Monday, July 12, 2010


A Little Bit of Dorrit

Picture: Mr Chivery and son John (Russell Tovey) in action at the gates at the Marshalsea Debtors Prison. This scene is the last one in which John sees of his beloved Amy for some time it's almost her wedding when he next briefly speaks to her under sad circumstances.

In the animated scene below, Russell Tovey is the gate keeper on the left. Ron Cook is on the right. Ron has appeared with Russell in a number of plays over the years. The lady momentarily visible between Russell and Ron is Eve Myles who plays Gwen in Torchwood.

A Little Bit of History: The Marshalsea was a prison on the south bank of the River Thames in Southwark, now part of London. From at least 1329 until it closed in 1842, it housed men under court martial for crimes at sea, including those who had committed "unnatural crimes"; political figures and intellectuals accused of sedition or other inappropriate behaviour; and—most famously—London's debtors, the length of their stay determined largely by the whim of their creditors.

Run privately for profit, as were all prisons in England until the 19th century, the Marshalsea looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned largely as an extortion racket. For prisoners who could afford the fees, it came with access to a bar, shop, and restaurant, and the crucial privilege of being allowed to leave the prison during the day, which meant debtors could earn money to pay off their creditors. Everyone else was crammed into one of nine small rooms with dozens of others, possibly for decades for the most modest of debts, which increased as unpaid prison fees accumulated. A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death within a three-month period, and that eight to ten prisoners were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.

The prison became known around the world during the 19th century through the writings of the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there in 1824 for a debt of £40 and 10 shillings. Forced to leave school at the age of 12 for a job in a factory, Dickens based several of his fictional characters on this experience, most notably Amy Dorrit, whose father, like his own, was a Marshalsea debtor.

Much of the prison was demolished in the 1870s, though some of its buildings were used into the 20th century, housing an ironmonger's, a butter shop, and later a printing house for the Marshalsea Press. All that is left of it now is a long brick wall separating a spartan public garden from a local history library, the existence of what Dickens called "the crowding ghosts of many miserable years" marked only by a plaque from the local council. "[I]t is gone now," he wrote, "and the world is none the worse without it."

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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