Little Dorritt. Marshalsea Debtors Prison. London Walking Tour.
Exit The George and continue along Borough High Street.
Almost every yard off it is named after an old inn. Some retain a few of their cobblestones, and several possess the scarred granite blocks set at the width of a wagon axle, the purpose of which was to protect the gate posts from the damage the coaches caused as they turned into the yards.
Having passed the John Harvard Library, turn immediately left into Angel Place, lined on the right by a dismal brick wall, which is all that remains of:-
The Marshalsea Prison. It was here that John Dickens was incarcerated for debt in 1824. Before being taken, he turned to his 12-year-old son and told him tearfully, ‘the sun was set on him for ever’. ‘I really believed at the time,’ Dickens later told John Forster, that these words ‘had broken my heart.’ Dickens recalled how, when he first visited his father here he ‘was waiting for me in the lodge… and [we] cried very much… And he told me, I remember… that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched.’ Mr Micawber would later give the same advice to David Copperfield in the most autobiographical of all Dickens’s novels.
For the rest of his life Dickens was haunted by Marshalsea Prison. It dominates Little Dorrit, the heroine of which is a debtor’s daughter, born and raised within its confines. And Dickens was speaking from personal experience when he wrote about ‘the games of the prison children as they whooped and ran, and played at hide-and-seek, and made the iron bars of the inner gateway “Home”’. He wrote in the same novel that the Marshalsea ‘is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it’. But, as he neared the book’s completion, spurred on by letters from readers of the serialization enquiring what had become of it, he returned to look upon what remained.
The dark secrets of his miserable childhood would not become universally known until after his death. Thus, his readers would not have known that he was referring to personal memories when, in the preface to the first edition of the book, he wrote that anyone who turned out of Angel Court [now Place] ‘will stand among the crowded ghosts of many miserable years’.
Backtrack to go left along Borough High Street and, on the other side of Tabard Street, is the church of:-
St George the Martyr. Built between 1734 and 1736 it is also known as ‘Little Dorrit’s Church’, since it was here that the heroine of Dickens’s novel was christened. It is also in this church that, on returning to the Marshalsea Prison, she finds herself locked out and so spends the night in the vestry of the church, using the church register as a pillow. Later, she marries Arthur Clennam here. There is a depiction of Little Dorrit in the church’s east window, behind the altar, on which her kneeling figure is shown wearing a poke bonnet.