Monday, 7 March 2016

Behind the Iron Gates of Marshalsea

After a five minute walk from Borough tube station, I found myself standing before two iron gates and a small plaque on a wall. This bleak scene is all that remains of Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. Glancing up at the brick wall and the spiked gates, I imagined the misery and solitude they caused for people some 200 years before. The story of Little Dorrit (1857) by Charles Dickens came to mind as I imagined the life of one born into this prison environment with no hopeful prospect of leaving. I recalled a description of these very gates used by Dickens in the text: “the gate jarred heavily and hopelessly […] With the funeral clang that it sounded into Arthur’s heart, his sense of weakness returned” (720). My trip to Marshalsea made me consider what life was like for those who were detained behind these gates and the impact they had for those on the outside.
Figure 2. Iron Gates of Marshalsea -
Outside the Prison
Figure 1. Iron Gates of Marshalsea -
Inside the Prison, "in the shadow
of the Marshalsea wall" (Little Dorrit, 250)

Figure 3. Sign by the Marshalsea Gates
Figure 4. Sign on Footpath outside Marshalsea Gates
Figure 5. Little Dorrit Court SE1
Victorian Debt
The Victorian era was rife with poverty and devastation. From workhouses, child labour and slums to crime, prostitution and disease the era was overwhelmed with misery for the working class. With these desperate conditions to contend with, it is easy to see how many people became victims to the cruel debtor system that dominated the nineteenth century. Low wages meant that people were unable to afford daily essentials and so they turned to purchasing items through credit – rather like a modern day bar tab but in bakeries and clothing shops. These credits were ever-growing and people often found themselves unable to cope with their arrears. This struggle was common among the working class and was even transferred into the era’s literature, for instance, in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Mrs Vincent fled her home as she could not afford to pay her bread charges. The local baker said: “That lady owes me upwards of eleven pound for bread, and it’s rather more than I can afford to lose” (181). Debt was devastating and not only meant you had “slipped down to the depths or degradation and disgrace” (Little Dorrit, 681) in society, but it also meant that you ran the even greater risk of being sent to a debtors’ prison – a threat that chilled any Victorian to the bone. Escaping this dreadful fate was near impossible. Some Victorians even resorted to suicide, for example, Mr Merdle in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, who killed himself with a penknife to avoid the traumatic consequences of bankruptcy. Jerry White comments on this link between Victorian debt and suicide: “Debt was the stuff of nightmare […] A cut-throat razor was the shortest way out of Queer Street. No wonder indebtedness was such a prominent theme in nineteenth-century fiction, especially the novel set in London” (216). People contended with extremes in order to escape their arrears. However, for those left with no alternative, their only option was the cold, hard world behind the iron gates.

Marshalsea: A Place of Mental and Physical Detainment
Figure 6. Instruments of Torture
used on Marshalsea Prisoners, 1729
Marshalsea, 1373-1842, was one of the four main debtors’ prisons that were active in London during the nineteenth century. The Bankruptcy Act of 1869 – “An Act for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt” (62) – prevented people from being imprisoned for minor fees, however, before this act was passed creditors were free to send their debtors to prison for any sum of money, large or small. Due to these relaxed guidelines, Marshalsea was overcrowded and congested. As White claims: “these places held about 1,700 prisoners for debt, though in any year some 7,000 debtors entered their doors” (219). While in prison, debtors would complete labour work to pay off their arrears while also paying for their keep within the jail. If unable to afford these fees, it was not unheard of for inmates to be tortured by the turnkeys, especially during the eighteenth century. In his novel Little Dorrit, Dickens captures the horrors of life behind the notorious iron gates through the observations of Little Dorrit herself:
The spikes had never looked so sharp and cruel, nor the bars so heavy, nor the prison space so gloomy and contracted. She thought of the sunrise on rolling rivers, of the sunrise on the wide seas, of the sunrise on rich landscapes […] and she looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen (220).
Figure 8. Behind the Marshalsea Wall - Inside the Prison
Figure 7. "Part of the Site of Marshalsea Jail,
London" by Francis Hopkinson Smith

Antithesis in this passage weighs heavily upon the reader’s mind. The bright imagery of the naturalistic sunrises contrast sharply against the “gloomy” and dark “prison space”. Repetition of the phrase “so” amplifies the harsh conditions allowing one to imagine the daunting atmosphere within Marshalsea’s walls; inside the “living grave”. Through this quote, readers can wonder at Dickens’ feelings towards Marshalsea. By contrasting the pastoral sunrises against the confining prison gates, Dickens may be suggesting that these prisons are unnatural and avoidable. Amy Dorrit’s questioning tone causes us to wonder at the benefits of this establishment: “‘It seems to me hard,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘that he should have lose so many years and suffered so much, and at last pay all the debts as well. It seems to me hard that he should pay in life and money both’” (397). Amy’s logic is practical and provides an insight into the flawed Victorian legal system. Dickens, therefore, appears to be openly interrogating the benefits of Marshalsea and querying the humanity of the unnatural system.
Figure 9. Iron Gates of Marshalsea - Remains of Prison Entrance.
The space "between the free city and the iron gates" (Little Dorrit, 77)
Dickens also captures the mental torture of life “in the shadow of the Marshalsea wall” (250). In the latter portion of the novel, when Arthur is imprisoned, the narrator writes:

[A] burning restlessness set in, an agonised impatience of the prison, and a conviction that he was going to break his heart and die there, which caused him indescribable suffering. […] The sensation of being stifled sometimes so overpowered him, that he would stand at the window holding his throat and gasping (713).

Inside Marshalsea’s gates, prisoners faced inner destruction. The “burning restlessness” and “agonised impatience” felt by Arthur shows that the impact of his imprisonment was so severe, his mental pain transitioned into an excruciating physical pain. In this quote, Dickens has used long sentences that are abundant with images of suffering, this abundance is overwhelming and mirrors Arthur’s “overpowered” sensations; the reader, too, feels “stifled” against Marshalsea’s detainment and the “prison’s poverty” (713). Again we can wonder at Dickens’ intentions with this quote: is he questioning the benefits of the Victorian debtor system? Arthur’s chaotic and scattered emotions were not uncommon among the Marshalsea population. As Arthur L. Hayward writes: “debtors passing through [had] the same gamut of hope, despair and indifference” (232). Through the use antithesis and chaotic descriptions, we learn that the gates of Marshalsea enclosed traumatised prisoners who were “deteriorated by confinement” (6). The site mentally and physically deprived the capabilities of it’s inmates, causing Dickens and his readers to question the logic and humanity of these establishments within Victorian England. Sympathy for debtors is a constant theme in Dickens’ literature. For instance, the Micawber family in David Copperfield (1850) and the debtors in his first novel The Pickwick Papers (1836): “Pray, remember the poor debtors; pray, remember the poor debtors” (554).

Marshalsea, Charles Dickens and Little Dorrit

Despite the negative descriptions of Marshalsea used by Dickens, it is often described as ‘home’ by Amy. For instance, when she is talking to Arthur in Chapter 22: “‘Don’t call it home, my child!’ he entreated. ‘It is always painful to me to hear you call it home.’ ‘But it is home! What else can I call home?’” (249). It is possible that Little Dorrit is semi-autobiographical. The novel was published serially between 1855-1857, but was set “thirty years ago” (5) when Dickens was a child himself. During his childhood from February – May 1824 his father, John Dickens, was imprisoned in Marshalsea as he owed James Kerr, a local baker, £40 and 10 shillings. David Rowland comments: “That was certainly a very large debt; these days that is roughly the equivalent to the sum of some, £3,110” (Old Police Cells Museum).

Figure 11. John Dickens, prisoner at Marshalsea, 20th February 1824
While his family lived in Marshalsea, Charles, aged twelve, was forced to work in a blackening factory and live completely independently. During these months, perhaps the jail was the only connection he had to a “home” as that was where he could find his family and seek refuge from the working world. Perhaps “The Father of the Marshalsea” (58) was actually Dickens’ ‘Father at the Marshalsea’. Thus, we wonder whether Dickens’ negative associations and criticisms of the prison are a direct result of his childhood sufferings and his father’s imprisonment.
Figure 12. Inscription on the Floor

I conclude that the world behind the iron gates of Marshalsea was one of physical and mental torment, both for the “faded crowd [the gates] shut in” (69), such as, Mr Dorrit or John Dickens, and for those living outside who were forced to deal with the consequences, for instance, Little Dorrit and Charles Dickens himself.

Work Cited:
Bankruptcy Act 1869, Victoria. Chapter 62. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1901. Web. 02 March 2016.

Braddon, M. E. Lady Audley’s Secret. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1997. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1996. Print.

Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1993. Print.

Hayward, A. L. The Days of Dickens. Hamden, Coun.: Shoestring Press Inc, 1968. Print.

Rowland, David. Old Police Cells Museum. Marshalsea Prison, London. {The Governor Indicted for Murder}. 2014. Web. 02 March 2016. <>

White, Jerry. London in the Nineteenth Century. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007. Print.

Images Cited:
Figure 1. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Iron Gates of Marshalsea – Inside the Prison”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 2. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Iron Gates of Marshalsea – Outside the Prison”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 3. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Sign by the Marshalsea Gates”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 4. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Sign on Footpath outside Marshalsea Gates”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 5. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Little Dorrit Court SE1”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 6. British History Online. “Instruments of Torture in the Marshalsea, 1729”. British History Online. 1955. Web. 06 March 2016. <>

Figure 7. Smith, F. H. “Part of the Site of Marshalsea Jail, London”. Project Gutenberg. 2008. Web. 06 March 2016. <>

Figure 8. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Behind the Marshalsea Wall – Inside the Prison”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 9. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Iron Gates of Marshalsea – Remains of Prison Entrance”. 2016. JPEG File.

Figure 10. British History Online. “The South Side of the North Front of Marshalsea, 1773”. 1955. Web. 06 March 2016. <>

Figure 11. Who Do You Think You Are?. “John Dickens, father of author Charles Dickens, was taken to Marshalsea in 1824 for falling in debt to a local baker (Credit: The National Archives)”. 2014. Web. 06 March 2016. <>

Figure 12. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Inscription on the Floor”. 2016. JPEG File.


  1. Phoebe, I really think you hit on some interesting points and talked about them thoroughly - it was a great read! I do agree with you, I think Charles Dickens was greatly affected by his stigmatised childhood as a result of his father's debts and this - without a doubt - influenced his writing of Little Dorrit. Your comparative pictures are great and the remains of Marshalsea offer today's Londoners with a reminder of the reality of debt and its consequences in Victorian Britain.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for your comments on my blog. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the post and discovering more about the history of London - events that occurred virtually on our doorsteps!

      I would definitely recommend you go and visit the prison's remains. They're hidden away in a little park but they have so much importance and weight in our cultural history!


  2. Hi Phoebe,
    What an engaging read. I found the details you provided of John Dicken's debts and imprisonment particularly fascinating -- and I wonder what he was buying at the baker's to rack up £3000 of debt! This blog deepened my understanding of many of the issues discussed in Victorian texts, and the fear that many lower-income families lived in. I wondered if you'd come across details of debtor's prisons in other parts of Britain? London debtor's prisons are notorious, but reports of them in other parts of the country seem much rarer.

    1. Hello Alastair,

      I'm glad you enjoyed reading my blog.

      I decided to focus my attention on the notorious Marshalsea due to it's connections to Dickens and his infamous Little Dorrit. London debtors' prisons were by far the largest and detained the most inmates, however, I also discovered that smaller prisons were set up around the country. In more rustic areas, debtors were even held in village-lock ups and castle cellars. Have a look here:

      Hope that helps to answer your question.


  3. Hey Phoebe,

    Your blog was a pleasure to read and very insightful. Very well researched and really did deepen my knowledge and I think I will most likely be going to visit the place myself.


    1. Hi Suhaama,

      Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed my post :)


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