The prison wall is only a few hundred metres south of London Bridge, and can easily be included as part of a visit to Borough Market, the Golden Hinde II or the George Inn.
There isn’t much left of Marshalsea Prison. Located just north of St. George’s Church in Southwark, all that remains is a small section of wall, which includes the original entrance arch, marked by a plaque. But this small piece of brickwork was once an infamous London jail, second in importance only to the Tower of London.
A Prison Run by Criminals
England’s prison system was once very different. Up until the 19th century, all jailhouses were run privately, for profit, and as a result they were plagued by corruption and were often riddled with disease. The Marshalsea was effectively an extortion racket. Inmates who could afford the “prison fees” had access to a bar, a shop and a restaurant, and were even allowed out into the city during the day. For those without money, things were rather different. They were crammed into one of nine rooms with dozens of other prisoners, and faced regular beatings and starvation if they displeased the jailers. It was reported by a parliamentary committee in 1729 that 300 men had died within the prison walls over a period of three months.
A Bleak House
A large part of the reason for the Marshalsea’s infamy is its inclusion in the works of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ father was imprisoned there in 1824, when Charles was just 12 years old, forcing the young boy to leave school and work in a factory. These were some of the formative experiences that he would draw on when he began to pen his novels. Most explicity, the father of the title character in Little Dorrit is imprisoned in the Marshalsea. The prison was demolished in the 1870s. “It is gone now”, wrote Dickens, “and the world is none the worse without it.”
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