Hudson, the railway king. He … in 1846, he had a quarter of the railways in Britain, but then he discovered it was all based on fraud, and so he was heavily in debt, and he had to flee abroad. But, he was an MP and he couldn’t be arrested while the House was sitting, so they led this curious life. He would come to London when the Parliament was sitting, and then, the day before, he would flee to … flee to the continent, and then, when the sessions started again, he’d come back. But, in 1859, he lost his seat, and he returned home in 1865, and spent three months as a debtor in York prison, until he was rescued by kind friends.

Two of the most extraordinary exiles were the gentlemen sportsmen: Nimrod and John Mytton. Nimrod [C J Apperley] was a … was a writer. He … he was a, kind of, foxhunting correspondent, and he was extremely lavish. He just … you know, spent huge amounts of money, and according to Certes, he demanded the best of clothes, the best of wines, the best of food, the best of horses, and all of this was paid by his magazine’s proprietor, the sporting magazine. When the proprietor dies, Nimrod’s out of a job. He has to flee to France, and he spends his years over in France continuing to write. And, one of the things he wrote, over there, was the life of John Mitten. Mitten was the ultimate English exile. He inherited an income of £10,000 a year, at the age of one, and he set out from an early age to waste it. He was expelled from Westminster and Harrow, and … after a short time in the army, where he gambled away much of his money, he settled down to a life of hunting, shooting and dressing up. At one time, he owned 152 pairs of breeches and trousers, and a pet bear, which he bought from a travelling showman, and he … one occasionally rode it into the dining room, wearing full hunting costume. By 1831, he’d spent his fortune, and he had to flee to Calais, where he met Nimrod. And … and his main occupation there was drinking, and he spent the time in a variety of French debtors’ prisons.

His downfall came when he set fire to his nightshirt to cure the hiccups. [Laughter]. I wouldn’t recommend you try this at home. Please don’t. Apparently, it worked, but he was badly burnt, and pretty much never recovered. According to Nimrod, it was ‘brandy, brandy, brandy, noon and night, which of course, drove him to madness, and of disposition to insult the French people, and this made it necessary to remove him.’ He went back to London where he died in … in the King’s Bench Prison.

One of the things which Dickens doesn’t mention is the large extent to which prisoners were helped by charities. And, from … the 1750s, the Craven Street Society was working with Saint Thomas’ hospital in London to secure the release of poor debtors. They did this by persuading the creditors to agree to accept reduced payments. In 1751, they paid out £34 to secure the release of 14 prisoners, whose total debts had amounted to £145. In 1772, this work was given a huge boost, when James Neild, a jeweller from Saint James’ Street set up the Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts. It was a large name, so they called it the Thatched House Society, from the tavern in Saint James’ Street where they met. Neild’s first fundraising event was a success. He persuaded the charismatic preacher, the Reverend William Dodds to preach sermon in the Charlotte Street Chapel. Dodds was a … a bit like John McCririck. He was a kind of … he hung around racetracks, and he was known as the ‘Macaroni Parson’, because of his flamboyant dress. And, they raised a lot of money, and spent it just releasing prisoners.

I’ve read the … the accounts of the Society, and the overwhelming impression is just, they’re … it’s just a hugely humane organisation. In the first year, it provides shirts and shoes to Simon Masters and John Davies, who it released from the Borough Counter.  It also helped an East India man, Francis St McClow, a foreign officer, Richard Dupont, who had no friend in England, John Hughes, who was deaf, and Richard Richards, a black seaman. It also reported that Mary Redal, whose fees it had paid, had been brought to bed of a fine boy, and it awarded her an extra pound.

By 1835, the Society had secured the release of 35,000 debtors, at a total cost of £164,000, and it still had nearly £100,000 in assets. Although it was a success, the Society’s founders, Dodds, and … and Neild, got into bad trouble, and Dodds forged a Bond on behalf of his pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield, and Chesterfield said he’d never signed the Bond, and Dodds was prosecuted and hanged. Neild died in 1814, but there was a, sort of, scandal in the papers, where it was revealed that he’d … he’d beaten his son, who’d fled to the West Indies, where he died. And so, the plans for a statue for him were dropped and, you know, his reputation went down.

Dickens doesn’t mention this charitable work because it doesn’t add to the dramatic story he’s trying to tell. From the beginning of the 19th century, it was obvious to some people that imprisoning people for debt was pointless, and there were a series of insolvent debtors’ acts which were passed between 1813, which allowed increasing numbers of prisoners to be released after short periods, By 1843 the Marshalsea was up for sale, and in 1846, the Fleet closed, leaving the King’s Bench, renamed the King’s Prison, and Whitecross Street, to house London’s debtors. Finally, in 1861, Whitecross Street became the only prison for London’s debtors.

Imprisonment for debt was finally abolished in 1869, ending centuries of misery. Although, debtors who had the means to pay their debt and didn’t do so, could still be incarcerated for up to six weeks. And, fraudulent debtors were still liable to be jailed.

What remains? Well, Whitecross Street has completely vanished.

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The Fleet, that’s what it looks like, now. Its City offices, just off Fleet Street. The people who work in those offices know far more about debt than people in the Fleet Prison. [Laughter]. The King’s Bench is now social housing.

[Shows image]

This is what it looks like. I’ll tell you a story about that. I went to take this photograph … some photographs of where the King’s Bench used to be, and this bloke, he was a big bloke, and he’s got some attack dog, and he comes up to me, and he puts his hand on my shoulder, and he … he says, “what … what are you doing? What are you doing here, mate? What are you doing here, taking photographs?” And, I think, oh, I’m going to be killed. I could die. [Laughter]. And, I thought quickly, and I said, “oh, my dad used to live round here, and I … I thought I’d send him some pictures.” And, he said, “What’s his name?” I said it was “Sid. Sid Thomas.” He said, “Oh, I think I knew him.” [Laughter]. And, he kind of patted me on the shoulder, and let me go.

Sorry. Yes. Anyway, you can go and see that. It’s … If you go to Borough … Borough Station, and walk south, you’ll come upon where the King’s Bench used to be. But, I wouldn’t advise it. And then, finally, the Marshalsea. When … when he finished Little Dorrit, Dickens went on a nostalgic trip to the Marshalsea. This is what he saw. He describes the scene in the preface:

‘Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea Jail. He will see its narrow yard to the right, and to the left, very little altered, if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among crowding ghosts of so many miserable years.’

And, we can still walk down Angel Court, and we can still follow Dickens’ footprints.

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That’s the wall of the Marshalsea, and the gatehouse. These … this is the … the only surviving relics of … of the London’s debtors’ prisons. And, across the road, a memorial to Little Dorrit. [Laughter]. That’s all I’ve got to say. Thank you very much.


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