Fleet Prison

Last updated

Fleet Prison
OldFleetPrison 300dpi.jpg
"Pray remember ye poor debtors": inmates of the Fleet Prison beg passers by for alms
City of London UK location map.svg
Red pog.svg
London c.1381, plain map.png
Blue pog.svg
Coordinates 51°30′58″N0°6′18″W / 51.51611°N 0.10500°W / 51.51611; -0.10500 Coordinates: 51°30′58″N0°6′18″W / 51.51611°N 0.10500°W / 51.51611; -0.10500
Security class debtor's prison, contemnor's prison
Population300, plus families
Warden See below
Street addressoff Farringdon Street
City London
Notable prisoners
John Donne, Theodore of Corsica

Fleet Prison was a notorious London prison by the side of the River Fleet. The prison was built in 1197, was rebuilt several times, and was in use until 1844. It was demolished in 1846.



The site of the former Fleet Prison (lower right) on Roque's Map of London 1746 1746 Fleet Market Roque.jpg
The site of the former Fleet Prison (lower right) on Roque's Map of London 1746

The prison was built in 1197 off what is now Farringdon Street, on the eastern bank of the River Fleet after which it was named. It came into particular prominence from being used as a place of reception for persons committed by the Star Chamber, and, afterwards, as a debtor's prison and for persons imprisoned for contempt of court by the Court of Chancery. In 1381, during the Peasants' Revolt, it was deliberately destroyed by Wat Tyler's men.

In 1666, during the Great Fire of London, it burned down on the third day of the fire, the prisoners fleeing in the last moments. After the fire, the warden of the prison, Sir Jeremy Whichcote, purchased Caron House in Lambeth in order to house the prison's debtors. Whichcote then rebuilt the prison on the original site at his own expense.

During the 18th century, Fleet Prison was mainly used for debtors and bankrupts. It usually contained about 300 prisoners and their families. Like the Marshalsea prison, it was divided into a restrictive and arduous common side and a more open master's side, where rent had to be paid. [1] At that time, prisons were profit-making enterprises. Prisoners had to pay for food and lodging. There were fees for turning keys and for taking irons off, and Fleet Prison had the highest fees in England. There was even a grille built into the Farringdon Street prison wall, so that prisoners might beg alms from passers-by. But prisoners did not necessarily have to live within Fleet Prison itself; as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for loss of earnings, they could take lodgings within a particular area outside the prison walls called the "Liberty of the Fleet" or the "Rules of the Fleet". From 1613 on, there were also many clandestine Fleet Marriages. The boundary of the Liberties of the Fleet included the north side of Ludgate Hill, the Old Bailey to Fleet Lane and along it until the Fleet Market, and ran alongside the prison to Ludgate Hill. [2]

The Racquet Ground of the Fleet Prison circa 1808 Fleet Prison by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin cropped.jpg
The Racquet Ground of the Fleet Prison circa 1808

The head of the prison was termed the warden, who was appointed by letters patent. It became a frequent practice of the holder of the patent to farm out the prison to the highest bidder. This custom made the prison long notorious for the cruelties inflicted on prisoners. One purchaser of the office, Thomas Bambridge, who became warden in 1728, was of particularly evil repute. He was guilty of the greatest extortions upon prisoners, and, according to a committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the state of English gaols, arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded with irons, put into dungeons, and destroyed prisoners for debt, treating them in the most barbarous and cruel manner, in high violation and contempt of the laws. He was committed to Newgate Prison, and an act [3] was passed to prevent his enjoying the office of warden. [4]

During the Gordon Riots in 1780 Fleet Prison was again destroyed and rebuilt in 1781–1782. In 1842, in pursuance of an Act of Parliament, by which inmates of the Marshalsea, Fleet and Queen's Bench prisons were relocated to the Queen's Prison (as the Queen's Bench Prison was renamed), it was finally closed, and in 1844 sold to the Corporation of the City of London, by whom it was pulled down in 1846. The demolition yielded three million bricks, 50 tons of lead and 40,000 square feet (3,700 m2) of paving. After lying empty for 17 years the site was sold to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway and became the site of their new Ludgate station. [5]

Wardens of the Fleet prison

Notable inmates

In 1601, the poet John Donne was imprisoned until it was proven that his wedding to Anne Donne (née More) was legal and valid. The priest who married him (Samuel Brooke) and the man who acted as witness to the wedding were also imprisoned.

Samuel Byrom, son of the writer and poet John Byrom, was imprisoned for debt in 1725. In 1729 he sent a petition to his old school friend, the Duke of Dorset, in which he raged against the injustices of the system:

Holland, the most unpolite Country in the World, uses Debtors with Mildness, and Malefactors with Rigour; England, on the contrary, shews Mercy to Murtherers and Robbers, but of poor Debtors Impossibilities are demanded ... if the Debtor is able to make up his Affairs with the Creditor, how many Hundreds are afterwards kept in Prison for Chamber-Rent, and other unjust Demands of the Gaolers? ... What Barbarity can be greater, than for Gaolers (without any Provocation) to load Prisoners with Irons, and thrust them into Dungeons, and manacle them, and deny their Friends to visit them, and force them to pay excessive Prices for their Chamber-Rent, their Victuals and Drink; to open their Letters and seize the Charity that is sent them; and, in short, by oppressing them by all the Ways that the worst of Tyrants can invent? Such Cruelty reduces the Prisoners to Despair, insomuch, that many choose rather to shoot, hang or throw themselves out of the Window, than to be insulted, beaten and imposed upon by the Gaolers ... if every Gaoler was allowed a yearly Sallary ... and no Gaoler suffered, under the severest of Penalties, to take either Bribe, Fee, or Reward, no Demand for Chamber-Rent, nor any Fees for Entrance or going out of Prison; in such a Case the Gaols would not swarm as they now do ... In foreign Countries, where the Romish Religion prevails, what Crowds of People of both Sexes, from the highest Prince to the meanest Peasant, thrust themselves into Religious Houses ... it is an apparent Injury to the Country ... too obvious to be denied, that the many Prisons in England, where so many Thousands of both Sexes are detained, is a greater Loss and Injury to the King and Country ... [7]

Other notable inmates include:

In fiction

See also

Related Research Articles

Newgate Prison Former prison in London

Newgate Prison was a prison at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey Street just inside the City of London, England, originally at the site of Newgate, a gate in the Roman London Wall. Built in the 12th century and demolished in 1904, the prison was extended and rebuilt many times, and remained in use for over 700 years, from 1188 to 1902.

Ludgate Building in London, England

Ludgate was the westernmost gate in London Wall. Of Roman origin, it was rebuilt several times and finally demolished in 1760. The name survives in Ludgate Hill, an eastward continuation of Fleet Street, Ludgate Circus and Ludgate Square.

Thomas Bambridge British prison governor

Thomas Bambridge was a British attorney who became a notorious warden of the Fleet Prison in London.

The Clink

The Clink was a prison in Southwark, England, which operated from the 12th century until 1780. The prison served the Liberty of the Clink, a local manor area owned by the Bishop of Winchester rather than by the reigning monarch. As the Liberty owner, the Bishop kept all revenues from the Clink Liberty, and could put people in prison for failing to make their payments. As the Bishop, he could also imprison heretics. The Clink prison was situated next to the Bishop's London-area residence of Winchester Palace. The Clink was possibly the oldest men's prison and probably the oldest women's prison in England.

Debtors prison Prison for people unable to repay a debt

A debtors' prison is a prison for people who are unable to pay debt. Through the mid-19th century, debtors' prisons were a common way to deal with unpaid debt in Western Europe. Destitute people who were unable to pay a court-ordered judgment would be incarcerated in these prisons until they had worked off their debt via labour or secured outside funds to pay the balance. The product of their labour went towards both the costs of their incarceration and their accrued debt. Increasing access and lenience throughout the history of bankruptcy law have made prison terms for unaggravated indigence obsolete over most of the world.

Theodore of Corsica King of Corsica

Theodore I of Corsica, born Freiherr Theodor Stephan von Neuhoff, was a German adventurer who was briefly King of Corsica. Theodore is the subject of an opera by G. Paisiello, Il re Teodoro in Venezia, and one of the six kings in Venice in Voltaire's Candide.

John Dickens Father of Charles Dickens, clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office

John Dickens was the father of English novelist Charles Dickens and was the model for Mr Micawber in his son's semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield.

Francis Pemberton

Sir Francis Pemberton was an English judge and briefly Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench in the course of a turbulent career.

Kings Bench Prison Former prison in Southwark, London

The King's Bench Prison was a prison in Southwark, south London, England, from medieval times until it closed in 1880. It took its name from the King's Bench court of law in which cases of defamation, bankruptcy and other misdemeanours were heard; as such, the prison was often used as a debtor's prison until the practice was abolished in the 1860s. In 1842, it was renamed the Queen's Bench Prison, and became the Southwark Convict Prison in 1872.

Poultry Compter Small prison in the City of London, demolished in 1817

Poultry Compter was a small prison that stood at Poultry, part of Cheapside in the City of London. The compter was used to lock up minor criminals and prisoners convicted under civil law and was run by the City's Sheriff. It operated from the 16th century until 1815. It was pulled down in 1817 and replaced with a chapel.

Thomas Shirley (died 1612)

Sir Thomas Shirley, of Wiston in Sussex, was an English Member of Parliament, government official and courtier who is said to have suggested the creation of the title of baronet.

Marshalsea Former prison in Southwark, London

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 prisoners in the 18th century were in jail because of debt.

A New Wonder, a Woman Never Vexed is a Jacobean era stage play, often classified as a city comedy. Its authorship was traditionally attributed to William Rowley, though modern scholarship has questioned Rowley's sole authorship; Thomas Heywood and George Wilkins have been proposed as possible contributors.

Sir Edward Seymour, 3rd Baronet English politician

Sir Edward Seymour, 3rd Baronet of Berry Pomeroy Castle was an English politician who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1640 and 1688. He fought for the Royalist cause in the English Civil War.

The Black Dog was a prison in Newhall Market, now Cornmarket, in Dublin, Ireland.

Whichcote baronets Extinct baronetcy in the Baronetage of England

The Whichcote Baronetcy, of the Inner Temple in the City of London, was a title in the Baronetage of England. It was created on 2 April 1660 to reward Jeremy Whichcote for his services to the exiled King Charles II. Whichcote, previously Solicitor-General to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, bought the post of Warden of Fleet Prison and, during the Commonwealth, was able to shelter the king's friends and agents in this way.

Henry Seymour Portman

Henry Seymour later Portman, of Orchard Portman, Somerset, was an English politician who sat in the House of Commons of England and then Great Britain almost continually between 1679 and 1715.

Sir ManserMarmion, of Ringstone in Rippingale and Galby was an English Member of Parliament and Sheriff of Lincolnshire.

Lady Agnes Fo(r)ster was a wealthy English woman. She rebuilt Ludgate Prison for debtors. Her accounts are extant.

Sir John Darnall was an English lawyer.


  1. "The Fleet Prison - British History Online". British-history.ac.uk. Retrieved 19 May 2018.
  2. "Fleet Bridge - Fleur de lis Court - British History Online". British-history.ac.uk. Retrieved 19 May 2018.
  3. Warden of Fleet Prison Act 1728 (2 Geo. II c. 32)
  4. Thomas Bambridge, Dictionary of National Biography, accessed February 2010
  5. Timbs, John (1855). Curiosities of London: Exhibiting the Most Rare and Remarkable Objects of Interest in the Metropolis. D. Bogue. p. 346.
  6. "AALT Page". Aalt.law.uh.edu. Retrieved 19 May 2018.
  7. Byrom, Samuel (1729). An Irrefragable Argument Fully Proving, that to Discharge Great Debts is ... Fleet Prison, London. pp. 13–24.
  8. "Jones, John (born c.1578-1583, died 1658?)". Dictionary of Welsh Biography . National Library of Wales . Retrieved 19 May 2018.
  9. "ONSLOW, Richard (1527/28-71), of Blackfriars, London. - History of Parliament Online". Historyofparliamentonline.org. Retrieved 19 May 2018.
  10. 1 2 Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Fleet Prison"  . Encyclopedia Americana .
  11. Michael Harris, 'Pitt, Moses (bap. 1639, d. 1697)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004
  12. Julia Gasper, Theodore von Neuhoff, king of Corsica. The man behind the legend, University of Delaware Press, nov. 2012.


Commons-logo.svg Media related to Fleet Prison at Wikimedia Commons