The most notorious of five dreadful prisons in Southwark, the Marshalsea was exposed in all its depravity by Charles Dickens, whose father was incarcerated there for a minor debt to a baker. He described it vividly in several of his novels, including Little Dorrit.
The original prison was built in 1373 on what is now Borough High Street and lasted until replaced by a second one (1811-1842) on a different site nearby, the southern wall of which, complete with entrance gates, can still be seen from the small park behind the church of St George the Martyr. It is easily recognisable from the BBC’s Little Dorrit TV series.
Wikipedia aptly says the privately run institution “looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned as an extortion racket”. Although it housed intellectuals – Ben Jonson the playwright was incarcerated there in 1597 for sedition – and sexual deviants, it was as a debtors’ prison that it achieved notoriety.
Putting debtors in jail made it even less likely that they would repay what they owed, not least because prison fees were added to their liabilities unless they could bribe their way into being released during the day as richer inmates did. Conditions were so atrocious that in 1729 an official government report stated that 300 inmates were known to have starved to death in a period of three months. Hard Times.
Previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London are archived here. An excellent history of Marshalsea prison was published last year by historian Jerry White, a friend of this website. More on that here.