The Marshalsea Prison in Borough, south London, housed a range of prisoners from the 14th century up until its closure in 1842. In the 19th century it was mainly used to imprison debtors and their families who, without financial support, had nowhere else to live. Consequently, the 19th century public popularly referred to it as a debtor's prison.
Prisoners were likely to fall even deeper into debt because the privately run prisons charged fees for ‘rent’, food and other comforts, as well as the inevitable lawyers and attorneys. For those who could afford it, the prison offered a restaurant, shops and a ‘drinking room’. As detailed by this engraved view and plan of the prison, dating to 1773, the prison also included a chapel and library.
The map reveals the close proximity between the prison and the High Street with its many inns; to the right of the engraving, however, you can see the tall brick wall which surrounded the site and kept prisoners inside. Part of this wall can still be seen today.
Charles Dickens’s father, John, was sent to the Marshalsea Prison in 1824 when Dickens was 12 years old. This period was to have a profound effect on Dickens’s writing career. Most notably, both the Marshalsea and the subject of debt appear in Little Dorrit, with the central character Amy Dorrit’s father William imprisoned there.