From the 14th to the 19th century, the Marshalsea was one of England’s most infamous prisons. Located in Southwark on the south bank of the River Thames, it housed mainly debtors arrested under cruel laws that allowed indefinite imprisonment for even small debts. The Marshalsea was notorious for its horrific conditions, endemic disease, violence, and neglect.
Although it held political figures and pirates, the Marshalsea became synonymous with London’s destitute debtors. Its grisly reputation was sealed by none other than Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there when Dickens was just 12 years old. The prison became the backdrop for several of Dickens’ novels and an enduring symbol of social injustice.
History and Overview
Origins and Early History
The Marshalsea occupied two buildings along Borough High Street in Southwark. The first prison dated back to 1372, when local residents were granted a license to build a jail for prisoners awaiting trial in the Marshalsea Court.
Conditions were brutal from the start. Riots and violence regularly broke out among the impoverished prisoners. By the 16th century, the decaying building housed primarily Catholics implicated in political unrest. It also became a holding cell for intellectuals, poets, smugglers, pirates, and radicals.
Notable Prisoners in the Early Years
Some of England’s most prominent artists and thinkers were locked up in the old Marshalsea over the centuries, including:
- Ben Jonson – Playwright, poet, and friend of Shakespeare, imprisoned in 1597 for his play The Isle of Dogs
- John Selden – Jurist, jailed in 1629 for drafting the Petition of Right
- George Wither – Poet, held for libel in 1614 for satirizing ambition and lust
- Sir John Eliot – Politician charged with questioning the King’s right to tax
Conditions in the First Marshalsea
The old Marshalsea was divided into two sections:
Wealthier prisoners who could afford weekly rents stayed on the Master’s Side. This offered access to private rooms, a bar, shops, and other amenities.
Poorer prisoners were crammed into tiny, windowless rooms called “wards” on the Common Side. As many as 300 people were locked in these airless, lightless rooms every night. Disease, starvation, and violence were rampant.
1729 Parliamentary Inquiry
After numerous inmate deaths, Parliament launched an inquiry in 1729. Investigators were appalled to find prisoners chained to the floor, malnourished, and tortured with skullcaps and thumbscrews. The warden was put on trial for murder but controversially acquitted.
Trial of William Acton
William Acton, deputy warden of the Marshalsea, was charged with murdering prisoners in 1729. Witnesses testified about beatings, starvation, and the “strong room” where sick inmates were left to die. Despite ample evidence, Acton was acquitted to avoid embarrassing the crown.
Closure and Demolition of the First Marshalsea
By the early 1800s, the original Marshalsea was crumbling and decrepit. The remaining inmates were relocated to a new prison built in 1811 on Borough High Street. Most of the old Marshalsea was torn down in the 1870s.
The Second Marshalsea (1811-1842)
Overview and Description
The new Marshalsea prison opened in 1811 on Borough High Street. Although intended as an improvement, it remained grotesquely overcrowded and unsanitary.
The prison consisted of a small exercise yard, taproom, chapel, and men’s and women’s quarters. Hundreds of debtors were crammed into tiny, barred rooms often originally meant for one.
Life for Debtors
Over half the Marshalsea’s prisoners were there for debts under £20. Unable to pay jail fees, they faced starvation, disease, and often death. Wealthier inmates could afford private rooms and privileges.
Garnish and Chummage
Upon arrival, new prisoners were forced to pay “garnish” to the existing inmates. They would also pay “chummage” to share a tiny room with other prisoners, often sleeping in shifts.
Women and Children
Wives, lovers, and children often lived inside the prison with male debtors. Women endured constant threats of sexual assault and gave birth alone in their cells. There was no separation of women and men.
A section of the prison housed smugglers, mutineers, and sailors accused of crimes at sea. These prisoners frequently mixed and mingled with the debtors despite officials’ efforts to stop it.
Charles Dickens and His Family
Charles Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt in 1824, when Dickens was just 12 years old. Forced to leave school to work at a factory, Dickens based many famous characters on his Marshalsea experience.
Final Years and Closure
The Marshalsea was shut down in 1842, and its prisoners transferred to other London jails. An 1849 law abolished the Court of the Marshalsea, ending a five-century history of the prison known for its squalor and suffering.
The Marshalsea in Literature
The Marshalsea is immortalized in Charles Dickens’ fiction, especially Little Dorrit, whose main character is born there. Dickens condemned the prison’s exploitation of the poor, helping drive prison reform. Later writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Angela Carter, and J.K. Rowling have also referred to the notorious Marshalsea.
Remaining Traces Today
Most of the Marshalsea was demolished in the 1870s. All that survives is a brick wall that marked the prison’s southern boundary, now part of a small local park. A plaque explains the wall’s significance, and Borough tube station sits on the former prison site.
For centuries, the Marshalsea embodied England’s brutal treatment of its poor. Thousands suffered starvation, disease, and violence at the prison until mounting reform efforts led to its closure. Although only fragments now remain, the legacy of the Marshalsea lives on through Charles Dickens’ searing indictments of injustice and inequality in his novels. Dickens gave voice to those forgotten men, women, and children, and their stories still resonate today.
Who were the main prisoners held at the Marshalsea?
The Marshalsea mainly held London’s poorest debtors, although it also imprisoned religious and political prisoners, smugglers, sailors, and pirates over the centuries.
Why was it called the Marshalsea?
Marshalsea referred to the Knight Marshal, who oversaw the Marshalsea Court associated with the prison. The jail held prisoners awaiting trial at this court.
What conditions were like at the prison?
Conditions were horrific, with severe overcrowding, endemic disease, starvation, torture, and violence. Wealthier prisoners could pay for food and private rooms.
How did the Marshalsea impact Charles Dickens?
When Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt in 1824, the 12-year-old Dickens was forced to leave school and work at a factory. This traumatic experience inspired his novels.
When did the Marshalsea finally close?
After hundreds of years of operation, the Marshalsea prison was shut down in 1842 under reforms. Most buildings were demolished in the 1870s.