Top 10 Lockdown History Books: 4/10: Mansions of Misery by Jerry White

During the 2020 lockdown, Soul City Wanderer took the opportunity to catch up on his history book reading: These are his top ten recommendations from the pile he ploughed through (in no particular order). 4/10: Mansions of Misery by Jerry White.

Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

The ghosts behind an old brick wall.

Recently, I reviewed a book about the George pub in Southwark. A short hike from here, moving southwards along Borough High Street, once stood one of London’s most notorious prisons, the Marshalsea. This was also the subject of a recent ‘biography’ Mansions of Misery by Jerry White (Vintage 2017) which, unlike the George, no longer exists. A real ghost of the past.

A street name and an old brick wall are the only visible reminders left to remind us of the infamous Marshalsea. Once a prison for those convicted of misdemeanours at sea, it later became essentially a debtor’s prison.

White reveals some famous names from history passed through its gates. One inmate was Bloody Mary’s favourite executioner-in-chief ‘Bishop Bonner’. The reformer James Oglethorpe led an investigation into the abuse of the prison and in 1832 arranged for some inmates to join a new colony he had formed in Georgia, where he later became the governor. His contemporary the ‘father of the British Museum’, Hans Sloane, also pops up. A prisoner tried to sell him an antique to raise funds for his freedom. Sloane declined.

In the early 1800s, the original prison closed down and moved to a new site a 100 yards or so further south. Its role in the public consciousness began soon afterwards and is down to one particular inmate: Charles Dicken’s father John was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea in 1824, causing major hardship for the family, not least the 12-y-o Charles who had to be removed from school and sent to work in a factory.

I always thought that his father was released thanks to an inheritance. However, as White explains, even though John Dickens did indeed inherit £450 after the death of his mother, he relied on a change of debt insolvency law to walk free. John Dickens was a proliferate borrower-and-not-payer-backer. For the rest of his life he continued to get into debt, to the extent that he almost spent a second spell inside the prison. His now wealthy son was a little embarrassed by his father’s behaviour. In fact, there are parallels in the relationship of William Shakespeare and his father John.

White shows how the Marshalsea is represented in literature, in particular in the books and correspondence of Charles Dickens. One of his the Victorian writer’s most famous novels was centred around the prison, Little Dorrit which exposed the horrors of the place to the wider world.

All-in all, this is an excellent and meticulous historical study. However, I have to declare a slight bias here: Jerry White was a history tutor of mine when I studied for my London History MA at Birkbeck. Nevertheless, his books are typically well-researched and I genuinely enjoyed reading Mansions of Misery.

Mansions of Misery by Jerry White (Vintage 2017)


Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

“A great book… a great guide.

Poems… music… history… and fantastic ways to… go for walks”

Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
Soul City Wandering – the 5-star rated top ten bestseller

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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