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CHAPTER XV THE DEBTORS' PRISON
There was another kind of Sanctuary in Southwark, a place of Refuge not invited, and of security against one's will—The Debtors' Prison. In fact, there were three Debtors' Prisons—the King's Bench, the Marshalsea, and the Borough Compter. The consideration of these melancholy places—all the more melancholy because they were full of noisy revelry—fills one with amazement to think that a system so ridiculous should be continued so long, and should be abandoned with so much regret, reluctance, and with forebodings so gloomy. There would be no more credit, no more confidence, if the debtor could not be imprisoned. Trade would be destroyed. The Debtors' Prison was a part of trade. It is fifty years and more since the power of imprisoning a debtor for life was taken from the creditor: yet there is as much credit as ever, and as much confidence. To a trading community such as ours it seems, naturally, that the injury inflicted upon a merchant by failing to pay his just claims is so great that imprisonment ought to be awarded to such an offender. The Law gave the creditor the power of revenge full and terrible and lifelong. The Law said to the debtor: 'Whether you are to blame or not, you owe money which you cannot pay: you shall be locked up in a crowded prison: you shall be deprived of your means of getting a livelihood: you shall have no allowance of food: you shall have no fire: you shall have no bed: you shall be forced to herd with a noisome unwashed crowd of wretches: and whereas a criminal may get off with{273} a year or two, you shall be sentenced to life-long imprisonment.'
REMAINS OF THE MARSHALSEA: N.E. VIEW. A, CHAPEL; B, PALACE COURT REMAINS OF THE MARSHALSEA: N.E. VIEW. A, CHAPEL; B, PALACE COURT
(From 'The Gentleman's Magazine,' September 1803)

The barbarity of the system, its futility, because the debtor was deprived of the means of making money to pay his debts, withal, were exposed over and over again: prisoners wrote accounts of their prisons: commissions held inquiry into the management of the prisons: regulations were laid down: Acts were passed to release debtors by hundreds at one time: the system of allowing prisoners to live in 'Rules' was tolerated: but the real evil remained untouched so long as a creditor had the power of imprisoning a debtor. The power was abused in the most monstrous manner: a man owed a few shillings: he could not pay: he was put into prison: the next day he discovered that he was in debt to an attorney for as many pounds. If he owed as much as 10l., the bill against him for his arrest amounted to 11l. 15s. 8d. of what we should now call 'taxed costs.' In the year 1759 there were 20,000 prisoners for debt in Great Britain and Ireland. Think what that means: all those were in enforced idleness. Why, their work at 2s. a day means 600,000l. a year: all that wealth{274} lost to the State: nay more, because they were mostly married men with families: their families had to be maintained, so that not only did the country lose 600,000l. a year by the idleness of the debtors, it also lost that much again for the maintenance of their families. Put it in another way. A poor man knowing one trade which one cannot practise in a prison owed, say, 15s. He was arrested and put into prison. He lived there for thirty years. He lived on doles and the proceeds of the begging box, and what his friends could give him: he lived, say, on five shillings a week. He cost some one therefore; the charitable people who dropped money into the box; the community; for his maintenance in the prison, and for thirty years of it, the sum total of 400l. This is rather an expensive tax on the State: but the tradesman to whom he owed the money considered no more than his own 15s. In addition there were his wife and children to keep until the latter were self-supporting. This charge represented perhaps another 400l. But there were 20,000 debtors in prison. If they were all in like evil case, the State was taxed on their behalf in the sum of sixteen millions spread over thirty years, or half a million a year, because these luckless creatures could not pay an insignificant debt of a few shillings or a few pounds.

The King's Bench was the largest of all the Debtors' Prisons. It formerly stood on the east side of the High Street, on the site of what is now the second street north of St. George's Church. This prison was taken down in 1758, and the Debtors were removed to a larger and much more commodious place on the other side of the street south of Lant Street—the site is now marked by a number of new and very ugly houses and mean streets. When it was built it looked out at the back of St. George's Fields and across Lambeth Marsh, then an open space, and by this time drained. But the good air without was fully balanced by the bad air within.{275}

The place was surrounded by a very high wall, the area covered was extensive, and the buildings were more commodious than had ever before been attempted in a prison. But they were not large enough. In the year 1776 the prisoners had to lie two in a bed, and even for those who could pay there were not beds enough, and many slept on the floor of the chapel. There were 395 prisoners: in addition to the prisoners many of them had wives and children with them. There were 279 wives and 725 children: a total of 1,399 sleeping every night in the prison. There was a good water supply, but there was no infirmary, no resident surgeon, and no bath. Imagine a place containing 1,399 persons, and no bath and no infirmary!
KING'S BENCH PRISON KING'S BENCH PRISON

Among these prisoners, about a hundred years ago, was a certain Colonel Hanger, who has left his memoirs behind him for the edification of posterity. According to him, the prison 'rivalled the purlieus of Wapping, St. Giles, and St. James's in vice, debauchery, and drunkenness.' The general immorality was so great that it was only possible, he says, to escape contagion by living separate or by consorting{276} only with the few gentlemen of honour who might be found there: 'otherwise a man will quickly sink into dissipation: he will lose every sense of honour and dignity: every moral principle and virtuous disposition.' Among the prisoners in Hanger's time, there were seldom fifty who had any regular means of sustenance. They were always underfed. At that time a detaining creditor had to find sixpence a day for the prisoner's support. But in 1798 a pound of bread cost 4?d., a pint of porter 2d.: therefore a man who had to live on 6d. a day could not get more than a pound of bread and a half pint of porter. And then the 6d. a day was constantly withheld on some pretence or another, and the poor prisoner had not the wherewithal to engage an attorney to secure his rights. And as for attorneys their name stank in the prison: more than half of the prisoners, Hanger avers, were kept there solely because they could not pay the attorneys' costs.

Those prisoners who knew any trade which could be carried on in the King's Bench were fortunate. The cobbler, the tailor, the barber, the fiddler, the carpenter, could get employment and were able to maintain themselves: some of them kept shops, and the principal building in the place, about 360 feet long, had its ground floor, looking out upon an open court, occupied by shops where everything could be bought except spirits, which were forbidden. They were brought in, however, secretly by the visitors. The open court was the common Recreation Ground: there was the Parade, a Walk along the front of the building: three pumps where were benches: these were three separate centres of conversation: there were racket and fives courts: a ground for the play called 'bumble puppy.' And in fine weather there were tables set out here and there, with chairs and benches, where the collegians drank beer and smoked tobacco.
THE KING'S BENCH PRISON The King's Bench Prison

Anybody might enter the Prison to visit an inmate or to look round: every day the place was thronged with visitors,{277} chiefly to see the new comers: the time came when the newcomer was an old resident, who had worn out the kindness of his friends or had outlived them, and now lingered on, poor and friendless, in this living grave. All day long the children played in the court, shouting and running: they saw things that they ought not to have seen: they heard things which they ought not to have heard: they learned habits which they ought not to have learned. Can one conceive a worse school for a boy than the King's Bench Prison? Look at the Court on a fine and sunny afternoon. The whole College is out and in the open: some stroll up and down: in the Prison nobody ever walks: they all stroll: even, it may be said without{278} unkindness, they slouch. The men wear coats which are mostly in holes at the elbows, with other garments that equally show signs of decay: they wear slippers because it is absurd to wear boots in a prison: the slippers are down at heel—never mind: no one cares here whether one is shabby or not: it is better to go ragged than to go hungry. If the men are ragged the women are slatternly: they have lost even the feminine desire to please: they please nobody, and certainly not their husbands: they are shrewish as to tongue and vicious as to temper. Look at their faces: there is this face and that face, but there is not a single happy face among them all. The average face is resentful, painted with strong drink, stamped with the seal of vice and self-indulgence. A vile place, which has imprinted its own vileness on the face of everyone who lives within its walls.

A worse place than the King's Bench was a wretched little Prison called the Borough Compter. It was used both for debtors and for criminals. Now you shall hear what marvellous thing in the way of cruelty can be brought about when the execution of the law is entrusted to such men as prison warders and turnkeys.

The place consisted of a women's ward, a debtors' ward, a felons' ward, and a yard for exercise. The yard was nineteen feet square: this was the only exercising ground for all the prisoners. When Buxton visited the place in the year 1817, there were then thirty-eight debtors, thirty women, and twenty children—all had to exercise themselves in this little yard: he does not say how many felons there were. The debtors' ward consisted of two rooms, each of which was twenty feet long and about nine feet broad. Each room was furnished with eight straw beds, sixteen rugs, and a piece of timber for a pillow. Twenty prisoners slept side by side on these beds! That gives a breadth of twelve inches for each. No one therefore could move in bed. The place was shut up: in the morning the heat and stench were so awful that when the{279} door was opened all rushed together, undressed as they were, into the yard for fresh air. Now and then a man would be brought in with an infectious disease or covered with vermin: they had to endure his company as best they could. There was no infirmary: no surgeon: no conveniences whatever in case of sickness. And the place was so crowded that those who might have carried on their trade could not for want of space. As for the women's ward, I forbear to speak. Think, however, of the noisome, horrible, stinking place, narrow and confined, with its felons' ward of innocent and guilty, tried and untried: the past masters in villainy with the innocent country boy: the honest working man with his wife and children slowly starving and slowly poisoned by the brutal law which permitted a creditor to send him there for life for a paltry debt of a few shillings. Think of the simple-minded country girl thrust into the women's ward, where wickedness was authorised, where nothing was disguised! I sometimes ask whether in the year 1998 the historian of manners will call attention to the lamentable brutality of this the end of the nineteenth century. There are some points as to which I am doubtful. But I cannot believe that there will be anything alleged against us compared with the sleek complacency with which the City Fathers and the Legislators regarded the condition of the Debtors' Prisons.

I have not forgotten the Marshalsea. The position of the Marshalsea Prison was changed from its first site south of King Street in the year 1810, when it was removed to the site which it occupied down to the end, overlooking St. George's Churchyard. The choice of that site is a good illustration of English conservatism. Why was the Marshalsea brought there? Because there had been a prison on the spot before. From time immemorial the Surrey Prison had stood there. They called the place the White Lyon. It still stood when the Marshalsea was brought there: it was still standing when the Marshalsea was pulled down.{280}

I think it was in the year 1877 or 1878 or thereabouts that I walked over to see the Marshalsea before it was pulled down. I found a long narrow terrace of mean houses—they are still standing: there was a narrow courtyard in front for exercise and air: a high wall separated the prison from the Churchyard: the rooms in the terrace were filled with deep cupboards on either side of the fireplace: these cupboards contained the coals, the cooking utensils, the stores, and the clothes of the occupants. My guide, a working man employed on the demolition of another part of the Prison, pointed to certain marks on the floor as, he said, the place where they fastened the staples when they tied down the poor prisoners. Such was his historic information: he also pointed out Mr. Dorrit's room—so real was the novelist's creation. At the east end of the terrace there were certain rooms which I believe to have been the tap-room and the coffee-room. Then we came to the White Lyon, which at the time I did not know to have been the White Lyon. It was a very ancient building. It consisted of two rooms, one above the other: the staircase and the floors were of most solid work: the windows were barred: bars crossed the chimney a few feet up: large square nails were driven into the oaken pillars and into the doors. The lower room had evidently been kitchen, day room, sleeping room and all. Outside was a tiny yard for exercise: this was the old Surrey Prison. I have seen another prison exactly like it, and, if my memory does not play tricks, it was at the little country town of Ilminster. This was a Clink, and on this pattern, I believe, all the old Prisons were constructed. Beyond the Clink was the chapel, a modern structure. So far as I know, Mr. Dickens père, and Mr. Dorrit, were the only persons of eminence confined in this modern Marshalsea. In the older Marshalsea all kinds of distinguished people were kept captive, notably Bishop Bonner, who died there. They say that it was necessary to bury him at midnight for fear of the people, who would have rent his dead{281} body in pieces if they could. Perhaps. But it was not at any time usual for a mob of Englishmen to pull a dead body, even of a martyr-making Marian Bishop, to pieces. Later on, in the last century, it was the rule to bury at night. The darkness, the flicker of the torches, increased the solemnity of the ceremony. So that after all Bishop Bonner may have been buried at night in the usual fashion. He lies buried somewhere in St. George's Churchyard. It is now a pretty garden, whose benches in fine weather are filled with people resting and sunning themselves: in spring the garden is full of pleasant greenery: the dead parishioners to whom headstones have been consecrated, if they ever visit the spot, may amuse themselves by picking out their own tombstones among the illegible ones which line the wall. But I hardly think, wherever they may now be quartered, they would care to revisit this place. The owners of the headstones were in their day accounted as the more fortunate sons of men: they were vestrymen and guardians and churchwardens: they owned shops: they kept the inns and ran the stage coaches and the waggons and the caravans: their tills were heavy with guineas: their faces were smug and smiling: their chins were double: they talked benevolent commonplace: they exchanged the most beautiful sentiments: and they crammed their debtors into these prisons.

There are other tenants of this small area: they belonged to the great army—how great! how vast! how rapidly increasing!—of the 'Not-quite-so-fortunate.' They were brought here from the King's Bench and the Marshalsea: they came from the Master's side and from the Common side. They came here from the mean streets and lanes of the Borough: they were the porters and the fishermen and the rogues and the grooms and the 'service' generally. This churchyard represents all that can be imagined of human patience, human work, human suffering, human degradation. Everything is here beneath our feet, and we sit among these memories unmoved and enjoy the sunshine and forget the sorrows of the past.


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