Well, this is both grim and fascinating.
The Marshalsea (1373–1842) was a notorious prison in Southwark, just south of the River Thames. Although it housed a variety of prisoners, including men accused of crimes at sea and political figures charged with sedition, it became known, in particular, for its incarceration of the poorest of London’s debtors. Over half the population of England’s prisons in the 18th century were in jail because of debt.
Run privately for profit, as were all English prisons until the 19th century, the Marshalsea looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned as an extortion racket.
Not a fun place to reside:
By all accounts, living conditions in the common side were horrific. In 1639 prisoners complained that 23 women were being held in one room without space to lie down, leading to a revolt, with prisoners pulling down fences and attacking the guards with stones. Prisoners were regularly beaten with a “bull’s pizzle” (a whip made from a bull’s penis), or tortured with thumbscrews and a skullcap, a vice for the head that weighed 12 pounds (5.4 kg).
Thomas Bliss had a particularly grim time of it. A carpenter who was imprisoned over a debt, he wasn’t able to pay gaol fees, and so facing starvation he attempted to escape “by throwing a rope over the wall, but his pursuers severed it and he fell 20 feet into the prison yard.” He was tortured by prison boss William Acton and his goons, who wanted him to grass up who had supplied the rope. “Acton beat him with a bull’s pizzle, stamped on his stomach, placed him in the hole (a damp space under the stairs), then in the strong room.”
The ‘strong room’ was a fetid, airless, unlit hellhole originally designed to incarcerate pirates and located adjacent to the prison’s sewer.
Bliss was left in the strong room for three weeks wearing a skullcap (a heavy vice for the head), thumb screws, iron collar, leg irons, and irons round his ankles called sheers. One witness said the swelling in his legs was so bad that the irons on one side could no longer be seen for overflowing flesh. His wife, who was able to see him through a small hole in the door, testified that he was bleeding from the mouth and thumbs. He was given a small amount of food but the skullcap prevented him from chewing; he had to ask another prisoner, Susannah Dodd, to chew his meat for him. He was eventually released from the prison, but his health deteriorated and he died in St. Thomas’s Hospital.
You can almost hear the brows furrowing approvingly in boardrooms at companies like Sodexo, G4S and Serco as they consider the profitable lessons to be learned from the past.