Monday, July 9, 2018
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MANSIONS OF MISERY – A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison” by Jerry White (first published in 2016)
Please allow me to cheat. When I write this “Something Old” section of my blog, I usually deal (as the heading above says) with books four or more years old. But I am breaking this rule as I want to deal with a book published only two years ago, and which therefore cannot be called brand-new.
Why am I doing this?
Because the subject intrigues me.
Some time ago on this blog, I wrote a lengthy piece on Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, his novel set in London’s old Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. The prison had already been decommissioned at the time Dickens was writing but, bizarre though the concept of debtors’ prisons now seems to us, they loomed large in Dickens’ imagination as his scapegrace father John Dickens had served time in the Marshalsea. In fact debtors’ prisons appear briefly in other of Dickens’ novels as well, with episodes set in the Fleet prison in The Pickwick Papers and in a fictitious debtors’ prison in David Copperfield.
Jerry White’s Mansions of Misery is a brisk and engaging history of the Marshalsea, and of course Dickens is one of its stars, in part because it is only through Dickens that most people now have even heard of the Marshalsea. Fittingly, the cover design of Mansions of Misery features an illustration from Little Dorrit.
Jerry White is a popular historian who has written three general histories of London in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, as well as insitutional histories. After he wrote Mansions of Misery, he produced a book about London’s most notorious slum. Trained as a civil servant, White spent years as Public Health Inspector for Islington Council. This got him interested in the less savoury (and less sanitary) aspects of London’s history, and the books followed.
To orient us to his subject, White tells us in his Preface that Dickens-inspired popular imagination assumes the Marshalsea was always populated by “shabby-genteel lower-middle classes” who had got into debt through trade. But this was not always the clientele of the prison. In past ages, he says, debt was a very personal matter as there were no mechanisms to show how credit-worthy somebody was. Because of the scarcity of specie (coins – especially small change) it was easy to get into debt, and credit was almost universal. Many of those who got into debt were first locked in bailiffs’ sponging-houses before they were sent to debtors’ prison; and often it was a matter of months before a case concerning debt came to court. Therefore, the mere threat of imprisonment could be an effective tool in making careless debtors suddenly come up with the money that was owed. But – especially in the 18th century – there were often fraudulent means of getting people sent to prison. “Pettifoggers” were back-street “hedge” attorneys, who worked out of one-room offices, with at most one clerk to assist them. They would deliberately rack up fees to plunge their clients deep into debt, and then threaten imprisonment to extort a large payout. Bailiffs were known for their dodgy ways, and often incited poor people to arraign others for very small debts, in order to drum up custom.
According to White, nobody knows when the Marshalsea Prison was founded, but it was already in existence in the Middle Ages, as it was stormed by Wat Tyler’s men in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. White focuses, however, on the 18th and early 19th centuries, by which time the prison was (almost) exclusively for debtors. From the early 18th century, there is the tale of the Italian musician John Grano, who tried to liven the prison up with entertainments while he was serving a sixteen-month sentence. Even in Grano’s times, there were the beginnings of agitation to have debt reclassified as an offence not punishable by imprisonment.
In spite of this fledgling reformism, however, the prison was often a place of great cruelty, no more so that in the 1720s and 1730s when a sadist called William Acton (a butcher by trade) became the prison governor. Acton was not a paid government official. Like many prison governors in those times, he lived off money paid to him by prisoners. For a big commission, he could rent out well-furnished rooms to prisoners with wealthy connections, who might be able to pay him by borrowing money from their relatives (and therefore, of course, getting deeper in debt). Those who did not take up Acton’s offer knew that the alternative was consignment to one of the unsanitary “common wards” or even to a dungeon which, at that time, was still furnished with implements of torture. Prisoners were routinely chained to the wall, with heavy shackles, if they refused to pay up.
By starvation and torture, Acton was directly responsible for the deaths of five men. Outraged relatives of the deceased saw to it that he was tried for murder five times – but he managed to get acquitted at each of the five trials because he was able to suborn witnesses to speak on his behalf. All of his witnesses were prisoners under his authority, who knew how badly things would go for them if they spoke against him.
It was at about this time that a prison reform committee was set up, with the prime intention of cleaning up the Marshalsea. Regrettably it didn’t get far, as it had been set up by Tories at a time when a Whig government was in office – an early example of political partisanship overriding humane reform. But at least the implements of torture were now removed from the prison and Acton was moved elsewhere.
For all that, the prison was still a hellhole. Political prisoners were imprisoned there at the time of the two Jacobite Rebellions, and they were of course treated harshly.
Gradually only, it became possible for debtors to be discharged if they came to some sort of agreement with their creditors. A number of Insolvent Debtors’ Acts were passed, recognising the condition of bankruptcy and limiting the grounds on which a debtor could be incarcerated. The length of time for which debtors could be imprisoned was decreased. Even so, Jerry White finds evidence of one (anonymous) debtor who served an 18 years sentence in the Marshalsea in the early nineteenth century. As White says, he could very well have been the model for Dickens’ William Dorrit, “the father of the Marshalsea” in Little Dorrit.
The old Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1811, when a new, smaller prison opened on the same site. It was here that the 12-year-old Dickens visited his imprisoned father. Being of more modest size, the new prison lacked the large courtyards in which prisoners had congregated. The prison governor was no longer a “farmer” of commissions, but a salaried civil servant. However “turnkeys” (“screws” in modern parlance) were still able to rent out rooms to prisoners with wealthy connections. Jerry White spends some time chronicling the wild conviviality of the prison in its last years. Prisoners were allowed to order in beer from local pubs, large-scale parties and banquets often took place, and prostitutes were frequently allowed in to serve the male prisoners’ needs. And at the same time, whole families of insolvents were raised there.
Finally imprisonment for debt ceased. The Marshalsea took in no more prisoners after January 1842, and the prison was finally shut in December of the same year.
For readers like me, who were drawn to this book by Little Dorrit, perhaps the most fruitful chapter is the last, in which Jerry White considers the “legend” of the Marshalsea, and why so many authors were drawn to the theme of imprisonment for debt. He instances Daniel Defoe, Tobias Smollett (especially in his novel Roderick Random), Samuel Richardson (in Clarissa), Henry Fielding (in Amelia) and many others who devised episodes set in either the Fleet or the Marshalsea. White surmises first, that in the 18th and early 19th century, many authors themselves lived precariously, earned little income and were often in debt. They therefore understood the milieu at first hand. Second, that because debtors’ prisons snared such a wide cross-section of society, with all classes represented, they presented novelists with a microcosm of society. Dickens turned this idea around in Little Dorrit, with his theme that it was not society that was represented in prison. It was prison that was represented in all of society