Debtor's Prisons Dublin

Debtor's Prisons

Updated 27 June 1999

Submitted by Jane Lyons and posted here with her kind permission.

© Copyright Jane Lyons 1999

The following comes from a number of Sources:

From a report 1841: By Dr. Francis White M.R.C.S.I. one of the Inspectors General of Gaols in Ireland.

It appears that the Governor (Sheriff's prison)was then paid £500 per annum, as well as a share of the fees. These fees were obtained from the rents charged for the accommodation, part of which went to the Governor and part to the Grand Jury. The prison contained 38 rooms, apart from those set aside for Chaplains, for an infirmary and for the Keeper, who supplied furniture according to the ability of the prisoner to pay for it. Four front rooms on the first landing were furnished, for which 10s weekly was charged for each person in them, but there were often four persons to a room. Out of these rents 3s per room went to the credit of the Grand Jury and the balance to the Keeper. There were also unfurnished rooms at 3s per head per week, and in the wings, 16 others at 1s.6d per head per week, all of which went to the Grand Jury Funds. The lowest class of prisoner was put in the basement, a dark, unwholesome place, but even these prisoners were charged 9d each per week for their lodging.

Dr. White said he could not report favourably on the place, nor, in fact, did it ever seem possible to make a favourable report on any of the prisons on the Little Green. Except that it was whitewashed, it’s condition in 1841 seems to have been no better than in 1809 - the walls and ceilings were covered with cobwebs, provisions and cooking utensils were thrown in confusion in the corners and the windows were badly fitting. At that period the Governor had to give security in the very large sum of £10,000 for the safe custody of the debtors, and this was a very real responsibility. A few years before a prisoner confined in the Four Courts Marshalsea, whose debts amounted to £6,000,, escaped and made his way to the continent. His creditors sued the Marshal, whom the Courts held responsible for the amount of the prisoner’s debts. He offered everything he had to the creditors, but some of them refusing to accept a composition, he was arrested and imprisoned. Availing of the Insolvent Debtors Act, he surrendered his entire property, amounting to £1,200, which the Court compelled the creditors to accept and the Marshal was thereupon set free.

The laws against debtors were very severe, and affected a great number of persons. In Dublin alone, in 1841, there were nine prisons, five of which were solely for debtors viz.: The Sheriffs’ Prison, the City Marshalsea adjoining, the Four Courts Marshalsea, St. Sepulchre’s Manor prison and Smithfield penitentiary (empty at that date). The other four were regarded as convict prisons, namely, Kilmainham, Richmond Bridewell, South Circular Road, Richmond General Penitentiary, Grangegorman and Newgate Prison, the last named also holding some debtors. An Act of Parliament, passed in 1759, for the relief of Insolvent Debtors, listed the names of 356 persons to whom the Act applied, confined in Dublin Prisons alone. By 1841 the numbers committed would seem to have much increased. They were in a most unhappy position, unable either to secure their release or even to maintain themselves. They were usually allowed to beg at the gates of their gaol and even to advertise for donation. The following petition appeared in the Dublin Journal, June 3-5, 1788:

"The insolvent debtors in the City Marshalsea that are entitled to the benefit of the Insolvent Act, inform the public that their long confinement has rendered them unable to procure their liberty, not having money to employ a lawyer to do their business, many of them having been confined from 2 to 3 years, whose wives and children being entirely dependant on their industry, are now in a deplorable condition, most humbly request that the charitable and humane will take their distress into consideration and grant them relief"

Various voluntary efforts were made to relieve their lot. A Mr. Powell, who had himself once been committed for debt, left a sum of £800 in the hands of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, from the interest of which a twelvepenny loaf, a piece of beef, some fuel and a guinea each in money, were to be distributed by the Sheriffs to each confined debtor every Christmas Eve. A Society for the relief of debtors was founded in 1773, but lasted only a short time, and was succeeded by the Debtor’s Friends Society. Its object was to compromise and liquidate small debts for which deserving persons were imprisoned. No composition could be made in respect of any debt over £5, except in exceptional circumstances, and no debt could be discharged which had been incurred for spirituous liquors, nor could any relief be granted to those who had been "guilty of combination", that is to say those who engaged in what would now be called Trade Union Activities. Imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1864.

1870: Saint Catherine’s Bells: by Walter Thomas Meyler of Dublin. Meylar had been a tea and wine importer on a large scale. He took part in various patriotic movements. As a result of both activities he spent some time in each of the prisons on the Little Green(as well as in the Four Courts Marshalsea, Thomas Street) and has left vivid and lively pen pictures of each. Following an unsuccessful legal action against an English firm he was arrested in December, 1841 for his opponents costs and confined in the Sheriff’s prison for a week. The following is his description of the place and his experience therein:
"On the top landing of a four storey building were what were called state rooms, furnished in a very indifferent state, and I was introduced into the one,, which forty years before had been the residence of Arthur Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington, where he spent a considerable amount of time, until released by the generous conduct of his bootmaker, who made him the large advance of five hundred pounds on security of his word of honour. As at that period there was no insolvent law, an no release from a debtor’s prison but on paying the amount, what a phase in the world’s history was caused by the disinterested philanthropy of a Dublin tradesman. As the Mornington family was in very straitened circumstances, poor Wellesley might have remained, as thousands have done, rotting and pining away under the infamous law of arrest for debt, until he was carried out, according to the old saying, heels foremost…..
"As I was the newest ‘fish’ it was my duty and inclination to stand dinner and liquids and accordingly gave my groom Cassidy directions to provide everything suitable from a hotel in Bolton Street. In due course, we discussed the inner comforts, spent a jolly evening until bed-time. My invitation having extended to the state - room prisoners, we sat down a dozen to table, being at the rate of three prisoners to each of the four rooms….
"In this establishment - long since closed as a prison and now used as an auxiliary to the North Union Workhouse - I met the usual average of classes, from the perfect gentleman and the honest, honourable, professional and trader, to the keenest schemer and the most depraved swaggerer in society. Victims of the turf, the hells of family scheming…of dissipation and drunkenness. Some women and several young scamps, who wore the semblance of heirs, and taught their tailors, bootmakers and others lessons in book keeping."

Meylers reference to Arthur Wellesley should be taken with considerable reservation. The prison was completed only in 1794 and Wellesley appears to have been serving in india from 1797 to 1805, prior to which he had served in Holland in 1794-5.

Sheriff’s Prison
The original idea of erecting this prison was to prevent the abuses of "sponging houses". These houses were originally taverns or victualling houses in which persons arrested for debt were detained by a bailiff for 24 hours in order to give the arrested ones friends an opportunity to settle the debt. They were usually also the private dwellings of bailiffs, and derived their name from the extortionate charges made for accomodation provided. Warburton says the Sheriff’s prison seems to have achieved its purpose, the fees demanded for it being less than the "sponging houses" If so, the conditions it was supposed to have alleviated must have been very bad indeed, judging by the official reports on the prison. It consists of a bleak looking stone building, to which the entrance was obtained by a double sided flight of steps from Green street, on which it fronts. It had two wings back towards Halston street, one on either side, and all were three stories above the basement. It was practically all cells, fairly roomy, with stout doors and massive locks. The locks were 18 inches in length and 13 inches wide. The key weighed over a pound and was 10 inches long.

1809: Police magistrate report.
They found the place in a state of filth and dirt, loathsome to a degree. One cell under the very body of the building, had been converted into a common dirt hole into which all of the dirt of the prison had been put for 6 months. Walls of apartments had not been whitewashed within memory of any confined within, and wee covered with vermin. The prison was for debtors only, but the unfortunates had to rent this miserable accommodation from the Keeper at prescribed rates, or from the original tenant at greatly enhanced rates for only a portion of the cell. The magistrates obviously suspected the Keeper of sharing in the profits, but were unable to verify their suspicions. The sewers were all out of order and part of the iron railing to the stairs broken away. The Keeper when spoken to about the dirt said he could not afford to keep it clean as besides the fees he paid the Registrars of the Judges for bringing up prisoners, he had to pay the Sheriffs £100 a year, which , if true, was quite illegal.

"Your Committee visited and narrowly inspected this Prison, and found the common Halls below and several Rooms above, so filthy and crowded with Men, Women and Children, that it appeared to them extraordinary how they supported Life with any Degree of Comfort, the Sick and Healthy were indiscriminately mixed in the same Room; they likewise discovered that Usury was carried on in an extraordinary Manner by one Lanahan, whose Room they visited, and found an inside Room furnished with a Strange Variety of all Sorts of Pledges, which he acknowledged he had taken for money Lent; it had the Appearance of a Regular Office for transacting Business; and your Committee were credibly informed, he had carried on this Trade upwards for four Years; they were told that the usual Interest demanded and taken was 1d per week for 1s" (1783)

"The lower rooms very dirty - never white-washed. Six or eight in a room (about 14ft x 13ft). Each pays a penny a night; above stairs 15 pence a week; for an entire room five shillings a week; except one room (13.5 feet x 10) the pay for which is 3s 9 ½ d. All are without furniture. The rooms are crowded with wives (or reputed wives), children, dogs etc. In most of the lower rooms, the debtors sell whiskey; one was a pawnbrokers shop. On the night preceding one of my visits, many had been gambling, drinking & fighting. The committee of the House of Commons reported March 12, 1787, that ‘this prison appears a scene of disorder, irregularity and intoxication ’ ." Howard, p. 80

"This is without doubt, the worst constructed Prison in this city, and the responsibility attached to me as Inspector of City Prisons, with respect to this Marshalsea, is really unpleasant, as I only possess the name, without the power to alleviate the distress of the prisoners. I had about a year ago the power of providing straw and coals for the common hall, but as the grand jury could not legally provide any sum t o cover such expense…… I thought it advisable to apply to the corporation of the city: but in the present deranged state of their finances (through the order passed) yet the means are not forthcoming. Thus, on the subscription of prisoners/….. and on casual charity, are the unfortunate inmates of the City Marshalsea depending;; and I can truly assert that I look upon the times when I have to visit this prison as the most uncomfortable hours of my life, being obliged to visit such an asylum of misery, without the power of ordering the windows to be glazed, or any other little accommodation to be given to the prisoners, who stand much in need of assistance; without doubt the citizens of Dublin are most charitable, and this prison has partaken of the effects of their benevolence……"
"The hatch of this prison has been repaired, within the last year, but every other part is falling fast into decay" Report on the State of Prisons in Ireland, 1818, p. 9 (Report of Rev. P. Gamble, Local Inspector)

In the early 17th Century it was called Brownes Castle (1614) being afterwards converted into an inn, then known from its sign of a talbot or hound, as the Black Dog. In the beginning of the 18th century it was used as the Marshalsea Prison. John Howard writing in 1789, describes it as "an old building, dirty and not white washed." Here, there had been a scene of confusion and riot the night before, which had brought hither the Sheriff with the city guard….."The wives and children of the debtors living with them, bring in spirits, and this makes most of the lower rooms gin shops: to which may be added, that the prisoners are quite idle and unemployed. The garnish is two bottles of whiskey. Here there are persons confined who had large families, whose debts and costs were under ten shillings. A charitable society for the relief of poor debtors, distributes a sixpenny loaf weekly to the most necessitous in this prison" In 1783, Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick MD, stated that "Black Dog, in the city of Dublin, is in a most unwholesome Situation in New Hall Market, surrounded with every exhalation necessary to promote Putrefaction" When the new Sheriff’s prison was erected at Green Street in 1794 the Black Dog was abandoned.

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