Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

Written by Jerry White
Review by Valerie Loh

This thoroughly engaging book manages to present the factual and dark history of the notorious London debtors’ prison, Marshalsea, in an accessible and interesting way. The author’s authority and depth of understanding of the history of London is shown in the way the stories of the inmates are revealed through colourful, detailed personal accounts. Each represents a different aspect of society from the better-placed debtor with contacts who could pay for their comfort to be eased, to the poor inmates trapped in a cycle of endless debt and deprivation who described it as ‘hell in epitome‘ or ‘mansions of misery’. Charles Dickens’ father was taken into the new Marshalsea prison in February 1824, a childhood experience that hauntingly appeared in his works. No one was exempt from imprisonment, from the poor to the famous of their day, such as Dr Samuel Johnson and Daniel Defoe. The crushing reality of this cruel and unforgiving prison is revealed in this fascinating, authoritative work. It is an indispensable book of impeccable research as well as a thoroughly intriguing read.