Escape on the Northbound Stage
The last day of August 1819, a Tuesday, dawned gray, showery, and refreshingly cool in London, promising a welcome end to a weeklong spell of close and muggy weather that seemed to have put all the capital’s citizens in a nettlesome, liverish mood.
Anyone trying to hurry along the cobbled and granite-paved streets that day was still certain to be frustrated, despite the improvement in the weather: The crowds! The crush! The dirt! The smell! More than a million people had lately been counted as living within and beyond London’s city walls, and each day hundreds more, the morning papers reported, were to be found streaming in from the countryside, bent on joining the new prosperity that all hoped might soon be flowering now that the European wars were over. The city’s population was well on the way to doubling itself in less than twenty years. The streets were in consequence filled with a jostling, pullulating, dawdling mass of people. And animals, too: It seemed of little matter to some farmers that there had long been laws to keep them from driving cattle through the center of town — so among the throngs one could spot mangy-looking sheep, more than a few head of cattle, the odd black pig, and of course horses, countless horses, pulling carriages and goods vehicles alike. The stench of their leavings, on a hot week such as this had been, was barely tolerable.
Since it was very early in the morning, there were, of course, fewer crowds than usual. Fewer, that is, except in one or two more notorious spots, where a sad and shabby ritual of the dawn tended to bring out the throngs — and where this story is most appropriately introduced.
The better known of the London sites where the morning masses gathered was in the rabbit warren of lanes that lay near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, to the east of where the river Fleet had once run. Halfway along the Fleet Market a passerby would have noted, perhaps with the wry amusement of the metropolitan sophisticate, that crowds had gathered outside a rather noble, high-walled building whose address, according to a written inscription above the tall gateway, was simple: Number Nine.
An onlooker would have been amused because the address was a mere euphemism, the building’s real purpose only too well known. The streets to the west of Saint Paul’s were one of the two districts of nineteenth-century London where a clutch of the capital’s many prisons were concentrated: the Newgate, the Bridewell, the Cold Bath Fields, and the Ludgate jails had all been built nearby, in what in winter were the chill gloom and coal-smoke fogs of the river valley. And Number Nine was the site of the best known of them all, the prince of prisons, the Fleet.
There was another, precisely similar, ghetto of prisons on the south side of the Thames, in the area that, then technically beyond London, was the borough of Southwark: another small huddle of grim, high-walled mansion houses of punishment and restraint — the Clink, the Marshalsea, the Bedlam prison-hospital, and, formidable in appearance and reputation, just like its sister establishment back at Number Nine, the infamous barrackslike monstrosity of the Prison of the King’s Bench.
The King’s Bench, the nearby Marshalsea, and the Fleet were different from most London prisons. They were very old, for a start, and were privately run according to a set of very strange rituals. They had been instituted for a sole purpose — the holding, for as long as necessary, of men and women who could not or would not pay their bills. These three institutions were debtors’ prisons — and the reason that crowds formed around their entrances each sunrise is that, every morning just after dawn, it was the policy of their wardens to free those inmates who had discharged their obligations.
Of the three the Fleet had the most intriguing entranceway. On either side of the gate was a caged window, and above it the motto “Remember the Poor Debtors, Having No Allowance.” Through the grate could be seen a small and gloomy chamber, with nothing inside except a wooden bench. A doorway beyond, locked and barred from the outside, gave access to the main cellblock. Each day a new impoverished prisoner would be pushed out into the cage — to spend the next twenty-four hours on begging duty, pleading with passersby for money to help in his or her plight. Debtors were obliged to pay for their time in prison; those who turned out to be totally out of funds were forced to go into the grated room and beg.
The crowds outside the Fleet and the King’s Bench prisons on that cool August Tuesday morning, and that so interrupted the progress of men of affairs on their ways along the granite setts with which the road in Southwark and Saint Paul’s had recently been paved, were there to see a spectacle. Tourists came to the jails to see the beggars; the merely curious — as well as the small press of family and friends (and perhaps some still-unsatisfied creditors) — came to greet with amiable good cheer the small group of inmates who each day would emerge, blinking, into the morning sunlight.
According to the prison records, one of the half dozen prisoners who stepped free from behind the high walls of the King’s Bench Prison on that Tuesday morning was a sturdy-looking yeoman whose papers showed him to have come from Oxfordshire, sixty miles west of London. Those few portraits painted of him in his later years, together with a single silhouette fashioned when he was in his dotage, and a bust sculpted in marble more than twenty years later, show him to be somewhat thickset, balding, with a weatherbeaten face.
Some less charitable souls might call him a rather plain-looking man . . .
From THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD. Copyright © 2001 by Simon Winchester. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.