The Marshalsea - Hidden London by Jan Collie
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The Marshalsea
Borough High Street, Southwark SE1

The Peasants' Revolt was the first popular rebellion in England. Lead by Wat Tyler, it started after a poll tax of one shilling (around a week's wages for a skilled labourer) was levied in order to help fund numerous wars. An army of 60,000 peasants marched on London but when Tyler met with Richard II at Smithfield to propose economic reforms, he was stabbed by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth. Some of Tyler's supporters tried to save him by carrying him into St. Bartholomew's Hospital but the King's knights dragged him out again and beheaded him.

All that remains of the infamous Marshalsea prison stands in a forgotten corner of a church yard which itself has been converted into a small and depressingly spartan park. Located just north of St George's Church in the Borough, the last vestige of the Marshalsea - a fragment of wall containing the entrance arch - is marked only by a perfunctory plaque put up by the local council.

The absence of any proper information is surprising considering the historic importance of the gaol, however a vivid portrait of conditions in the place is to be found in the works of Charles Dickens. The section of wall that is to be seen today was in fact part of the building that Dickens knew but the Marshalsea prison actually existed long before his day, on a site a short distance away.

The original Marshalsea stood near present-day Mermaid Court, Southwark. It is uncertain when the prison was founded but it must have existed for some time before the Peasants' Revolt as it is known that Wat Tyler's rebels attacked it in 1381. At first the prison was used to confine people found guilty of offences committed within the precincts of the Court but later it became a gaol for pirates, smugglers and others perpetrating crimes at sea.

The Marshalsea grew in importance under Elizabeth I when it was used to imprison both debtors and dissenters. Bonner, who was bishop of London at the time of Elizabeth's accession was incarcerated here for ten years after refusing to take the oath of allegiance. He eventually died in the gaol in 1569 after a further period of detention.

But the Marshalsea wasn't just reserved for prisoners of conscience. Anyone who dared to defy authority could expect to end up there. The poet Christopher Brooke discovered this in 1609 when he was foolish and romantic enough to help his friend John Donne to marry his sweetheart Anne More, without her father's consent.

Another poet who suffered the same fate, though for more serious reasons, was George Wither. Wither, who had been an officer in Cromwell's army, was locked up in 1613 for having written the satire 'Abuses Stript and Whipt' . This did not seem to affect his creativity, though, for he wrote the poem, 'The Shepherd's Hunting', which is generally regarded as his best whilst in the gaol. He was released some years before his death.

By the eighteenth century, the old Marshalsea had fallen into such a bad state of repair that it was closed. A new gaol was erected nearby, close to St George's Church and it was this prison that Dickens described with such passion in Little Dorrit. Dickens, in fact, had an intimate knowledge of the gaol as his father was imprisoned here for debt in1824. This was one of the author's most painful memories. Aged just 12 at the time, he was put into lodgings by himself and sent to work in a boot blacking factory. The experience, thinly disguised in David Copperfield, haunted him for the rest of his life.

The Marshalsea prison was eventually closed in the late 19th century and demolished sometime afterwards. The district is still redolent with Dickens associations and the visitor will find Marshalsea Road, Dorrit Street, Quilp Street, and of course, Lant Street, the site of Dickens' boyhood lodging.

The remains of the Marshalsea stand in a public park and can be seen at any time during the day.

London Bridge (Northern Line).

Copyright Jan Collie 2002
Published by permission of the author.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.