“The system of imprisonment for debt is in itself impolitic, unwise, and cruel in the extreme:- it ruins the honest man, and destroys the little remnant of good feeling existing in the heart of the callous one. It establishes the absurd doctrine, that if a man cannot pay his debts while he is allowed the exercise of his talents, his labour, and his acquirements, he can when shut up in the narrow compass of a prison, where his talents, his labour., and his acquirements are useless. Larceny and theft are punished by a limited imprisonment, with an allowance of food; but debtors, who commit no crime, may linger and languish - and starve in gaol.”
- George W. M Reynolds: 'Mysteries of London' (1844)
London had became notable for the levels of poverty and squalor associated with it at various points in its history. As a result, the early 1800s found large numbers of the populace being imprisoned for being unable to cope with their levels of debt. Being a debtor and unable to pay in these times was very serious, you faced the prospect of being imprisoned in the notorious Newgate Prison with any number of violent criminals. Mixing debtors and more common criminals began to widely considered to be unjust and following a campaign by Sir Richard Phillips the construction of a new debtors prison was ordered. The location for this prison: Whitecross Street.
The prison, designed by William Montague, was constructed in 1813. It was divided into a number of sections; the first was known as the Ludgate side, for debtors who were freemen of the City of London, the second, which was known as the London side, was set apart for persons within the jurisdiction of city, and the third was the Middlesex side, for persons arrested in the country various wards were opened in the following years also. In all, the prison was initially designed to hold 500 debtors. The numbers of people passing through the gates of this building must have been astronomical. From the time of its opening any person who owed a debt of a shilling or sixpence against another party, and was unable or unwilling to pay would be ordered to be imprisoned for twenty days. It was estimated that the number of people annually committed to the prison would have been more than 2000.
The prisoners were fed on funds raised by philanthropists in the city whose their names were displayed on a large board facing onto the yard of prison. Different wards had different benefactors, the poorest of the prisoners could be employed to make the beds, clean the floors and so on. To keep costs down, and as a result of their relatively short imprisonment, the prisoners were encouraged to being their own food in, tea and coffee, bread and butter, tobacco and so forth. To this end they were provided with a small lockable pigeonhole to keep their consumables in. As this was a congregation of the poorest Londoners, theft was endemic. People accustomed to good living may have tried to continue their rich diet while imprisoned, but found their valuable delicacies stolen overnight by their fellow prisoners or opportunistic guards. The general feeling of the prison was that this was a place of penitence, and luxuries were not permitted, spirits and liquors were banned, as were dice and cards. Strangely, it was felt inhumane to force the prisoners to be completely abstinent from alcohol, and they were permitted to drink a pint of wine each day.
In 'Mysteries of London', a penny dreadful which began to be published by George W. M. Reynolds in 1844, the central character is committed to Whitecross Street Prison. Here is an edited extract which describes how the character, Chichester, is processed into the prison population.
“A COLD drizzling rain was falling, as Chichester proceeded along the streets leading to the debtors' prison.
It was now nine o'clock; and the place, viewed by the flickering light of the lamp at the gate of the governor's house, wore a melancholy and sombre appearance. The prisoner was introduced into a small lobby, where an elderly turnkey with knee-breeches and gaiters, thrust a small loaf of bread into his hand, and immediately consigned him to the care of another turnkey, who led him through several alleys to the staircase communicating with the Receiving Ward.
He cast a glance round the room ; and saw three or four tolerably decent-looking persons warming themselves at the fire, while fifteen or sixteen wretched-looking men, dressed for the most part as labourers, were sitting on the forms round the walls, at a considerable distance from the blazing grate.
"How many prisoners, upon an average, pass through the Receiving Ward - in the course of one year?"
"About three thousand three hundred as near as I can guess. All the Debtors receive each so much bread and meat a-week. The prison costs the City close upon nine thousand pounds a year."
"Nine thousand a-year, spent to lock men up, away from their families !" exclaimed Chichester. " That sum would pay the debts of the greater portion of those who are unfortunate enough to be brought here."
That man over there, with the little bundle tied up in a blue cotton handkerchief, is only arrested for 8d. The costs are three and sixpence."
"He is actually a prisoner, then, for four and two-pence."
In addition to the few instances of flagrant dishonesty, or culpable extravagance which were pointed out to Chichester, information was given him of many - very many cases of pure and unadulterated misfortune. Misery - lank, lean, palpable misery - is the characteristic of Whitecross Street prison.
The legislature says - "We only allow men to be locked up in order to prevent them from running away without paying the debts they owe." - Then why treat them as felons? Why impose upon them rules and regulations, the severity of which is as galling to their souls as the iron chains of Newgate are to the felons' flesh? Why break their spins and crush their good and generous feelings by compelling them all to herd together - the high and the low - the polite and the vulgar - the temperate and the drunkard - the cleanly and the filthy - the religious and the profane - the sedate and the ribald?
George W. M. Reynolds: “The Mysteries of London” (1844)
So, even though this prison, at least in comparison to some other London prisons was relatively well-kept, the people imprisoned within were not hardened criminals, they were the common folk of London, thrust into a world of strict rules and dishonesty. It would be a great stigma to a businessman or prominent citizen to be shown to be unable to pay his or her debts, and obviously, during the period of confinement they were unable to run their businesses, inflicting further financial hardship upon them.
The operation of the prison was eventually wound up with the passing of the Debtors Act of 1869. Prior to this, public opinion had shifted on the morality of imprisonment for debt, and the sentence had become a rarity. This Act finally abolished the sentence of imprisonment for debt, and arrangements began to be made for the closure of the prison. By 1870, the last prisoners had been transferred to Holloway Prison and the prison was closed. Soon afterwards, the land was sold to the Midlands Railway Company, who built a terminus on the site, which was then subsequently destroyed in the Blitz. The northern most part of the Barbican Centre is now built on the location.
Whitecross Street, like thousands of other streets in London has a rich and varied history. Purely by researching what has taken place in a certain location, you can gain insights into conditions in the city as a whole, and insights into human nature through time. The sediment of history piling on top of itself throws up a lot of confusion, but by restricting myself along strict geographical lines, studying a microcosm in effect, it is fascinating what has happened here. We may not know what the future holds for Whitecross Street, but at least we can get some understanding of what the past can tell us.