Dorrit Street, SE1

Place Name

Ironic name since Little Dorrit Court not far away is far larger. Charles Dickens wrote extensively about the notorious Marshalsea debtors’ prison where his father was held for three months for an unpaid baker’s bill which amounted to £40 and 10 shillings, roughly £3,500 in today’s money. The prison appeared in Little Dorrit, following the fortunes of Amy Dorrit, a young girl, born and raised in Marshalsea. The novel satirises some shortcomings of both government and society, including the institution of debtors’ prisons, where debtors were imprisoned, unable to work and yet incarcerated until they had repaid their debts. Dickens is also critical of the impotent bureaucracy of the government in the form of the fictional Circumlocution Office. He also satirises the British class system. Dickens never forgot the misery of his father’s incarceration. He was just 12 at the time and was sent to live in lodgings in Camden walking each day to Warren’s blacking factory at 30 Hungerford Stairs, which was owned by a relative of his mother. He spent 10 hours a day wrapping bottles of shoe polish, for six shillings a week to pay for his keep. Meanwhile his mother, Elizabeth Barrow, and her three youngest children, joined her husband in the Marshalsea in April 1824. Dickens would visit them every Sunday until he found lodgings closer to the prison in Lant Street. This meant he was able to breakfast with his family in Marshalsea and dine with them after work. His father was released after three months, on May 28, but the family’s financial situation remained poor. In later years Dickens returned to the site of his father’s imprisonment. Writing in May 1857: “Some of my readers may have an interest in being informed whether or no any portions of the Marshalsea Prison are yet standing. I did not know, myself, until the sixth of this present month, when I went to look. I found the outer front courtyard, often mentioned in this story, metamorphosed into a butter shop; and then I almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent ‘Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey’, I came to ‘Marshalsea Place’: the houses in which I recognised, not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose in my mind’s eye when I became Little Dorrit’s biographer… A little further on, I found the older and smaller wall, which used to enclose the pent-up inner prison where nobody was put, except for ceremony. But, whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; and will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years.” Today only the prison’s boundary wall remains at nearby Angel Place. This is one of a small number of streets commemorating Dickens’s connection with the local area.

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