The Devil In The Marshalsea

I'm reading an excellent book which was suggested by Bevvy one day last week...it's about the Marshalsea Debtors prison in London. Based heavily on fact, it's a fictional account of a young man who finds himself in dire straits with debts and who is admitted to the prison...

Something I came across is mention of a Link Boy...they were little boys who held a torch made from pitch and tow who'd light your way home...no street lights in the early 1700's. The standard rate was one farthing and for that they'd deliver you to your door. But...there were also small boys in the pay of footpads and robbers...they were known as Moon Cursers...they'd lead you down a dark alley where the robbers beat you up for whatever money or valuables you were carrying. The Moon Cursers came by their name from the fact they disliked bright moonlit nights...you could see where you were going then and were far less likely to be caught unawares by foot-pads.

The Marshalsea was an appalling place...one side was given over to those who could probably afford to pay off their debts with outside help at some point...there was a cafe and a coffee house and a shop where you could buy paper and ink and a quill pen...some of the guards took messages to people outside for you, on payment of a fee of course...you had to pay for your room...for clean linen...for food...for everything.

The Common Side was where those with nothing were held...they were crammed tightly into small rooms and died from disease and starvation...the bodies piled up each morning and left for days until a cart came to take them away...

It wasn't just for debtors though...people who had been found guilty of offences committed on the High Seas...others accused of sedition, all found themselves living cheek by jowl in filthy rooms often sleeping two or three to a bed because of the lack of space available...if your bed-mate happened to have contracted smallpox it was up to you to pay for the space to sleep beside someone who was reasonably healthy...

Prostitutes were welcomed in every night...there was a bar which sold ale and Backgammon to play if you so wished...it all cost you money of course.

If you fell foul of one of the brutish guards then you might have ended up squashed into a small hole in the ground with a iron band around your head...it had screws so it could be tightened...you'd have been in chains around your wrists and ankles, fastened as tight as was possible...the sores would weep and go septic. Left there for a week or more, you'd either have died in the hole or soon after being released.

Something else I came across which I hadn't really understood previously, was the use of the Bull-whip...they were made from a Bulls pizzle or penis...dried and stretched out, they could, and did, inflict horrific open wounds cutting through flesh down to the bone...try to escape or insult one of the guards and they were only too willing to teach you a lesson with the use of their bull-whip.

Eventually the Marshalsea was demolished...one wall remains, with a small plaque giving a brief history for those interested enough to read...

The Governor...The Devil...was brought to trial for unjust punishment and cruelty but he'd bribed his guards and many of the prisoners to speak favourably about him and he was released...

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  • find the area around Marshalsea fascinating, I am always draw to Cross Bones in Red Cross Way. A pair of padlocked wrought iron gates are decorated with ribbons, tiny personal items and photos, behind the gates are the remains of some of London's poorest souls, buried there since medieval times and until 150 years ago. Known especially as the burial ground of Winchester Geese as the prostitutes of the time were named, also the resting place of many babies and small children. On the gates you can find messages remembering 'working' girls who have lost their lives much more recently. Very sad but somehow wonderful that these folk are still remembered.

  • I've only been to London twice and have never heard of this place...it sounds much like the Potters Fields in America and the Cillins here in Ireland...all those sad souls.

    Thank you for the information Xris...

  • Hi vashita.....gives me the shivers when I read about things like that....how cruel people were...and what a hard life they had....would have hated to live in that era.....for all its faults in this day and age..I for one am glad to be in it.

    Take care, Pegxx

  • It was the way it was Peg...those people who lived then wouldn't have considered themselves hard done by...they were simply used to it in the way we are used to living as we do now...xxx

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