Dickens, Debt and the Marshalsea Prison

7 February 2012 saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and History in an Hour celebrated with the publication of Dickens: History in an Hour. Here, its author, Kaye Jones, writes about the imprisonment for debt of Dickens’ father and the lifelong effect it had on the young Charles.

‘Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving stones of the extinct Marshalsea Jail. He will see its narrow yard to the right, and to the left, very little altered, if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among crowding ghosts of so many miserable years.’

Charles DickensYou don’t have to delve too far into the works of Charles Dickens to find a reference to the infamous Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Dickens possessed an intimate knowledge of the jail that came not though rumour or research but through a deeply personal experience that would profoundly affect his character and his writing.

Born in Landport on 7 February 1812, Charles was the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens. His father was a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, a job that led the family to move around extensively during Charles’ earliest years. By 1822 the family were settled in London and, though they were happy, were increasingly burdened by financial difficulties, the cause of which remains unknown. Whether he spent too much on socialising or struggled with the cost of feeding an ever-growing family, John Dickens had set the family on the road to ruin and, on 20 February 1824, found himself arrested for debt.

Marshalsea Prison

John owed £40 and 10 shillings to John Kerr, a local baker, and was first taken to a local sponging house, a place of temporary confinement for debtors. In the meantime, Charles ran messages across the city on his father’s behalf, desperately trying to raise the £40 that would secure his release and prevent any further legal action. But his efforts were in vain and, on 23 February 1824, Charles accompanied his father to the Marshalsea Prison.

Situated on the south bank of the River Thames, Charles later described the prison in his novel, Little Dorrit, as an ‘an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at the top.’ Humiliated and broken, John Dickens urged his son to never make the same mistakes that he had: ‘if a man had twenty pounds a year and spent nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but a shilling spent more would make him wretched.’

By the end of March, the family had left their London home at 4 Gower Street North and, with the exception of Charles, had joined John in the prison. At the tender age of 12, Charles was now working full-time to support the family and lodging in Camden Town with Mrs Ellen Roylance, paid with his weekly earnings of six shillings. But the enforced separation from his family quickly became too much to bear and Charles broke down during one of his Sunday visits. Alternative accommodation was soon arranged in nearby Lant Street, allowing Charles to dine daily with his parents and siblings.

‘Famous and caressed and happy’

On 28 May 1824, John Dickens declared himself an insolvent debtor and agreed to settle all his bills at a later date. In return the Marshalsea granted his freedom and the family, reunited at last, rented a new home in Somers Town. While his parents never acknowledge or discussed this episode again, the psychological impact on Charles cannot be underestimated. The loneliness, the shame and the sense of abandonment were particularly difficult to ever truly overcome. During his lifetime, only two people – Dickens’ wife, and his best friend, John Forster, were ever made aware of his father’s time in Marshalsea Prison. Looking back on the darker days of 1824, Charles would later reflect:

‘my whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation…that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.’

Dickens In An HourKaye Jones

For more, see Kaye’s Charles Dickens: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats.

See also Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory and Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

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