The Devil in the Marshalsea

Antonia Hodgson

The Devil in the Marshalsea

The first book in the Tom Hawkins series, 2014

For Joanna, Justine and Victoria,

with thanks.

‘Conscience makes ghosts walk, and departed souls appear… it works upon the imagination with an invincible force, like faith’

Daniel Defoe, The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclos’d, 1729

‘Arose about four. In the Park I saw half a Dozen Crows in very hoarse conversation together, but not understanding their Language I cou’d not devise what they were upon, but believe they was agreeing how to divide the Corps of those unhappy wretches that Dye so briefly in this Place’

John Grano, A Journal of My Life while in the Marshalsea, 1728-9


The Devil in the Marshalsea is set in the autumn of 1727 in London and Southwark, which was generally regarded as a separate town at the time. King George I had died in June. His son, George II, was now king, although he was not crowned until October. People were curious to discover what sort of a monarch he would turn out to be. (A philistine and a buffoon, if we are to believe Lord Hervey, the waspish chronicler of court life.)

The Marshalsea of 1727 is not the same prison that Dickens depicted so brilliantly in Little Dorrit. This second gaol was not opened until the turn of the 1800s and was situated further down Borough High Street. The original prison had existed since at least the fourteenth century and was set between Mermaid Court and what is now Newcomen Street.

In 1720 Britain suffered its first great modern economic catastrophe – the collapse of the South Sea Company. Thousands were ruined when the company’s stock plummeted and the devastating effects were still being felt seven years later. The London Gazette of 17-19 September 1727 was filled with commissions of bankruptcy and death notices calling on creditors to confirm any debts owed. (Not everyone was suffering. There was also a page with instructions to peers and peeresses on their coronation robes, detailing how much ermine they could wear.)

London’s debtors’ prisons were packed – which spelled misery for thousands and a splendid business opportunity for men such as William Acton, head keeper of the Marshalsea. Debtors’ prisons had been common in England for centuries. While the gaols were ultimately owned by the Crown they were privately run for profit. Debtors who had satisfied their creditors would often languish in prison for years because they had run up further debts to the gaol keeper.

It may seem odd that there was so much money to be made from debtors – until we see adverts for pay-day loans and realise there are still plenty of ways to profit from someone else’s misfortune. Many prisoners were supported by family and friends, or could pawn belongings while they looked for ways to pay off their creditors. Some even ran businesses from inside the prison walls – Sarah Bradshaw’s coffeehouse and Mack’s chophouse being two examples. ‘Women of the town’ were regular visitors. And there was indeed a barber called Trim and – exotically enough – a French fortune teller called Madame Migault living in the Marshalsea in 1727. Debtors’ prisons were meant for containment rather than correction – if you could afford to pay for food, drink and company so be it, as long as the keeper got his cut.

Dinner and Supper

A small note to avoid confusion: in the early eighteenth century dinner was usually eaten at around 2 or 3p.m. followed by a light supper later in the evening if needed. All the meals referred to in the novel are based on dishes described in John Grano’s diary written in the Marshalsea in 1728-9. And yes – they really did drink and smoke that much back then.


They did an awful lot of this, too. All the words used in the book were in currency at the time – flagrantly so. César de Saussure, a Swiss visitor to London in the 1720s, commented: ‘Englishmen are mighty swearers’, and that ‘not only the common people have this unfortunate habit’. And he was not referring just to ‘damn’ and ‘by God’.

If these swear words seem in any way anachronistic, it is perhaps because they don’t appear in the more familiar novels and plays of the time. A brief – or indeed a long – glance at ‘libertine literature’ such as Venus in the Cloister (1725) confirms that extremely strong language and graphic sex scenes are nothing new. In the coffeehouses of Covent Garden, the slums of St Giles and the debtors’ prisons of the Borough, I think we can safely assume they did not say ‘sugar’ and ‘fiddlesticks’ when there were more colourful choices available.


They came for him at midnight. There was no warning, no time to reach for the dagger hidden beneath his pillow. They had moved as silently as ghosts, crossing the prison yard and stealing up the dank, narrow staircase while he slept on, oblivious.

A guilty man should not sleep so soundly.

He woke to find a cold blade pressed to his throat. They gagged him and bound his wrists before he had the wit to cry out; dragged him so hard from the bed to his knees that the floorboards split and buckled with the force.

A lantern flared into life, illuminating his attackers. Now, at last, he knew them, and why they had come. He tore frantically at the heavy leather purse tied about his neck for safe-keeping and flung it at their feet, gold and silver coins scattering across the floor.

The man holding the lantern reached down and plucked half a guinea from the dirt, turning it slowly between his fingers. ‘D’you think this will save you?’ He gave a thin smile and tossed the coin back to the floor. Nodded to his accomplice.

Then they sent him to hell.

The watchman found the body the next morning, hanging from a beam in the Strong Room, too high for the rats seething and scrabbling in the shadows below. The turnkeys cut him down and laid him out in the yard, away from three Common Side prisoners taken by fever in the night. The captain may have fallen on hard times, but he was still a gentleman.

The chaplain pointed to the dead man’s battered face and broken body and insisted that the coroner be called at once to investigate. The governor, who’d been drinking with his cronies in the Crown for hours, spat in the dirt and called it suicide – and a pox on anyone who said otherwise. The coroner would rule the same; he’d make sure of it.

Up in the captain’s room, his friends gambled hastily for his scant belongings before the serjeant took them. Clothes, tobacco, a pound of bacon. A small cooking pot smeared with the remnants of last night’s supper. No money. But that was no surprise in a debtors’ gaol.

A young maidservant paused on the landing, arms laden with fresh linen. She stood for a while in the shadows, watching the game and the men who played it. She’d learned a long time ago to keep her eyes and ears open. A good secret was better than gold in the Marshalsea – and more deadly than a blade if you used it right. Her eyes flickered to the floor. Strange. Someone had swept the floor clean in the night. She tucked the thought away, like a stray lock of hair beneath her cap, and returned to her chores.

The killers had swept the floor, but they’d missed one small thing. A coin had skittered across the room in the struggle, coming to rest in a dark corner beneath the captain’s bed. And there it remained as the long months passed, hidden in the dust – a silver crown stained with blood. Waiting to tell its story.

Waiting for me to find it.


Chapter One

‘You have the luck of the devil, Tom Hawkins.’

I grinned at the man across the bench. It was a warm September night, I had a full purse for the first time in months and we had just found a table in the most disreputable coffeehouse in London. Life could not be better. ‘It wasn’t luck,’ I replied, shouting over the din.

Charles Buckley, my oldest friend, shot me a look I had come to know very well over the years: exasperation, disapproval – and a flicker of amusement glowing deep in his eyes. I settled back, content, and lit a pipe. One of my greatest pleasures in life was making Charles laugh when he knew he shouldn’t.

A serving maid passed close to our table – a pretty girl called Betty with tight black curls and skin the colour of roasted coffee beans. I beckoned her over and ordered a bowl of punch.

‘A bowl of coffee,’ Charles corrected. ‘And then home. You gave me your word, remember?’

I slipped a shilling into Betty’s hand. It felt good to have money again – and to spend it. ‘Coffee. And a bowl of punch. We’re celebrating,’ I said, dismissing Charles’ protestations with a lordly wave.

Betty arched an eyebrow. There were only two reasons to celebrate at Tom King’s coffeehouse – a win at the tables or a full recovery from the clap.

‘I t ...

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