The Marshalsea Prison, just off Borough High Street, in Southwark had its roots in the C14th, it was first mentioned in 1373. Most prisons at that time were privately run.
It was a brutal and cruel place where men served sentences for debt, sedition, crimes at sea and other crimes. The brutality was such that there were many uprisings and breakouts.
Prisoners, if fortunate, were able to work to pay off their debts or their prison fees. Those that could not clear their debt, found it increasing as fees were left unpaid. Small debts put them in the Marshalsea but they grew with their time in there, forcing prisoners to suffer longer and longer sentences.
In 1729, conditions had become so bad that a Parliamentary Committee of enquiry was set up to investigate the Marshalsea. They found hundreds had starved or suffocated to death, such were the cramped and inhumane conditions.
The philanthropist, General Oglethorpe raised a fund to pay off the debts of as many debtors as possible and this in turn led to the founding of Georgia, in the US as a colony. Georgia was used to resettle debtors and offenders.
Charles Dickens father John, was sent to Marshalsea there in 1824 for a debt he owed his baker. Such was the impact of the Marshalsea on Dickens that he based many of his characters in and around its environs as in the case of ‘Little Dorrit’.