Marshalsea Prison: Background information when reading The Devil in the Marshalsea

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The Devil in the Marshalsea

by Antonia Hodgson

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson
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    Jun 2014, 400 pages

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Marshalsea Prison

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A fragment of a wall is all that is left of Marshalsea Prison.

But Charles Dickens has made sure that its memory lives on. His father was imprisoned in Marshalsea Prison in 1824. He owed forty pounds to a local baker (about 3000 pounds today). Charles scurried around the city trying to collect money on his father's behalf but it was insufficient and his father was arrested. Dickens was only twelve years old at the time. While the rest of his family moved into the prison with his father, he took up lodging nearby, worked full time and used the money to support them and his lodging. The whole experience left a huge, terrible impression on him; one that he never quite shook off. It showed up in his work often.

Marshalsea PrisonMarshalsea Prison was active from medieval times through 1842. The original gaol (prison) was on the south bank of the River Thames, near Mermaid Court in Southwark. The exact date of its construction is unknown. It was initially used to hold pirates and smugglers and other people who committed crimes at sea. It was destroyed by rebels in 1381, and then again in 1450. Under Elizabeth I, it was used as a prison for debtors, as well as dissenters. But it was also used to house people who simply defied authority. Poet Christopher Brooke was imprisoned at Marshalsea in 1609 for helping his friend John Donne marry Anne More – without Anne's father's consent.

Charles DickensA debtor's length of stay at Marshalsea was often at the whim of the creditor. The prison was run privately, and for profit, and spanned the gamut from luxurious to squalid. There were two separate area for prisoners - the master's side, which consisted of rooms for rent and the common side, where people were locked up. As long as they didn't cause trouble and paid their rent, families were allowed to live on the master's side, which was the case for Dickens' family. If a debtor could pay, he was allowed access to a bar and restaurant, as well as the privilege of leaving for the day, which was critical because then he could work, make money, pay off his creditor and, ultimately, be allowed to leave. Those who weren't so lucky, though, were crammed into small rooms, unable to pay off their (sometimes even modest) debts and then racked up prison fees on top of what they already owed.

Marshalsea Prison wallMarshalsea fell into such disrepair in 1811 that it was closed down. Rebuilt nearby, next to St. George's Church, the new prison is the one that Dickens knew so well. He described it in Little Dorrit as "an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top." He told John Forster (his biographer, critic and friend) what his father desperately said to him: " If a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched." Mr Micawber gives the same advice to David Copperfield in Dickens' most autobiographical novel. Charles Dickens kept his father's prison experience a secret his whole life.

Marshalsea Prison in the 18th century, uploaded by SlimVirgin.
A rendering of Charles Dicken's at work in a factory by Fred Bernard.
The remaining wall of the Marshalsea Prison, photo courtesy of SlimVirgin.

This article is from the June 18, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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