A micro-history of London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries —the story of the capital’s notorious debtors’prison, immortalised by Charles Dickens.
For Londoners debt was part of everyday life. The poor depended on credit from shopkeepers and landlords to survive, but the rich too were often deep in debt to finance their luxurious lifestyle. When creditors lost their patience both rich and poor would be thrown into one the capital’s debtors’prisons where they could linger for years.
The most notorious of them was the Marshalsea. In the eighteenth century, the prison became a byword for misery; in the words of one of its inmates, it was ‘hell in epitome’. But the Marshalsea was also a microcosm of London life, and whereas its poorest inmates lived in fear of starvation, the wealthy carried on as they would in the outside world, employing servants and entertaining guests.
In 1824 Charles Dickens’s father was detained here and the experience deeply scarred the writer who lived in fear of debt —and a similar fate — for the rest of his life. He would immortalise the prison in his novels, most memorably in Little Dorrit.
Jerry White, acclaimed chronicler of the capital, tells the story of the Marshalsea through the life-stories of those who had the bad fortune to be imprisoned there —rich and poor; men and women; spongers, fraudsters and innocents. In the process he gives us a fascinating and unforgettable slice of London life from the early 1700s to the 1840s.