Marshalsea Prison

Diary extract of a young boy named Charlie – 1827

St George the Martyr and Marshalsea Prison

15th July 1827

5.30am and I am awoken by a kerfuffle outside my window in Bermondsey. I had almost forgot that yesterday was Bastille Day and this commotion that stirred me was nothing more than the drunken revelry of a group of French workers who had no doubt failed to reach their homes after last night’s festivities.
It was just as well as I must up and away to work this very morn which is a shoe blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs.
I have to work to help pay father’s debts. And all because he couldn’t pay his bill to the baker! He was only a fortnight late in payment! Nevertheless he has been locked up in Marshalsea Prison ever since.
I must walk past it every day as a sick reminder on my way to London Bridge to cross to the north side and get to work by 6.30.

5.45 am and it is already light. The prison doesn’t look as foreboding as I first imagined. Rather more like a university college, except for one imposing wall on the north side. I am certain that even if this prison were demolished (which I wish it would be) then this wall would remain as some gloomy reminder of times past.

It does not seem fair that the wealthier convicts are allowed numerous privileges. Cells of their own, decent food, they are even allowed day release in order to work to pay off the debts they owe! Most of the prisoners here are debtors although some are political prisoners or guilty of crimes at sea.

Less fortunate inmates like Father are crammed into squalid tiny rooms with up to nine others and there are fees to pay even in prison! Oh yes, if you want to eat you must pay and if you can’t pay your debt and you can’t pay your fees your sentence is increased!

This is the injustice my father must suffer. How can he pay off his debt if he is not allowed to work? Hence my daily trudge to the shoe blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs.

I am by no means the only child working there but I don’t like it. It’s long, hard work and the only person who is nice to me is a fellow by the name of Bob Fagin. I must try to remember him somehow and reward him for his kindness.

10.50pm – I am allowed to leave the factory and am so tired I can barely put one foot in front of the other. I have scarcely eaten but for a crust of stale bread and insipid broth. So begins the walk back, up the Strand and Fleet Street, past St Paul’s Cathedral and thence to London Bridge and past The George Inn, where I catch sight of the French revellers who awoke me this morning. They are still in good voice and greet me as their neighbour.

The imposing north wall of The Marshalsea Prison hoves into view and I can tell that the hour approaches 11pm by the clock face of St George the Martyr. In the cold dark winter mornings I am unable to tell the hour as the clock face facing Bermondsey is perpetually dark. Father and his friends refused to pay the taxes in protest about something or other to do with the running of the parish so, as a retribution, it was decided that all the dwellers in Bermondsey should not benefit from the church’s clock.

Before reaching home there is just time for me to drop into the church to say hello to our family friend Amy. Her name is Amy Dorrit but we call her “Little Dorrit”. I find her sleeping by the fire in the vestry and she tells me that she hopes to get married here one day and that her dream would be to have a stained glass window to remember her.

With scarcely the strength to reach my door, a kitchen chair beckons me and I am once again left to my slumbers with little hope that tomorrow will herald anything different.


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