Jerry White, professor of the history of London at Birkbeck College, prefaces his learned and entertaining history of the Marshalsea by pointing out that we are all debtors now, living legally on credit from banks and mortgage societies. We can max out one credit card and switch to another. If we are lucky enough to ‘own’ a house, it often doesn’t actually belong to us for many years after we have scraped together the deposit. The feckless or unlucky may eventually be declared bankrupt, but nobody is thrown into prison. In earlier centuries debt was more personal. The ‘note of hand’ guaranteeing another’s debt and taken on by a trusting friend is a familiar theme in many 18th- and 19th-century novels.
The origins of the Marshalsea, the best known of London’s debtors’ prisons, go back to the Middle Ages, but it was not until the late 17th century that it became almost exclusively a debtors’ prison. The Marshalsea, the Fleet and the King’s (or Queen’s) Bench (which generally housed