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Mansions of Misery, A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison by Jerry White.

Book review and guest post by LH Member Jane Young

mansions of misery by jerry whiteMy introduction to the work of Jerry White was some time ago as a history student. The superb Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 (1980) contributed to two dissertations and later, as a lecturer in social history, it became a perennial staple on the essential reading list.

Mansions of Misery has much in common with Rothschild Buildings in that it is a “microhistory of a small distinctive community” and focuses on individual stories in minutiae, and most entertaining detail. An in depth account of the Marshalsea Prison, the culture of debt, credit and commerce and everyday economy of the commonplace necessities of life and trade in the Capital during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

A study of people as well as an institution; all human life is here. Through the personal accounts of the debtors the incarcerated are given a voice. The looming threat of the Marshalsea is given a resonance and sense of place now almost unimaginable, permeating life in London across all classes. The story of the Marshalsea is also the story of ordinary Londoners and the telling of it results in a fascinating and beautifully written social history of the metropolis.

The research is thorough; moreover a subject that has the potential to be gloomy is made intriguing and immensely readable. A narrative that naturally requires some explanation of the British legal system of the years the Marshalsea was in operation is well executed in a clear and concise manner. Excellent endnotes add interest for the casual reader and make for an invaluable addition to academic reading lists.

The book reveals the Marshalsea during the times made familiar by Hogarth, Smollet and Dickens from the inside: the living arrangements; the hierarchy; the role of the turnkey; relationships among the prisoners; trades that not only served the Marshalsea but were also dependent upon it; the construction and fabric of the building and changes that took place as it evolved from early beginnings until closure in 1842. Within this is contained a picture of London that makes for compelling reading.


Mansions of Misery, a Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison (364 pp) by Prof Jerry White is published by Bodley Head on 6 October 2016 with a cover price of £20.00.

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