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Chapter 25. Fleet Prison Prisoners. - John Ashton 1888

This London history site is a wiki of early London streets.

In a Return of the number of persons in the several Gaols of England, confined for Debt, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed, May 13, 1835, we have an "Account of the Number of Persons confined for Debt in the Fleet Prison during the following Years:

1830 1831 1832 1833 1834 Number confined 742 700 884 746 769 Number charged in Execution 105 136 134 126 156

And the amount of the debt and costs for which each party was so charged varied from L2 to L18,017.

I look in vain in the _Times_ for the paragraph to which the Warden alludes in the following letter:

"The Warden presents his compliments to the Editor of the _Times_, and begs to state, that a paragraph having appeared in the paper of this morning, stating that the Fleet Prison is very full, and that a guinea and a half a week is paid for a single room, and that four, five, and six persons are obliged to live in a small apartment.

"The Warden, not being aware of this, should it in any case exist, and which is contrary to the established regulations against any person so offending, the prison not being so full as in former years, there being considerably less, on an average, than two prisoners to each Room, and being also exceedingly healthy.

"The Warden has also to add, that the rest of the paragraph relating to the Fleet is totally without foundation.

"Fleet Prison, March 7, 1836."

In the outside sheet of the _Times_, February 21, 1838, occurs the following advertisement: "ONE HUNDRED POUNDS REWARD.--Escape.--ESCAPED from the Fleet Prison, on the evening of Wednesday the 14th day of February instant. ALFRED MORRIS, late of 22 Dean Street, Tooley Street, Southwark. The said Alfred Morris is about 30 years of Age, about 5 feet 6 inches high, dark complexion, and of a Jewish Caste, prominent Nose, somewhat flat pointed, dark, irregular whiskers, stout figure, and rather bow legged," &c., &c.

Anent this escape, the _Times_ of February 16th has a paragraph such as we can hardly imagine ever could have appeared in a paper so steady and sober, as the _Times_ now is: "THE WARDEN OF THE FLEET--(From a Correspondent). Yesterday a gentleman of some misfortune and of great appearance, for he wore a wig, moustaches, and a Spanish Cloak, was introduced as an inmate of Brown's Hotel, so called from the Warden having a license to sell wines, beer, and ale to his prisoners, through the 'patent never ending always improving Juddery spigot and fawcet tap,' &c. In about half an hour the said bewhiskered gentleman leaves cloak, wig, and moustaches in the room of a Mister Abrahams, a prisoner, and walks quietly out, very politely bidding the turnkey 'good morning.' At night the excellent crier of the Prison, Mr. Ellis, made the galleries echo, and the rooms re-echo, with his sometimes very cheering voice (when he announces to those who wish such things as a discharge, for it is not all who do), in calling, _altissimo voce_, 'Mr. Alfred Morrison! Mr. Alfred Morrison! Mr. Alfred Morrison!' but as no Mr. Alfred Morrison answered to the interesting call, every room was searched in the due performance of the crier's duty, but no Mr. Alfred Morrison was to be found. And the Worthy and excellent warder, the keeper of so many others in, is himself let in to the tune of L2,600; some say more, none say less.

'Go it, ye cripples! crutches are cheap! W. Brown is no longer asleep!'"

In a leading article in the _Times_ of November 13, 1838, upon juvenile crime, and the incitors thereto, we read the following: "The Traders in crime do not wholly confine their seductions to the young; they often find apt scholars among the unfortunates of riper years, especially in the _debtor's prison_. Mr. Wakefield[152] says he knows many such victims; and he particularizes one 'Who was not indeed executed, because he took poison the night before he was to have been executed, who told me he had been, (and who I firmly believe was) first incited to crime when a Prisoner in the _Fleet_ for debt. The crime into which he was seduced was that of passing forged Bank of England Notes. He was a Man of very showy appearance, and he had been a Captain in the Army; a man of good family. He said this crime was first suggested to him by persons who were Prisoners in the Fleet; but he afterwards discovered, having been a Prisoner there more than once, that one of a gang of Utterers of forged Notes lived constantly in the _Fleet_, and for no other purpose but that of inducing reckless young men of good appearance, who could easily pass notes, to take Notes from them, and to dispose of them in transactions. I could hardly believe that that was true, and I got some inquiries to be made for the person whom he had pointed out to me as one of a Gang, and I found that that person was constantly in the _Fleet_. The Gang committed a robbery upon a Bank in Cornwall, and they were entirely broken up, and from that time forth the Person who had resided in the _Fleet_ disappeared, though he was not one of the persons convicted, or suspected of that particular Crime. I never heard of him since, but the inquiries which I then made, convinced me that it was a fact that one of the Gang of what are termed 'family men,' that is, rich thieves and receivers of stolen goods, did reside continually in the _Fleet_, for the purpose of seducing young men into the commission of Crime. He was in and out of the Prison, but a Prisoner on a friendly arrest."

The time was coming, when imprisonment for debt was to be abolished. An Act of 1 & 2 Vict. cap. 110 had already abolished Arrest on Mesne Process in Civil Actions, so that no prisoners could be committed to the Fleet from the Courts of Chancery, Exchequer, and Common Pleas, and the Debtors and Bankrupts might as well be in the Queen's Bench. The Demolition of the Fleet was therefore confidently anticipated, as we find by the following paragraph from the _Times_, March 3, 1841. "REMOVAL OF PRISONERS. On Saturday a deputation from the Woods and Forests, attended by the Marshal, visited the Queen's Bench Prison, preparatory to moving over the Debtors from the Fleet, which prison is about to be pulled down. By this arrangement the Country will save about L15,000 per annum, besides getting rid of an ugly object, and room being made for other contemplated improvements. It is supposed the Judges will find some difficulty in removing the Prisoners from the Fleet by Habeas Corpus, and that a short Bill will be necessary for that purpose. The expenses of the Queen's Bench Prison in its present profitless employment, is about L30,000 per annum to the Country."

This announcement was slightly premature, for the Act for its demolition (5 & 6 Victoriae, cap. 22) was not passed until May 31, 1842. The Prisoners objected to the Transfer to the Queen's Bench, preferring their comparative liberty as they were, to the more stringent rules of the other prison: one clause in the new Act being: "And be it enacted, That after the passing of this Act, no Prisoner in the Queen's Prison shall be allowed to send for, or to have any Beer, Ale, Victuals or other Food, or to send for, have or use any Bedding, Linen, or other Things, except such as shall be allowed to be brought by them respectively under such Rules, to be made in the Manner directed by this Act, as may be reasonable and expedient to prevent Extravagance and Luxury, and for enforcing due Order and Discipline within the Prison."

I have before me the Original Subscription list of a scheme of



The Abolition of the Fleet Prison.

April 9th, 1842."

The author of the Letter of "Fleta to the Lords, calling upon them individually to Oppose the Bill _for transferring the Debtors in the Fleet_ to the Queen's Prison, respectfully calls upon all Parties interested in an _Opposition to the said Bill_, to render him such pecuniary assistance in forwarding his Object, as may be consistent with their Views or Convenience." A list of Subscriptions follows, but although 25/-was promised, only 15/-appears to be paid. They held meetings, a notice calling one of which is facsimiled; but it was of no avail, and they had to go.


_Notice_ The _Memorial_ to the Lord High Chancellor, and to the Judges of the Supreme Courts of Law, will lie for _Signatures_ at the Tap from 12 till 2 o'Clock. Fleet. Wed. May. 4. 1842.]

One Philip Ball, a Chancery Prisoner, composed


A melancholy Chaunt,

_Written by a_ COLLEGIAN, _on the occasion of the Queen's Prison Bill receiving the Royal Assent._

Air. 'The Fine Old English Gentleman.'


I'll sing to you a bran new song Made by my simple pate, About the end of the good old Fleet, Which on us now shuts its gate. It has kept confin'd the choicest lads That e'er together met-- Of merry, jolly, rattling dogs, A regular slap up set. Of jovial Fleet prisoners, All of the present day.


This good old pris'n in every room Contains a merry soul, Who for his doings out of doors Is now drop't 'in the hole.' But surely this is better far Than your simple plodding way, Get deep in debt, go through the Court, And whitewash it all away. Like a jovial Fleet prisoner, All of the present day.


Such right good hearts are rarely found, As round me now I see; With such, I'm 'most inclined to say, Hang liberty for me. For T----y, S----y, V----h, In spirits who excel? How could we better live than here, Where friendship weaves her spell? 'Mongst jovial Fleet prisoners, All of the present day.


To racquets, skittles, whistling shops, We must soon say farewell; The Queen's assent to her prison bill Has rung their funeral knell; And Bennett, Gray, and Andrew too Must close their welcome doors, For sing song and tape spinning now, This damn'd new Act all floors, For the jovial Fleet prisoner, All of the present day.


But to her gracious Majesty You'll long be loyal and true, Although this latest act of hers Must be felt by some of you. Speed through the Court, or compromise Like gallant Captain T----h, Or else you'll soon be sent to grieve Your guts out in the Bench. All melancholy prisoners[153] Unlike those of the present day.

Much, however, as the prisoners might grieve, it was of no use kicking against an Act of Parliament, and those prisoners who did not take advantage of the Insolvent Debtors Act, were transferred to the Queen's Prison, which in its turn ceased to be a debtor's prison, and was used by Military offenders, until it was sold on Oct. 30, 1879, and pulled down in that and the following year. Now, legally speaking, there is no imprisonment for debt, but people are only committed for Contempt of Court.

The Commissioners of Woods and Forests invited Tenders for the site and buildings of the late Fleet Prison, the estate of which contained above One Acre, with a frontage of about 251 feet, towards Farringdon Street, and a depth of about 230 feet. The tenders were returnable on Oct. 22, 1844, and the Corporation of the City of London became the owners of the property at a sum variously stated at L25,000 to L29,000, and the sale of its building materials commenced on April 5, 1845. Its exterior was not particularly attractive.

And so it passed away, and half the present inhabitants of London the Great do not even know its site, which was not finally cleared until 1846. As a guide to those who wish to know its locality I may mention that the CONGREGATIONAL MEMORIAL HALL AND LIBRARY, in Farringdon Street, stands on a portion of its site.



[Illustration: SECTION OF THE PRISON.]

Before quitting the subject of the Fleet prison I cannot help referring to "the grate." Like Ludgate, it had a room open to the street, but furnished with a strong iron grating, behind which sat a prisoner, who called the attention of the passers-by monotonously chanting, "Pray Remember the poor Prisoners." A box was presented for the reception of contributions, but very little money was thus obtained.

[Illustration: EXTERIOR OF THE GRATE.]

The begging grate was served by poor prisoners who had to swear that they were not worth L5 in the world. He was then entitled to share the contents of the begging box, and also be a partaker of the charities and donations to the Prison, which amounted to the magnificent sum of L39 19s., besides meat, coals, and bread.

Prisoners of all sorts and conditions met here, on one common basis, one of the last of any mark being Richard Oastler, who was the leader of the Ten Hours' Bill Movement, and from this prison he issued a series of "Fleet Papers" about Free Trade, Factories Acts, and the Amalgamation of the Prisons. He died in 1861, and a memorial to him was erected at Leeds.