Today’s guest blog is by Antonia Hodgson whose debut historical crime novel The Devil in the Marshalsea has just been published.
When I started research for The Devil in the Marshalsea, I didn’t realise I was going to set the whole novel in a debtors’ prison.
I knew that’s where it would open. The novel begins in September 1727. His clergyman father following an unfortunate misunderstanding in a brothel has disinherited my main character, Thomas Hawkins. Tom spends his nights in gaming houses and taverns and never plans for tomorrow. Of course he ends up in gaol for debt - it’s his destiny.
I began to read up on eighteenth-century London gaols and quickly stumbled across a fascinating true story about the Marshalsea.
In 1729 the head keeper was put on trial for the murder of four prisoners. His name was William Acton and he ran his ‘Castle’ with a mixture of charm, corruption, and cruelty. At the trial the prosecution described how the prisoners had been chained in a filthy storeroom and left to rot. All later died of their injuries.
Why would Acton behave in such a brutal manner? In a word - money.
The prison was run for profit. Ironically for a debtors’ prison, everything cost. When you first arrived you had to pay to have your shackles removed. Then you paid for your cell, your bedding, your food, and drink. If you died your loved ones had to pay a fee before the turnkeys released the body. Prisoners would often pay off their original debts but still languish in gaol because of the crippling additional costs.
Where did the money come from, when you were already in debt? Well, if you had a business, you could continue to run it from the gaol. In the Marshalsea there was a barber called ‘Trim’, a tailor, even a French fortuneteller! You could become one of Acton’s ‘trusty’s’, helping him control the other prisoners. (There were several riots during his time as governor.) Otherwise you had to rely on your friends or on charity - except that Acton had stolen all the donations.
If this sounds bad, it could get even worse. The prison was divided in two - the Master’s Side and the Common Side. On the Master’s side life was relatively civilised, with a coffeehouse and a tavern and a general store. In comparison the Common Side was, as one poet put it, ‘Hell in Epitome’. Crowded cells, rife with disease, that were so stifling people often died of suffocation, especially in the heat of summer.
Terrified of ending up ‘over the wall’, prisoners on the Master’s Side would pay anything they could to stay safe. So it was in Acton’s interest to make the Common Side as wretched as possible. And that included torturing those Common Side prisoners who caused him any trouble.
In the end a government enquiry and public scandal forced Acton from power. He was found not guilty of murder (in suspicious circumstances), but his reputation was badly damaged. Not quite justice, but then real life - unlike fiction - doesn’t always deliver a satisfying ending.
The Devil in Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson is out now, £13.99 (Hodder & Stoughton)
You can follow Antonia Hodgson on Twitter @AntoniaHodgson