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In The Debtors’ Prison

June 8, 2010
by the gentle author

Walking into a cell from an eighteenth century prison in Wellclose Square was an especially vivid experience for me because, if I had lived then, I and almost everyone I know would have invariably ended up in here at some point. Although almost nothing is known of the occupants of this cell, they created their own remembrance through the graffiti they left upon the walls during the few years it was in use, between 1740-1760, and these humble inscriptions still recall their human presence after all this time.

No one could fail to be touched by the emotional storm of marks across the walls. There are explicit names and dates carved with dignity and proportion, and there are dozens of crude yet affectionate images, presumably carved by those who could not write. There are also a few texts, which are heartbreaking in their bare language and plain sentiment, such as “Pray Remember the Poor Deptors.” The spelling of “deptors” after the model of “Deptford” is a particularly plangent detail.

About six feet wide and ten feet long, with a narrow door in one corner, and lined with vertical oak planks, this is one of several cells that once existed beneath the Neptune public house. There is a small window with wide bars, high upon the end wall, corresponding with street level – not enough to offer a view, but just sufficient to indicate if it was daylight. There would have been straw on the floor and some rough furniture, maybe a table and chairs, where the inmates might eat whatever food they could afford to buy from the publican, because this was a privately managed prison run for profit.

Wellclose Square was once a fine square between Cable St and the Highway, which barely exists any more. St Peter’s School, with its gleaming golden ship as a weathervane, is the only building of note today, though early photographs reveal that many distinguished buildings once lined Wellclose Square, including the Danish Embassy, conveniently situated for the docks. When the Neptune was demolished in 1912, two of the cells were acquired by the Museum of London, where  I was able to walk into one this week to meet Alex Werner the curator responsible for putting it on display. “We’re never going to know who they are!” he said with a cool grin, extending his arms to indicate all the names and pictures that people once carved with so much expense of effort, under such grim conditions, to console themselves by making their mark.

It is a room full of sadness, and even as I was taking my photographs, visitors to the museum came and went but did not linger. In spite of their exclamations of wonder at the general effect of all the graffiti, people did not wish to examine the details too closely. The lighting in the museum approximates to candlelight, highlighted some areas and leaving others in gloom, so I took along a flashlight to examine every detail and pay due reverence to the souls who whiled away long nights and days upon these inscriptions.

In a dark corner near the floor, I found this, painstaking lettered  in well-formed capitals, which I wrote on the back of an envelope, “All You That on This Cast an Eye, Behold in Prison Here Lie, Bestow You in Charety.” The final phrase struck a chord with me, because I think he refers to moral charity or compassion. Even today, we equate debt with profligacy and fecklessness, yet my experience is that people commonly borrow money to make up the shortfall for necessary expenses, when there is no alternative. I was brought up to avoid debt, but I had no choice when I was nursing my mother through her terminal illness at home. I borrowed because I could not earn money to cover household expenses when she lived a year longer than the doctors predicted, and then I borrowed more when I could not make the repayments. It was a hollow lonely feeling to fill in the lies upon the second online loan application, just to ensure enough money to last out until she died, when I was able to sell our house and pay it off.

So you will understand why I feel personal sympathy with the debtors who inhabited this cell. Every one will have had a reason and story. I wish I could speak with Edward Burk, Iohn Knolle, William Thomas, Edward Murphy, Thomas Lynch, Richard Phelps, James Parkinson, Edward Stockley and the unnamed others to discover how they got here. In spite of the melancholy atmosphere, it gave me great pleasure to examine their drawings incised upon the walls. Here in this dark smelly cell, the prisoners created totems, both to represent their own identities and to recall the commonplace sights of the exterior world. There are tall ships with all the rigging accurately observed, doves, trees, a Scots thistle, a gun, anchors and all manner of brick buildings. I could distinguish a church with a steeple, several taverns with suspended signs, and terraces stretching along the whole wall, not unlike the old houses in Spitalfields.

I shall carry in my mind these modest images upon the walls of the cell from Wellclose Square for a long time, created by those denied the familiar wonders that fill our days. Shut away from life in an underground cell, they carved these intense bare images to evoke the whole world. Now they have gone, and everyone they loved has gone, and their entire world has gone generations ago, and we shall never know who they were, yet because of their graffiti we know that they were human and they lived.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. mary erlich permalink
    April 1, 2011

    I was very touched by your observations and thoughts on those who had occupied the prison cell. Also very moving was your empathy for those prisoners, brought to the fore by your personal experiences when looking after your mother. That should never have happened! I hope you recovered and again have your own home.

  2. June 7, 2011

    I enjoy reading your newsletter and look forward to receiving it each day. The last time I was in London I visited the Clink prison. I found it most interesting. Because of that experience, I can visualize and feel what you have described. Thank you.

  3. Deborah permalink
    December 7, 2011

    Beautiful and haunting. Thank you!

  4. Laura permalink
    April 20, 2012

    These carvings in the walls of this awful and sad place to me are very reminiscent of the love tokens convicts left for loved ones prior to deportation to Australia -crudely executed generally but with huge emotional force and hope. How wonderful they are still there today.

  5. Chrissie permalink
    February 22, 2015

    Beautifully written, thank you for sharing this

  6. Nanci permalink
    August 30, 2015

    Loved your commentary and feelings on those poor people who were imprisoned within. It is extremely touching and so sad. I feel terrible for them and my heart breaks, even now so many centuries later.

  7. Scotty permalink
    December 21, 2015

    A wonderful piece which really fires the imagination. I drive past Newgate every day and always wonder about the poor souls that entered that awful place.

  8. Marianne Baddiley permalink
    February 29, 2016

    Thank you so much for your comments. I found them so thoughtful. Thank you also for sharing.

  9. Val Rickson permalink
    March 28, 2016

    I came across this piece whilst looking into my ancestry. I had ancestors living around this area. I have also visited the cell in The Museum of London twice and both times had to leave it as I felt extreme sadness and oppression in fact I became breathless. After reading this I feel I should visit again and look more closely at the engravings.

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