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Grille from the Marshalsea Prison



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This is a large wood and metal grille from the second Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, dating from the 1810s. Charles Dickens's father, John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for three months for debt in 1824. Dickens references the prison in his novels, The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield and more substantially in Little Dorrit.

Other number

2345 (2009 DH object access database number)

Physical description

A large grille composed of twelve vertical metal railings and one horizontal one which bisects the others, set within a wooden rectangular frame.

Object history note

References to a 'Marshalsea prison' in Southwark date from the late 1200s and a building by that name existed from the beginning of the 1300s. In the 1810s, a new Marshalsea Prison was built (at what is now 211 Borough High Street), alongside the old site and this was the building in which John Dickens was imprisoned in for a debt 40 pounds and 10 shillings, for three months, in 1824. His wife Elizabeth and young children Alfred, Augustus and Frederick all moved into the prison with him (this a common practice at the time) whilst his daughter Fanny continued studying at the Royal College of Music, and his son, the young Charles Dickens, was put to work at Warren's Blacking Factory on Hungerford Stairs near the Thames. Dickens worked around ten hours a day fixing labels to jars of boot polish, in what he later described as ‘a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats’. He initially lodged in Camden with a Mrs Ellen Roylance, walking several miles each day down to the river and back, before moving to Lant Street, close to the prison. One of the other boys working at the factory was Bob Fagin, whose name Dickens would remember when creating one of his most famous characters. An indication of the affect that such an experience had on Dickens is suggested by the references to the Marshalsea in his novels The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield, and uses it as the main setting for Little Dorrit.

For over 500 years the prison housed those convicted of subversion, piracy or debt, as well as sailors who had mutinied. The Marshalsea was closed by an Act of Parliament in 1842 and the lands sold off. Sections were demolished in the 1870s with remaining parts used as shops and homes. The final buildings were demolished after the Second World War, except for a section of the wall which remains today.
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