The Debtor’s Doom – the grim fate for London’s penniless

London had its fair share of prisons located very centrally and one of them was the Fleet – where debtors were flung. The location is quite hard to imagine now but it would have been roughly where Limeburner Lane and Fleet Place are today – bordered by Ludgate Hill, Old Bailey and what is now Farringdon Street. That street was originally the Fleet river, which still runs underneath channeled into the sewers.

Fleet Prison
Fleet Prison in 1691 – note the inmates begging for passing charity

The prison was pulled down in 1846 after 700 years of banging up criminals. The site was sold off to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway company and there’s still a City Thameslink station nearby. I can remember in the 1970s when there was a now removed railway bridge across the road. All traces of the miserable prison disappeared long ago but it was a notorious place in its heyday. A poem in 1738 summed up the horror:

A starving life all day we lead; No comfort here is found; At Night we make one Common bed; Upon the boarded ground

And the prisoners often grumbled that there were plenty in high society who were committing worse crimes than they had but got away it because of their social position:

Thus, we Insolvent debtors live; Yet we may Boldly say; Worse Villains often Credit give; Than those that never pay

For wealthy knaves can with applause; Cheat on, and ne’er be try’d; But in contempt of human Laws; In Coaches Safely ride

The Fleet was mainly a debtors prison from the 17th century onwards and run by a warden who had almost dictatorial powers. He also had the right to “farm” the prisoners – that is, extort fees from them for their upkeep. This may seem unusual to us now, but prisoners on arrival at the Fleet had to cough up six shillings, bring their own bedding or hire some or sleep on the floor. Conditions were appalling and abuse was rife. One warden, Thomas Bambridge, was notorious for holding prisoners in irons and refusing to let them leave after their sentences had expired.

Fleet Prison in 1830 - note the racket court
Fleet Prison in 1830 – note the racket court

During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Fleet was burnt down but after repairs, it carried on in business. Prisoners would beg passers by for charity. Raising some money was their only forlorn hope of escaping this four storey hell with its high walls, chapel, coffee-room and tap-rooms. It was badly lit and a countless number of doors opened up onto rooms averaging 14 by 12 feet. Walking down the dark corridors, you would have heard an endless clanging of doors to jar your nerves. If the prisoners were lucky, a wealthy passer-by clutching scented herbs to their nose, would approach the barred windows and press a coin in to their hands.

There was a recreation yard that included a racket court. Every year, the prisoners elected a Racket Master to run the sports activities here and this was apparently a hotly contested position. In 1841, three

people were running against each other to win the position. One candidate noted that the “health of my fellow inmates is in some measure placed in the hands of the person appointed”.  Skittle Master was another bitterly contested post among the prisoners!Fleet prison

In 1842, parliament agreed to proceed with the demolition of the Fleet and transfer of all prisoners to the Queen’s Bench Prison. Some prisoners weren’t happy about this, especially as the Queen’s Bench ran a tougher regime. A song went thus:

To racquets, skittles, whistling shops; We must soon say farewell; The Queen’s assent to her prison bill; Has rung their funeral knell

2 thoughts on “The Debtor’s Doom – the grim fate for London’s penniless

  1. Fascinating post, Tony! The importance of debtors’ prison (before the 19th century when Dickens made it famous) is definitely underestimated and neglected.

    As someone interested in charity and debt in the 17th century, I was very taken by your image of the Fleet in 1691. What is your source for that picture?

    1. Hi – I got that picture from a Victorian guide to London published in the 1880s – long out of print, as are most of the books I’ve hoovered up over the years. Should add that the copyright has expired. It’s quite a powerful image isn’t it?

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