Victorian London - Prisons and Penal System - Prisons - Fleet Prison

The Fleet Prison, for debtors and persons committed for contempt of court, or other offences in the High Court of Chancery, or upon process for debt, or under execution, no longer exists, having been finally closed on Thursday the 10th of November, 1842, and the Marshalsea, a prison also for debtors, on Saturday the 19th of the same month; when, under an act of parliament, passed during the session of 1842, authorizing Lord Denman to issue his warrant for their transference, they were removed to the Queen's Bench Prison, in the Borough

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

    At length, the Prison of "The Fleet" has been abolished, and removed, after an existence of nearly eight centuries . . . 
    In "the Riots" of 1780 the Fleet was destroyed by fire, and the prisoners liberated by the mob; consequently great part of the papers and prison records were lost . . . .
    Immediately after "the Riots," the Prison was rebuilt: it consisted chiefly of one long brick pile, parallel with Farringdon-street, and standing in an irregularly shaped area, so as to leave open spaces before and behind, connected by passages round each other. This pile was called the Master's Side. The front in Farringdon-street had little that was noticeable, if we except the arched opening into a room technically called "the grate," from its crossed iron bars. Above was inscribed, "Pray remember the poor prisoners, having no allowance;" a small box was placed at the window-sill, to receive the charity of passengers in the street, while a prisoner within shouted in suppliant tone the above prayer. The was, unquestionably, a relic of the ancient prison, corresponding with the "begging at the grate" referred to in some of our old comedies. Sometimes, however, the sharing of the public charity was called "having a part of the box," as may be seen by references in the account of the Warden's fees in Elizabeth's reign.
    The entrance to the Prison was by a heavy, stone-framed doorway, bearing on it jambs the figure 9; so that a sort of fictitious address to the inmates of the Prison was "No.9, Fleet Market," and subsequently "Farringdon Street."
    The interior arrangements were very simple: On each of five stories, a long passage extended from one extremity to the other, with almost countless doors opening into single rooms. These passages, or galleries, were ill-lighted; and what with their dank and dirty appearance, and the turmoil of prisoners and visitors passing to and fro from the rooms, the ceaseless banging of doors, echoing through the vaulted roofs, they had a most extraordinary effect upon the nerves of the sensitive visitor, and made him shudder at man's self-imposed suffering. The room presented the usually wretched aspect of a Debtor's prison luxury, in the dirty-white squalor of the walls, perchance scrawled with the offscourings of a low mind, or vulgarity ill at ease. Perchance, too, the light streamed through murky and begrimed glass upon a bed of "London white," which the occupant, in the heyday of his dissipation, would have scarcely deemed fit for a pauper. In short, the tattered curtain, the rickety or broken furniture, and the "G.B." upon the jambs of the grate, denoted  "all manner of unrest," however those initials, under ordinary circumstances, impart the idea of security and Royal possession.
    The inmates and straggler in this house of care, presented almost as various aspects as those of a Spanish crowd. Here might be seen the turbaned debtor, bewrapped in the dirty relics of his flaunting finery; the ci-devant man of property creeping about in rags, and craving to do the offices of the menial; and the woful wife ministering to cheat sorrow of a smile, yet heart-sick and sore. Ever and anon doors opened, and then came forth the revel shout and the jolly laugh - the indiscriminate welcome, which would have the whole world for one table, and then keep it in a roar. They, whom curiosity tempted to stroll hither, did not soon forget the rabble rout, and their nestling-places:-
        Whence even now the tumult of loud mirth
        Was rife and perfect to the listening ear
    Alack! what "strange bedfellows" did Debt - a phase of misery - make men acquainted with the Fleet. If a prisoner did not wish to go to the Common Side (a building apart, and to the right of the Master's side, where he was put with several other prisoners, into a common room, divided within only cabin-fashion, for which he paid nothing), he had the choice of going into "Bartholomew Fair," the lowest and sunken story, where he paid 1s. 3d. for the undisturbed use of a room; or up to some of the better apartments, where he paid the same rent, but was subject to chummage, i.e. a fellow prisoner put into his room or "chummed upon him" but who might be got rid of by a payment of 4s. 6d. per week, or more, according to the fulness of the prison. The latter prisoner would then provide himself with a common lodging, by letting which prisoners in the Fleet are known to have accumulated hundreds of pounds in the course of a few years.
    Out of doors, there was the same indication of recreant waste as in the interior, though with a stronger shade of vagabondism, and ruffian recklessness. Here might best be seen the characterless "characters" of the place, in which every prison is sure to about. Smokers and other idlers loitered about the steps leading to the racket-ground, where shone many a wight who had lamentably failed in bandying the ball of life. Beneath a shed was played skittles - its senseless wooden rumble echoing through the place. Here you might hear the roar of the great Babel without; and from some point, see one or two of its churches aspiring about the chevaux-de-frize of the prison walls. What a painful train of reflection was called up by the busy hum of the town in contrast with the stagnant life within these brick walls! Then, as if to keep up the mockery, they verged upon the yard of the Belle Sauvage Inn, a place associated with all sorts of locomotion.
    Happily, this pest of a Prison - the Fleet (devoted, we supposed, for sake of contrast, to Chancery prisoners) has been razed to the ground. By Act of Parliament, 1842, the Prison was abolished, and its few inmates were drafted to the Queen's Prison. The Fleet has since been sold to the Corporation of the City . . . 

from The Illustrated London News, 1846

FLEET PRISON, on the east side of Farringdon-street; burnt in the Great Fire of 1666; built anew and again destroyed in the riots of 1780; rebuilt 1781-2 and finally pulled down in April 1844, when (1845) the site was purchased by the Corporation of London for 25,000l., with a view of converting it into a House of Correction, in lieu of the Giltspur-street Compter;* (*23rd Report of Woods and Forests, p.34) but the site is still unoccupied. The outer walls were removed Feb.20th, 1846, and the prison abolished, pursuant to 5 & 6 Vict., c22, by which the three prisons, the Fleet, the Queen's Bench, and Marshalsea were consolidated, and made one by the name of the Queen's Prison.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

see also James Grants - Sketches in London Chpt.II  - click here