Off the north side of Long Lane, opposite St George’s church, only a few strides from the junction with Borough High Street you will find Angel Place.
Years have passed and scenes have changed since Charles Dickens, the man who arguably defined Christmas, would know this area, he went in search of the Marshalsea Prison, where his father was jailed for debts.
ANGEL PLACE (then called Angel Court) is still here. It is named after a tavern which stood on the north side of the Court and in the reign of Henry VIII was owned by Richard Fulmerston.
For a number of years, a room had been set aside in the tavern for use as a prison, but Fulmerston was unhappy with the situation and so erected a new building alongside his tavern and surrounded it with a high wall. In later years this building was sold to the Crown who leased it to the Marshal of the King’s Bench for use as a prison. By 1755 the King’s Bench Prison was in a desperate state of repair and was declared inadequate for the custody of prisoners.
The old building was demolished and on the same site, enlarged through the purchase of part of St George’s Fields, a new prison was erected at a cost of £7,800. Who better to describe this little area than the master of story-telling himself, and for the very words we need only turn to the preface to Little Dorrit:
Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, I came to Marshalsea Place, the houses in which I recognised, not only as the great block of the former prison but as preserving the rooms that arose in my mind’s eye when I became Little Dorrit’s biographer. . . . Whosoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea Goal; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; will stand among the crowded ghosts of many miserable years.
The history of the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench Prisons is more than slightly confusing due to the rebuilding and the loose terms applied in those days to each prison. Marshalsea was closed in 1842, twenty-eight years before the death of Dickens (1870) but the King’s Bench continued to receive prisoners until 1869.
Angel Place still has pitted old red bricks resembling those surrounding the prison. On the site of that dreadful place is a tatty garden reached from the passage by ascending a few steps and passing through the wrought iron gates. When taking a stroll down here, the aspect may be vaguely similar to the view that Dickens experienced, although not quite as daunting, but you can still pick up the flavour of the old times.
Angel Place: A view from Tennis Street at the east end of this historic alleyway. The tapered brick wall seen here is the only part of the old prison wall still standing. Angel Place is a long, narrow alleyway connecting the present residential area of Tennis Street at its east end with the historic Borough High Street at the western end. The alleyway forms part of the site of the former Marshalsea Prison, before that the Surrey County Gaol. Southwark Council ‘improved’ it with new lighting and paving in 2004, and in 2010 added a series of inscribed stone plaques in the pavement. By Stephen Craven (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.