Mar 012014
 

Today, Ann Lethbridge, Regency romance author, whose most recent book is Falling for the Highland Rogue, begins a two-part series on Regency prisons. In this article, Ann focuses on the famous, or perhaps, the infamous Fleet prison in London. The majority of prisoners held in the Fleet during the Regency were those who could not pay their debts. This may be difficult for many of us living in the twenty-first century to understand, since people are no longer imprisoned for debt in modern times. But it was a common practice during our favorite period, and Ann’s article will help us all better understand life in the Fleet during the Regency.


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I know this sounds like a bit of a gloomy topic, but it is rather fascinating, especially if one of our characters gets into a bit of trouble.

Print of Hogarth's Rake's Progress - the prison scene

Law, Crime, Punishment and Policing were very different in the Regency than they are today. Often in our books our not so bad characters can end up in the hoosegow for debt. In other words if you could not pay your debts the merchant to whom you owed money could request the court to throw you in prison until you paid them. To us that seems a little bit of an oxymoron, since it would be difficult to earn money while in prison. The idea was, I think, that your family and friends would raise money to get you out, however often a man’s whole family would be incarcerated with him, as per the next picture, because they would have no money and nowhere else to live.

There were several debtors prisons in and around London and of course many others across the country.

Print of exterior of the Fleet prison

The Fleet was one of the oldest, a debtors’ prison as early as 1290, situated on the east side of Farringdon Street, on the east side of Fleet market and derives its name from the Fleet stream, which flowed into the River Thames. The prison was burnt by the rioters in 1780, but was immediately rebuilt on the old plan.

Colored print of the Fleet facade in 1808

One visitor describes it this way:   "The court into which you enter is the whole length of the building which is about 90 feet. Passing through the lobby, you enter the inner court, where the prisoners entertain themselves with tennis fives, and other amusements, as represented in the print. The keeper is called the warden of the Fleet, and his fees from the prisoners for turning the key, for chamber rent, etc. and this amounts to a considerable sum."

Apparently an additional fee was charged not to put the prisoner in chains; the most unfortunate souls were put in the cellars, called sarcastically by the prisoners, "Bartholomew Fair", subterranean dungeons where perishing from illness was almost guaranteed. The conditions were deplorable; when ill-treated prisoners died, their deaths were chalked up to "jail-fever." While there were improvements to this prison early in the nineteenth century, it was really horrible.

So, make sure you pay your credit cards.

We look at another prison next time. Until then, happy rambles.

© 2007 – 2014 Ann Lethbridge
Originally posted at Regency Ramble
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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