Marshalsea Prison, London.

This plaque is in the alley by the garden
The Marshalsea (1373-1842) was a notorious prison in Southwark, London, just south of the River Thames. It housed a variety of prisoners over the centuries, including men accused of crimes at sea and political figures charged with sedition, but it became known, in particular, for its incarceration of the poorest of London's debtors.[1] Over half the population of England's prisons in the 18th century were in jail because of debt.
Southwark Iron Bridge from Cooke's Views in London and its Vicinity
Little Doritt, BBC Drama
William Dorrit is the longest serving inmate of the Marshalsea Prison for Debt and is extremely proud of his title, 'Father of the Marshalsea', which is proof of how much respect he commands. In his deepest heart he knows that he's made an utter mess of his and his beloved children's lives, but he would never openly admit to this failure. For his sake, the family all keep up the pretence of respectability.
Little Doritt, BBC Drama
Charles Dickens
Instruments of torture used on prisoners, from a report by the Gaols Committee, 1729
Marshalsea Prison
Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1842, and all that remains today is a long brick wall and two gated arches.
The remains of the Marshalsea Prison in Borough, south London
This plaque is in the alley by the garden

The Governor indicted for murder

It isn’t possible with any certainty to say exactly when the first Marshalsea prison was built and opened. There are various reports that give various reports as when this happened, they give various dates stretching back to around the 1300’s. It is, however, reasonable to assume that in all probability it was built and opened sometime in the 14th Century as most reports state this.

I think it is safe to assume that this was a very rough and tough prison; there are numerous stories that state how prisoners died whilst in this prison through brutal and horrid treatment.

One fact is quite clear and that is that it was the most notorious prison in London. It was situated in Southwark just south of the River Thames. It housed a variety of prisoners over the centuries, including men accused of crimes as debtors and political prisoners that had been charged with sedition. It is a known fact that over half of the prison population in this country’s prisons in the 18th century were in prison because of debts.

Run for profit

In the 19th century all the prisons were run for profit. There were the debtors who could possibly afford the then prison fees which then gave them access to the bars, shops and restaurants that sprang up in these prisons. These debtors were also allowed out on ‘day-release’, which in turn allowed them to take up employment. This in turn allowed them to pay off their debts a little quicker and put prison life behind them.

It is known that the first Marshalsea Prison lasted for about 500 years while the second one lasted barely 38 years. However, the second prison became far more famous due to Charles Dickens, the author.

John Dickens

His father, John Dickens was sent there on the 20th February 1824 under the ‘Insolvent Debtor’s Act of 1813. His debt was £40 and 10 shillings; he owed this sum to his local baker, James Kerr. That was certainly a very large debt; these days that is roughly equivalent to the sum of some, £3,110.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was just 12 years old at this time, a bewildered little boy.  When his father was sent to prison he was sent to live in lodgings with a Mrs. Ellen Roylance, in Little College Street, Camden Town.  From this address he walked about 5 miles every day to warren’s blacking factory at No. 30, Hungerford Stairs, which was a factory owned by a relative  of his mother’s. He worked there for 10 hours a day wrapping bottles of shoe polish and was paid 6 shillings a week for his keep.

Elizabeth Barrow

His mother, Elizabeth Barrow, together with her three youngest children, joined her husband in Marshalsea Prison in April 1824. Meanwhile 12 year old Dickens would visit them every Sunday morning, his one and only day off.

He managed to then find lodgings in Lant Street as this was a bit closer to the prison. He had a very dingy room in the attic of a house belonging to the vestry clerk of nearby St. George’s Church. This then meant that he could go to the prison and have breakfast with his family.  He could also dine with them when he finished work.

His father was released after 3 months; actually it was on the 28th May 1824. Unfortunately the family’s financial situation remained very poor and Dickens was forced to work at the ‘blacking factory’, something for which he reportedly never forgave his mother.


Years later, Dickens wrote about the Marshalsea Prison situation as well as other debtor’s prisons in his book, ‘Pickwick Papers (1836-37,) David Copperfield (1849-50,) and mostly exclusively in ‘Little Dorrit’ (1855-57.)  The main character, Amy, was born in Marshalsea Prison. The story in this book captures almost exactly the 1820 conditions in that prison. His books didn’t exaggerate   the facts, if anything the book rather plays them down.

A murder by the Prison’s Governor.

In the 1720’s a William Acton ran the prison, the income from charities, was collected to buy food for the inmates and also for any medical attention when it was needed This was for those prisoners on the poor side of the prison and who really couldn’t afford to pay. However, this was directed instead to a group of ‘trustee’ prisoners, who were responsible for the policing of the prison on behalf of William Acton.

Acton was a cruel man, a bully in all the guises of his position. There is no doubt that the prisoners were totally frightened of him.

It was this same group of prisoners who later would give evidence for Acton at his trial, in a favourable way. In 1729 Acton was put on trial for the murder of one of his prisoners.

Both Acton and his wife lived in a very comfortable apartment near the Lodge. However they both knew they were sitting on a, what can only be described as a ‘powder keg’; when each morning the smell of freshly baked bread filled the yard. It was only the brutal suppression that could prevent the ‘Common side’ from erupting into a mutiny. These prisoners were not fed sufficient to pass as a good and healthy diet.

In 1726 Acton was placed in the court before Mr. Brian Cater, the judge for the wilful murder in 1726 of Thomas Bliss, a carpenter by trade but also a debtor. He was unable o pay his prison fees and therefore Bliss got very little to eat. As a result he tried to escape by throwing a rope over the wall, but his pursuers severed it and he then fell 20 feet into the prison yard. Acton was desperate to know who had supplied him with then rope. Bliss wouldn’t tell him and Acton beat him severely with ‘Bulls Pizzle. After this severe beating Acton then stamped on him, as hard as he could on his stomach while wearing his hard ‘hob nailed’ boots. This caused him even more pain. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, Acton then put him in a very damp hole, this was a space which was under the stairs and then, finally in the ‘strong room.’

This so called ‘Strong Room’ was originally built to hold pirates; this ‘strong room’ was a dirty and filthy place, very closely situated near the sewer. It was never cleaned; it had no drains, no sunlight and no fresh air of any kind. The stench that emitted from it was indescribable; it was simply described as ‘noisome.’ On top of   the smells and filth, it was also full of rats that enjoyed living under those circumstances.

Some of the prisoners stated that the room contained no beds and as a result prisoners had to sleep on the damp floor, together with human corpses, who were there awaiting their burial. However, the group of favoured prisoners told the court that, in fact, there was a bed there. In fact one prisoner alluded to the room being so comfortable that he chose to sleep there himself; that of course was totally untrue.

There was one prisoner who gave evidence and told the court that one dead prisoner’s left side had been mortified through sleeping on the damp floor and with another that a rat had eaten the nose, ear, cheek and left eye of the corpse.

Thomas Bliss

It was stated that Bliss was left in the strong room for a total of 3 weeks, wearing a skull cap (a very heavy vice for the head) as well as an iron collar and ankle irons. His legs had swollen to such a degree that the irons on his body could barely be seen.

Thomas Bliss was eventually released from prison and was very, very ill and straight away admitted to St. Thomas’s hospital, where he died.

The court was also told about three other prisoners who died under similar circumstances. These were Captain John Bromfield, Robert Newton and James Thompson.

Acton called some very prominent witnesses who were all professional people. Those who attended and spoke up on his behalf included a Judge, his own M.P. as well as a well known local solicitor. They all spoke about his excellent character.

At the end of the trial Acton was found not-guilty and discharged, returning back to work.

‘Life in the Marshalsea was reasonably comfortable and John Dickens quickly became president of the committee controlling the prison’s internal affairs.’ 

Unlike his father, however, Charles could not adapt to his new way of life.  He found the work hateful and humiliating: ‘no words,’ he later wrote,

‘can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship, compared these everyday associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast.’


A Bull’s Pizzle is a Bulls’ penis, which when sun-dried becomes very hard indeed.

Researched and written by David Rowland

Author and historian.

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.


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