HOBS: The Metropolitan Debtors' Prisons (3) The Fleet prison

Following our consideration of Newgate debtors' prison and the Marshalsea we can now consider the Fleet prison and its role in imprisoning debtor prisoners.[1] In the year 1641, sixteen years after Charles I was crowned, the Fleet gaol became a prison for debtors, although it had been used as a prison from the middle ages, the first record of its existence being in 1170-1.[2] One commentator tells us that in the sixteenth century it was the chief debtors’ prison.[3] Once situated where the Central Criminal Court now stands on the East bank of the Fleet river, the Fleet gaol, the main debtors’ prison,[4] has mainly due to nineteenth century literary writings,[5] garnered a far from enviable reputation.[6] The unease and abuse relates to, prima facie, the hereditary nature of the keepership and the customary levying of a duty by the keeper on prisoners for their maintenance. The Parliamentary inquiry chaired by Mr. Oglethorpe in 1728 into London gaols highlighted, “many grievous abuses practiced in the Fleet, Marshalsea and Kings-Bench.”[7] The practices had of course been a feature of Fleet gaol life in the seventeenth century. This is evidenced by the trial of Richard Manlove esq. The warden of the Fleet was found guilty of oppression and extortion.[8] In his Rake’s Progress, Hogarth depicts the examination before the House of Commons of Bainbridge the gaoler. Bainbridge was charged with torturing and ill-treating debtors, many of whom died under his hands.[9] Records relating to debtors in the Fleet in the seventeenth century are small[10], but there is, for example, intriguing evidence that the Duke of Norfolk and the Lord Chief Justice Treby tried to secure release from the Fleet for one prisoner.[11]

Conditions in the Fleet were, according to one contemporary chronicler, appalling.[12] Debtor prisoners were kept in the prison itself and not in auxiliary buildings. Pitt recounts how his chamber fellows were, “so lousie, that the Vermin Crawled on the outside of their Cloths”[13] and despite public munificence[14] and a survey of the Fleet prisoners[15] conditions did not improve right up until the Fleet’s abolition by the Queen’s Prison Act 1842. Pitt was a debt prisoner in the Fleet. He was a bookseller whose unfortunate building speculations combined with ill luck to place him in the Fleet on 20 April 1689.

[1] For a general history of the Fleet prison see: Brown, RL. A History of the Fleet Prison, London: the anatomy of the Fleet. Studies in British History, vol.42, Lewiston, NY; Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. See also: Brown, W. The Fleet: a brief account of the ancient prison called “the Fleet”. London, 1843. See also: A Schedule, or list of the Prisoners in the Fleet… May 25, 1653…As also a list of those prisoners that are gone out, taking the benefit of the Act of Parliament for reliefs of poore prisoners… Delivered by Mr. Henry Hopkins, Warden of the Fleet, to the Committee appointed by the Counsell of State for examining the state of the said prison, etc. pp.20 GS for Livewell Chapman, London, 1653; Hopkins, Henry. Warden of the Fleet Prison. A Schedule or List of the Prisoners in the Fleet, remaining in custody May 25, 1653, with the times of their commitment, and the causes of their detention. As also a list of those prisoners that are gone out, taking the benefit of the act of parliament for reliefe of poore prisoners, etc. London, 1653; Oates, T. A Comical Dialogue between Dr. Oates, and williamn Fuller, relating to both their misfortunes, &c. With Dr. Oates’s second letter to Fuller, in the Fleet Prison With Ful;er’s answers thereunto. pp.8 Printed for John Johnson, London, 1702; Harris, A. The economy of the fleet (Jessopp, A, Ed.) Camden Society. NS, XXV, 1879.

[2] NA Records of the Fleet Prison, 1300-1842, PRIS 1, PRIS 2 (commitment books), PRIS 3 (discharge books), National Archive.

[3] Ogilvie, C. The King’s Government and the Common Law: 1471-1641. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1958, page 116. He notes however that others were used including the Ludgate, Counter and local gaols. On Ludgate see: The Humble petition of the poor distressed prisoners in Ludgate: Being above an hundred and fourscore poor persons in number. Against this time of the birth of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. London, printed by M. F., 1664.

[4] According to Ogilvie, ibid, other prisons were used for the same purpose. See: Ogilvie, page 116. Ogilvie goes on to note incorrectly, “there was no chance of obtaining any relaxation of the harsh and stupid law of debt in Parliament…the rigour of the law remained unmitigated for nearly three hundred years.” (page 117).

[5] The following novels contain depictions of debtors and debtors’ prisons: Dickens, C. Little Dorrit. Penguin Books, London. 1988; Dickens, C. Dombey & Son; Eliot, G. The Mill on the Floss. Penguin Popular Classics. London. 1994; Gaskell, E. North & South. Penguin Classics. London. 1995; Thackeray, WM. The Newcomers; Trollope, A. The Way We Live Now; Trollope, A Framley Parsonage. Harrap, London, 1947. Dickens’s father was famously a debtor prisoner in the Marshalsea until he managed to obtain his release after obtaining a large inheritance; see further: Easson, A. Dickens and the Marshalsea. University of Oxford Press, Oxford, 1967.

[6] See: Weiss, B. The Hell of the English: Bankruptcy and the Victorian Novel. Bicknell University Press. 1986.

[7] Neild, J, Account of Persons confined for Debt, in the various prisons of England and Wales, ... with their provisionary allowance during confinement; as reported to the Society for the discharge and relief of small Debtors. London, 1800, page 205.

[8] Pitt, M. The Crye of the Oppressed being a true and tragical account of the unparrallel’d Sufferings of Multitudes of poor Imprisoned Debtors, in most of the Goa’s in England, under the Tyranny of the Goalers, and other Oppressors, lately discovered upon the occasion of this present Act of Grace For the Relief of poor Prisoners fr Debt, or Damages; some of them being not only Iron’d and lodg’d with Hogs, Felons , and Condemn’d Persons, but have had their bones broken; others poisoned and starved to death; others denied the common blessings of nature, as Water to drink, or straw to lodge on; others their Wives and Daughters attempted to by ravish’d; with other Barborous cruelties, not to be parallel’d in any History or Nation: All which is made out by undeniable evidence. Together with the case of the publisher. London, Printed for Moses Pitt and sold by Booksellers of London and Westminster, 1691, at page 84.

[9] When Pitt, ibid, was attempting to get a Bill passed through Parliament that would release debtors from the Fleet, with the corollary loss in revenue for the Warden of the Fleet; the Warden allegedly, “threw me into the Wards (or Dungeon) of the Prison, where I have ever since log’d with those who beg at the grate.”

[10] City of London Sessions Records - Ref. SM/41 – date July-Oct 1672 – Warrants for the discharge of debtor prisoners from the Fleet; Ref. SM/48 – date Aug 1676-July 1677 – Orders re release of debtor prisoners from the Fleet.

[11] Derbyshire Record Office - Ref. D239 M/O 1274 – date 1699 – Correspondence – Duke of Norfolk to Lord Chief Justice Treby: hopes Treby may be able to help Norfolk’s uncle, Mr Esme Howard now in the Fleet, a debtor.

[12] It was apparently more favourable than other London prisons in the nineteenth century, see: Holdsworth Dickens, page 138.

[13] Pitt at preface.

[14] Morris has opined that ‘sympathetic passers-by were encouraged to give money to the unfortunates through the ‘grate’” per Morris, P. Debtor’s prison still exists. New Society, 29 November, 1962.

[15] See: A Schedule , or list, of the Prisoners in the Fleet…May 25, 1653… As also a list of those prisoners that are gone out, taking the benefit of the Act of Parliament for reliefe of poore prisoners….Delivered by Mr. Henry Hopkins, Warden of the Fleet, to the Committee appointed by the Counsell of State for examining the state of the said Prison. GS for Livewell Chapman, London, 1653.