Like Charles Dickens, Reynolds pointed out foolish was imprisonment for debt, a form of punishment that was a holdover from a pre-capitalist economy. In Little Dorrit Dickens drew upon the humiliation and insecurity his family experienced when his father was imprisoned for debt. I have no idea of Reynolds had similar experiences when he attacked debtor's prisons in The Mysteries of London. In the first two paragraphs Reynolds abandons narrative, writing prose of a straightforward essay or lecture, and in the third he turns to dscription. — George P. Landow]

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f a man cannot muster four or five pounds to transfer himself from the custody of the Sheriffs to that of the Judges, by a habeas corpus writ, he must remain in Whitecross-street prison, while the more wealthy debtor enjoys every luxury and privilege in the Bench. And yet, we are constantly assured that there is the same law for the poor as there is for the rich!

The system of imprisonment for debt is in itself impolitic, unwise, and cruel in the extreme:--it ruins the honest man, and destroys the little remnant of good feeling existing in the heart of the callous one. It establishes the absurd doctrine, that if a man cannot pay his debts while he is allowed the exercise of his talents, his labour, and his acquirements, he can when shut up in the narrow compass of a prison, where his talents, his labours, and his acquirements are useless. How eminently narrow-sighted are English legislators! They fear totally to abolish this absurd custom, because they dread that credit will suffer. Why--credit is altogether begotten in confidence, and never arises from the preconceived intention on the part of him who gives it, to avail himself of this law against him who receives it. Larceny and theft are punished by a limited imprisonment, with an allowance of food; but debtors, who commit no crime, may linger and languish--and starve in gaol.

The Poultry Ward was a long, dark, low room, with seven or eight barred windows on each side, sawdust upon the stone floor, and about a dozen or fourteen small tables arranged, like those of a coffee-house, around the walls. The room was full of debtors of all appearances--from the shabby-genteel down to the absolutely ragged. Here a prisoner was occupied in drawing up his schedule for the Insolvent Debtors' Court;--there an emaciated old man was writing a letter, over which he shed bitter and scalding tears;--at another table a young farmer's labourer-looking man was breakfasting off bread and cheese and onions, which he washed down with porter;--close by was a stout seedy-looking person with grey hair, who did not seem to have any breakfast at all;--in this nook a poor pale wretch was reading a newspaper;--in that corner another individual was examining a pile of letters;--several were gathered round the fire in the scullery or kitchen attached to the Ward, preparing their breakfasts;--and others were lounging up and down the room, laughing and talking over the amusements of the preceding night up in the sleeping rooms. [ch. 35, “Whitecross-Street Prison”]


Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.

Last modified 29 July 2016