Hiding In Plain Sight: Marshalsea Prison Wall
St George’s Churchyard Garden in Southwark is a fairly unassuming park. Today it’s overlooked by the Shard but up until the 19th century it would’ve been in the shadow of something far more sinister.
The Marshalsea Prison stood off Borough High Street for 40 years in the 1800s, but before then it was on a nearby site from the 14th century until moved locations in 1811.
The second building was demolished in 1842, so now all that’s left is a sturdy-looking brick wall.
That’s right. Enclosing the park is Southern Boundary of the Marshalsea Prison Wall, a Grade II listed piece of the jail.
If you step into the narrow alleyway on the other side of the park, won’t find it hard to image, as Dickens described; “the crowding ghosts of many miserable years” (we’ll come back to the novelist’s connection later).
The first Marshalsea was the most notorious, conditions were famously squalid, unhygienic and – eventually – deadly.
In 1729 it was the subject of a national scandal when a young architect, Robert Castell, fell into debt and was thrown into the Marshalsea. He was placed into a cell and forced to share a bed with a man dying of smallpox.
His protests were met with silence and Robert died within a month. In that same year a parliamentary committee reported that 300 inmates had starved to death in a period of 3 months, and 8 – 10 were dying each day during the warmer, Summer months.
Plaque on the garden side of the wall, Image in the public domain
Now, no one deserves this miserable existence. But we have to also remember that these weren’t ‘criminals’ as we’d consider today. The only crime they had committed was not being able to pay off debts.
This was shockingly common, and particularly in the early 19th century because of the South Sea Bubble crash of 1720. Many Londoners tumbled into debt and then into debtors prison. In the 1700s over half of England’s prison population were in jail for debt.
But how do you pay your debts in jail? A fair question and one the privately-owned prisons of the time seemed less than concerned by. In fact, in prison you had to pay for everything. Pay to have the luxury of your chains removed on arrival, pay for bedding, pay for laundry. Even if you died, your family had to pay to have your body released.
The Dickens Connection
Among the most notable prisoners at Marshalsea was Charles Dickens’ father. He was placed here in 1824 for a debt to a baker. The experience clearly traumatised the 12 year old Charles and he set one of his novels around the Marshalsea; Little Dorrit (1857).
Not too far away at Southwark Station is a reminder of this time in Dickens’ life. Still a child, he was pulled out of school and forced to work in a boot blacking factory to help the family. Each day he’d pass a shop sign of a dog and bowl on Blackfriars Road, a replica of which was installed in 2013.
“My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning on Blackfriars Road, which has Rowland Hill’s Chapel on one side and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot above a shop door on the other”.
John Dickens was lucky. He ended up being released after 6-8 weeks because he received some unexpected inheritance from an Aunt. Many weren’t as fortunate.
When the Marshalsea was eventually torn down by Act of Parliament in 1842, Dickens captured the mood in Little Dorrit;
“It is gone now; and the world is none the worse without it”
Further connections can be found in the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, where a section of a Marshalsea Prison window is saved as a reminder.
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