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Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

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For ordinary Londoners debt was part of everyday life. The poor depended on credit from shopkeepers and landlords to survive, but the better-off too were often deep in debt to finance their more comfortable, even luxurious lifestyle. When creditors lost their patience both rich and poor Londoners could be thrown into one the capital s debtors prisons where they might linge For ordinary Londoners debt was part of everyday life. The poor depended on credit from shopkeepers and landlords to survive, but the better-off too were often deep in debt to finance their more comfortable, even luxurious lifestyle. When creditors lost their patience both rich and poor Londoners could be thrown into one the capital s debtors prisons where they might linger for years. The most notorious of them was the Marshalsea. In the eighteenth century, the Marshalsea became a byword for misery in the words of one of its inmates, it was hell in epitome . In 1729 a parliamentary committee of enquiry found that prisoners had been deliberately starved to extort fees from them and that many had died of deprivation and brutality at the hands of the gaolers. In 1768 a mutiny led to an attempt to burn down the gaol. But the prison was also a microcosm of London life, and where as its poor estinmates lived in fear of starvation, the more wealthy and better connected living in the prison s masters wing carried on as they would in the outside world, employing servants and entertaining guests a lifestyle that was often funded again by debt. In 1824 Charles Dickens s father was detained here and the experience deeply scarred the writer who lived in fear of debt and a similar fate for the rest of his life. And although the Marshalsea was demolished in the 1840s Dickens would immortalise it in his novels, most memorably in Little Dorrit. In Mansions of Misery Jerry White, acclaimed chronicler of London life, tells the story of the Marshalsea through the life stories of those who had the bad fortune to be imprisoned there rich and poor men and women spongers, fraudsters and innocents. In the process he gives us a fascinating and unforgettable slice of London life from the early 1700s to the 1840s."


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For ordinary Londoners debt was part of everyday life. The poor depended on credit from shopkeepers and landlords to survive, but the better-off too were often deep in debt to finance their more comfortable, even luxurious lifestyle. When creditors lost their patience both rich and poor Londoners could be thrown into one the capital s debtors prisons where they might linge For ordinary Londoners debt was part of everyday life. The poor depended on credit from shopkeepers and landlords to survive, but the better-off too were often deep in debt to finance their more comfortable, even luxurious lifestyle. When creditors lost their patience both rich and poor Londoners could be thrown into one the capital s debtors prisons where they might linger for years. The most notorious of them was the Marshalsea. In the eighteenth century, the Marshalsea became a byword for misery in the words of one of its inmates, it was hell in epitome . In 1729 a parliamentary committee of enquiry found that prisoners had been deliberately starved to extort fees from them and that many had died of deprivation and brutality at the hands of the gaolers. In 1768 a mutiny led to an attempt to burn down the gaol. But the prison was also a microcosm of London life, and where as its poor estinmates lived in fear of starvation, the more wealthy and better connected living in the prison s masters wing carried on as they would in the outside world, employing servants and entertaining guests a lifestyle that was often funded again by debt. In 1824 Charles Dickens s father was detained here and the experience deeply scarred the writer who lived in fear of debt and a similar fate for the rest of his life. And although the Marshalsea was demolished in the 1840s Dickens would immortalise it in his novels, most memorably in Little Dorrit. In Mansions of Misery Jerry White, acclaimed chronicler of London life, tells the story of the Marshalsea through the life stories of those who had the bad fortune to be imprisoned there rich and poor men and women spongers, fraudsters and innocents. In the process he gives us a fascinating and unforgettable slice of London life from the early 1700s to the 1840s."

52 review for Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

  1. 4 out of 5

    K.J. Charles

    Pretty horrifying deep dive into the history of a debtor's prison. The lawlessness of both the men who farmed it for profit and the men who ran it from the inside as a Lord of the Flies society is fairly grim, as is the whole framework of imprisonment for debt in chaotic society. A dark look at London as prison city, with a lot of individual stories to bring the history to life.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Goldenberg

    Jerry White starts and ends this fascinating history of the Marshalsea Debtors Prison with accounts from the man who has ensured that it will never be forgotten, namely Charles Dickens who had personal experience of it and featured it in several of his novels, most notably 'Little Dorrit'. Debt is just as much a part of our lives now as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. The difference is that now it is somewhat more regulated through the large financial institutions (although the sub-prime m Jerry White starts and ends this fascinating history of the Marshalsea Debtors Prison with accounts from the man who has ensured that it will never be forgotten, namely Charles Dickens who had personal experience of it and featured it in several of his novels, most notably 'Little Dorrit'. Debt is just as much a part of our lives now as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. The difference is that now it is somewhat more regulated through the large financial institutions (although the sub-prime mortgage scandal suggests we're not that far removed from the Victorian era). The difference is that in the time of the Marchalsea debt was mostly owed to individuals and it was not uncommon to be imprisoned for owing quite small amounts. For the more middle class debtors, the Marshalsea was more like a boardinghouse where they lived with their family. However, for the poorest debtors, it was often a death sentence with appalling living conditions rife with diseases. The other way in which modern society is aping this era is that the Marshalsea was run by individuals for profit much as many modern prisons are by large corporations and, inevitably, that led to even poorer conditions as corners were cut to make money.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lucienne Boyce

    I don't make a practice of reviewing books I read for historical research, partly because I read so many of them, and partly because I prefer to relax a little by looking at fiction for a change! However, I couldn't resist writing about this book which I think is absolutely brilliant - as is to be expected from Jerry White, whose work on the eighteenth century I love. Mansions of Misery is a marvellous book, but what I particularly liked were the stories of the people of the Marshalsea, along wi I don't make a practice of reviewing books I read for historical research, partly because I read so many of them, and partly because I prefer to relax a little by looking at fiction for a change! However, I couldn't resist writing about this book which I think is absolutely brilliant - as is to be expected from Jerry White, whose work on the eighteenth century I love. Mansions of Misery is a marvellous book, but what I particularly liked were the stories of the people of the Marshalsea, along with the chapter on the Marshalsea in fiction. After all, anyone who writes so lovingly about Charles Dickens's novels is bound to get my support! A fantastic read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Trevor Adams

    I learned about the Marshalsea in a roundabout way from my home in 21st century Sacramento. I had read The Autobiography of Austin Reid, and he discussed Jack Sheppard in his book. So I read that one next. And in that Newgate novel, the Marshalsea was referred to. After a Google search I found this book and after looking up James White's bibliography I decided that this looked acceptable. MAN what a thorough and concise look at an old prison. White paints a picture of everyone and everything that I learned about the Marshalsea in a roundabout way from my home in 21st century Sacramento. I had read The Autobiography of Austin Reid, and he discussed Jack Sheppard in his book. So I read that one next. And in that Newgate novel, the Marshalsea was referred to. After a Google search I found this book and after looking up James White's bibliography I decided that this looked acceptable. MAN what a thorough and concise look at an old prison. White paints a picture of everyone and everything that he possibly can. You learn about many prisoners, how they were extorted and tortured, the guards and how they were extorted and the literature from the times of Marshalsea that doesn't come leaping out of basic Internet searches. I've already ordered three more novels listed in this book and will at some point find another history book by White.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Mansions of Misery – A Wonderful & Informative Account of the Marshalsea To many modern readers, the Marshalsea Debtors Prison is something that appears in the writings of Charles Dickens, fresh off the pages of books such as Little Dorrit. What one needs to understand the shame of the debtor’s prison was all very real to the young Dickens, as it was to many in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Mansions of Misery, written and researched by the excellent London historian and Professor, Jerry W Mansions of Misery – A Wonderful & Informative Account of the Marshalsea To many modern readers, the Marshalsea Debtors Prison is something that appears in the writings of Charles Dickens, fresh off the pages of books such as Little Dorrit. What one needs to understand the shame of the debtor’s prison was all very real to the young Dickens, as it was to many in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Mansions of Misery, written and researched by the excellent London historian and Professor, Jerry White, an expert on London from 1700 to the modern day. He has taken a forensic insight of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and applied it to a prison that would have feature large as a dark shadow over London for all those who were in debt. White explains that the Marshalsea while being a prison, unlike its criminal gaols, was more like a lodging house to debtors who until they had repaid their debt would reside within its walls. To describe the old Marshalsea, White, uses the diary of a former inmate who was a well-known musician of the time, John Grano. While White effortlessly describes life and the machinations of life in the Marshalsea, something that does register with the reader, is the reality of debt, how debt seemed inescapable and would grind down the debtor. What I felt is that while reading this excellent history the crushing hopelessness of debt and for many it would be a reoccurring theme throughout their lives. What the diary of John Grano does do is show the distinct difference between the two halves of the prison, there was the comfortable side, and those on the poorer side. How some could live in relative comfort while in the Marshalsea, while others really did suffer, so much so that a jailer was brought before the courts for the deaths of four inmates. The way White has written this book, is as if the Marshalsea, is a microcosm of life outside the walls in the London area. Showing that there was a complete mixture of inmates, rich and poor, fraudsters and hucksters, and many other colourful characters filled the prison. I found this to be a fascinating and engaging read about a place that people often forget was a dark shadow over many lives. Jerry White has written an engaging and very readable account of life in the Marshalsea and of London in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. I am sure it will be a must read for all those interested in the social history of London for many years to come.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Lewsley

    Jerry White really wanted to write a book on the Marshalsea and I really wanted to read it. There is not a lot out there for the Marshalsea in terms of sit with a brew, readable history. Jerry White is the best in this regard. However, I do feel that due to the limited amount of sources regarding the Marshalsea that this book struggled to meet the word count. It reads more like a dissertation than a book. I think it is the classic academic problem in which you know so much, and find the smallest Jerry White really wanted to write a book on the Marshalsea and I really wanted to read it. There is not a lot out there for the Marshalsea in terms of sit with a brew, readable history. Jerry White is the best in this regard. However, I do feel that due to the limited amount of sources regarding the Marshalsea that this book struggled to meet the word count. It reads more like a dissertation than a book. I think it is the classic academic problem in which you know so much, and find the smallest little things interesting, but forget about the audience who even in history, want a narrative.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    I’m absolutely sure this is a terrific academic achievement for the writer and if you’re a specialist, invaluable and impressive. But for a dedicated reader of fiction, apart from the personal stories of life in the dreaded Marshalsea, and descriptions of the living conditions, I missed the whole human interest/story side achieved by Dickens et al. Historical fiction may be a problematic genre but there are some damn good yarns and opportunities for social comment and campaigning.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Gusev

  9. 5 out of 5

    David Perdue

  10. 5 out of 5

    Francesca White

    Really interesting.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Robert Newsom

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Albert

  13. 4 out of 5

    Charlotte

  14. 4 out of 5

    Selena

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rachael

  16. 5 out of 5

    Robert Daigle

  17. 5 out of 5

    donald william murray

  18. 5 out of 5

    Soph

  19. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  20. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kim M. Belknap

  22. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Roberts

  23. 4 out of 5

    Anita

  24. 4 out of 5

    Peter Holland

  25. 4 out of 5

    Penny

  26. 4 out of 5

    Diana

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  28. 5 out of 5

    Morghan

  29. 4 out of 5

    Christine

  30. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl Armstrong

  31. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

  32. 5 out of 5

    Isabella

  33. 5 out of 5

    Patty Killion

  34. 5 out of 5

    Heather

  35. 5 out of 5

    Nobby

  36. 5 out of 5

    Nicole Oswald

  37. 4 out of 5

    Rob

  38. 5 out of 5

    Jean Fortini

  39. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Childers

  40. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

  41. 4 out of 5

    Karen

  42. 5 out of 5

    Oscar

  43. 5 out of 5

    Cedrick

  44. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  45. 5 out of 5

    Stuart

  46. 4 out of 5

    Helen ONeill

  47. 4 out of 5

    Airlia

  48. 4 out of 5

    Julian Woodford

  49. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Bennett

  50. 4 out of 5

    Yvonne

  51. 5 out of 5

    James

  52. 4 out of 5

    Martin Shone

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