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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Marshalsea Prison

North Southwark was home to some of London’s most notorious prisons, dating back to medieval times when the function of a prison was different to how prisons are used today. Even more so, the way prisons were run was very different as they were privately run with no state regulation, leaving prisoners at the mercy of the Marshals or keepers of the prisons who took every opportunity to extort money from prisoners, using violence if necessary, for their most basic needs. Prisoners were charged, sometimes at double the price, for fuel, lighting, food, drink, rooms, beds and bedding. For a price, the keeper would also remove the prisoners’ manacles and chains.


By and large, until the 16th century prisons were used for the confinement of those who had been arrested and were awaiting trial or for those who had been found guilty and were awaiting execution, payment of fines or other punishment. Whilst the death penalty was used for the most severe crimes, punishment took the form of a whipping, the stocks, the pillory, the ducking stool and, increasingly in later times, transportation. However those who owed money could be imprisoned at the will of their creditors until they had received payment, and debtors made up a large part of the prison population.


In 1698 the Gaol Act had stipulated that the accused should be housed in gaols maintained and built by the County rather than in private gaols. The Surrey Gaol was housed for a while in the former White Lion Inn in Borough High Street where those awaiting transportation and trials were imprisoned. By 1770 it was condemned as too small and in too bad a state of repair for its purpose, and although it was enlarged, a new county gaol was built in Horsemonger Lane in Newington between 1791 and 1799 next to a session house.


Now criminals were confined in county gaols, this led to debtors as the main class of prisoner in the private gaols which included The Clink, Marshalsea Prison and the King’s Bench Prison. The keepers at these prisons were not paid a salary and made their money for what they could extract from the prisoners. This of course led to corruption. Hepworth Dixon wrote in 1850 “Money, powerful everywhere, was omnipotent in these prisons. Everything could be done with it, without it, nothing.” Without it life was utterly wretched and miserable and although charitable bequests were made for the destitute prisoners, in reality they saw very little of it as the keepers intercepted it and kept most for themselves, or it went to a group of prisoners at the top of the hierarchy within the prisoner community.


The Marshalsea Prison probably dates back to the early 14th century. The Marshalsea was under the jurisdiction of the Knight Marshall and initially held members of the King’s household arrested for misdemeanours. It also housed prisoners of the Admiralty who had committed piracy or smuggling and those accused of sedition or showing contempt to the Royal Court.


The Marshalsea  received an early reputation for cruelty, the keeper in 1381 was described as a “tormentor without pity”. In 1561, the prison held 34 inmates, of which four were imprisoned for religious offences, several for marine offences and only one debtor. By the 17th century, the majority of prisoners were debtors though the Admiralty still sent prisoners. Conditions were brutal. In 1629 one prisoner had complained that even though an order had come through for his release, he was left naked and hungry as he was unable to pay the prison charges. Ten years later the prisoners rioted partly provoked by 23 women being lodged in a room so small they were unable to lie down.


There were two distinct sections where the prisoners were housed. The Master’s Side was for the wealthy with 50 rooms available which generally had to be shared with other prisoners. In this part of the prison there was a tap-room, a shop that sold food and candles, a coffee house, a tailor and a barber, some of these business operated by the prisoners. Those prisoners unable to pay for the comparative comfort of Master’s Side were housed in the Common Side which was totally separate from the Master’s Side. Indeed prisoners on the Master’s Side were unable to even see the misery of the Common Side prisoners who lived in abject poverty. There were nine small rooms which housed 300 people and prisoners were subjected to a regime of brutality, torture and cruelty.


In 1729 a commission was appointed to investigate conditions. At that time there were 401 prisoners in the Marshalsea. It was found that Marshalsea prisoners were regularly beaten, locked up with human carcasses and tortured with irons. Thumb screws and iron hoods were used. Many prisoners died of starvation. There were so many confined in such a small space that in warmer weather eight to ten prisoners were stifled to death every 24 hours. Though the prison was technically under the control of the Knight Marshal, he hired someone else to run the prison who in turn had leased the position out to William Acton. As a result of the revelations, Acton was tried for the murder of Thomas Bliss, one of the inmates. Bliss had received horrendous treatment and the evidence compelling but nevertheless, as the government wished to protect the Knight Marshal, Acton was found not guilty after a string of good character witnesses.


When the Surrey Gaol moved from their premises in Borough High Street to Horsemonger Lane, the Marshalsea moved onto the site which Dickens described in Little Dorritt as “an oblong pile of barrack building partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there was no back room; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top.” Charles Dickens had first hand experience of the Marshalsea as his father was imprisoned there for debt along with Charles Dickens’ mother and three of his siblings.


The Marshalsea Prison was closed by Act of Parliament in 1842 and the prisoners transferred to King’s Bench Prison, which was now called the Queen’s Prison, or to Bethlem Hospital if suffering from mental illness. Finally in 1869 an Act of Parliament ended the practice of imprisoning debtors.


Marshalsea Prison 1812-2 Marshalsea Prison Wall

All that remains of the Marshalsea today is a wall to the side of John Harvard Library facing onto St George’s Gardens.