Bailouts, layoffs, depressed retail sales—the news is full of dismal economics these days. When people lose their jobs, we at least have a few protections like Welfare and Social Security. In the nineteenth century, if you couldn’t pay your bills, you ended up in Debtor’s Prison.
In London, Fleet Prison housed over 300 prisoners and their families. Yep, your spouse and kids went to prison with you. The prison had two wings. On the Master’s side, you and your family would live in a room about 14 by 12 feet, with your own fireplace and window, although there were several larger, grander rooms you might get if the current tenant left and you had seniority. On the first floor was a chapel, tavern, and coffee house as well as the rooms for the watchman. The prison also boasted an inner courtyard where you could play tennis or lawn bowling.
On the Common side, you lived in a room about 24 feet square with a fireplace and windows. Narrow bunks were built into the walls, seven on a side. You were supposed to have a kitchen in the basement, but an observer in 1780 noted that it was full of lumber and couldn’t be used.
And you had to pay for the privilege of being in prison. Every prison at this time had fees, and the ones in the Fleet were supposed to be the highest in England. You paid for your rooms and your food; you paid to have the leg shackles taken off. If all the rooms were occupied when you arrived, you paid some tenant for part of his room. If you were deemed not particularly dangerous, you could pay to live in rooms near the prison instead (called the Liberty of the Fleet). If you were deemed dangerous and in need of additional punishment, you could be sent to the dungeons, and you could pay to get out of that too!
So, if you were already in prison for not being able to pay your bills, how on earth could you afford to be in prison? The ways to earn money were numerous. Family and friends could provide you with gifts, which you could sell to the prison staff or other prisoners for money. You could stand by the grille on the Farringdon Street side and stick your hands out the windows to beg passersby for money. If you had any trade (shoemaker, pharmacist, minister), you could ply it in prison, and the other prisoners or visitors could pay you for it. The ministers in particular were in high demand to conduct rushed marriages (for people in the prison and for those in London). Before Parliament outlawed the practice in 1753, up to 100 couples were married near the Fleet every day!
And some people think a wedding chapel in Vegas is unromantic!