Dickens recounts how when his father and he went into the prison they both wept very much and his father warned him that if a man had 20 pounds a year and spent 19 pounds, 19 shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. – A.S. Byat, Within Those Walls
The first surprise I encountered watching Little Dorrit on Masterpiece Classic was to see little Amy born in the Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison to which her father had been sentenced for owing £400. William Dorritt, also know as the “Father of the Marshalsea”, was incarcerated for 23 years, slowly rotting from the inside out and living a life without hope of becoming a free man again. He was allowed to bring in his family, a tradition of those bygone days. Sadly, Mrs. Dorrit died before her husband could repay his debt. Amy has never known a life other than in prison.
John Howard, a reformer, visited Marshalsea eight times between 1774 and 1783, and made the following observations:
There are in the whole near sixty rooms; and yet only six of them left for common-side debtors. Of the other rooms – five were let to a man who was not a prisoner; in one of them he kept a chandler’s shop, in two he lived with his family; the other two he let to prisoners….The chamber rent wants regulation, for in several rooms where four lie in two beds, and in some rooms where two lie in one bed, each pays 3 p 6d for his lodgings.
The prison is greatly out of repair. No infirmary. The court is well supplied with water. In it the prisoners play at rackets etc., and in a little back court, the Park, at skittles.
In March 1775 when the number of prisoners was 175, there were with them in this incommodious prison wives and children 46. – The Chronicles of London, Saint and Darley, New York, 1994, p 150.
The prison had not much changed when Charles Dickens lived there, for William Dorrit’s nightmare was his own. In 1824, when Dickens was twelve, his father, John, had been taken there for debts he could not repay. Instead of going to school, Dickens left the Marshalsea each day to work at Warren’s boot-blacking factory, where he was paid six shillings a week.
The family [Dickens] writes, lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it, They were waited on still by the maid of all work from Bayham Street, the orphan girl from Chatham workhouse from whose sharp little worldly, yet also kindly, ways I took my first impressions of the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop. Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford
His father’s experience in the Marshalsea left an indelible impression. Dickens must have written these lines from the heart: “She looked down into the living grave on which the sun had risen, with her father in it.” Unlike William Dorrit, who spent nearly a quarter of a century in prison, John Dickens walked out after six months when one of his relatives died and left enough money in the will to pay off the debt.
Once a man of substance, William Dorrit (played by Tom Courtenay) tried to live with some dignity inside the high spiked walls, but much of his self-consequence came at the expense of his youngest daughter, Amy (Little Dorrit), who devoted her young life catering to her father. “In his deepest heart he knows that he’s made an utter mess of his and his beloved children’s lives, but he would never openly admit to this failure. For his sake, the family all keep up the pretence of respectability.” ( BBC) Even at his lowest ebb, William Dorrit finds comfort in the title of “Father of the Marshalsea.” He adheres to social standards, blinding himself to his son’s Edward’s dissolute lifestyle and daughter Fanny’s less than acceptable career as a dancer, and dines in state on the food that Amy has set aside from her own repasts.
The family’s ability to come and go from prison within the curfew hours so surprised me that I wanted to research the topic. Only the debtor remained imprisoned. In reality, as Dickens attests, life inside those walls was not much worse than life outside it – for the destitute. The friendship between Amy and John Chivery was genuine. John performed his duties with humanity, and Amy recognized that the Assistant Turnkey was simply following orders.
Even when freed, William Dorrit does not step outside his prison. When he is finally released, due to an inheritance found through Arthur Clennam’s perseverance, his heart is as pinched as his confined world had once been. Charles Dickens wrote about the character:
Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out. If he had been a man with strength of purpose to face those troubles and fight them, he might have broken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he languidly slipped into this smooth descent, and never more took one step upward.
Instead of thanking Arthur, he avoids him and puts on airs of grandiosity. His children are given lessons of deportment by Mrs. General as they traipse across Europe on a Grand Tour. They are lessons in futility, for Fanny and Edward are beyond help, and Amy is uninterested in the trappings of wealth. And yet despite his opulent surroundings, William was unable to escape the effects of the Marshalsea and his mind remained imprisoned. He returns to London, but instead of enjoying the high life, he is constantly plagued by reminders of his past and falls into a great depression.
In real life, a man who was confined in the Marshalsea just like William Dorrit, reacted to his imprisonment in a much different way. John Howard recalled:
Mr. Henry Allnot, who was many years hence a prisoner here, had during his confinement a large estate bequeathed to him. He learnt sympathy by his sufferings, and left £100 a year for discharging poor debtors from hence whose debts do not exceed £4. As he bound his manor of Goring in Oxfordshire for charitable uses, this is called the Oxford charity. Many are cleared by it every year. – The Chronicles of London, p. 150
Marshalsea Prison was closed in 1842, and all that remains today is a long brick wall and two gated arches.
In 1856 whilst engaged in the purchase of Gad’s Hill, Charles Dickens paid a visit to the Marshalsea, then in the course of demolition, to see what traces were left of the prison of which he had received such early and vivid impressions as a boy, and which he had been able to rebuild almost brick by brick in Little Dorritt by the aid of his wonderfully retentive memory. He writes to his friend John Forster, “Went to the Borough yesterday morning before going to Gad’s Hill to see if I could find any ruins of the Marshalsea. Found a great part of the original building now Marshalsea Place. I found the rooms that had been in my mind’s eye in the story…There is a room there still standing that I think of taking. It is the room through which the ever memorable signers of Captain Porter’s petition filed off in my boyhood. The spikes are gone and the wall is lowered, and any body can go out now who likes to go and is not bed ridden.” Old and new London a narrative of its history, its people and its places By Walter Thornbury, Edward Walford
- BBC: Little Dorrit
- BBC Press Pack
- Knowledge of London: The Marshalsea
- Little Dorrit: Charles Dickens Page
My other Little Dorrit Reviews: