UK book cover US hardback book cover


a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown

The Fleet Prison

The Fleet Prison stood on the eastern bank of the Fleet River, just outside the city walls. The prison was burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, but rebuilt much as before, consisting of several long buildings (with four upper storeys and a cellar) arranged around yards in which better-off prisoners might play rackets or skittles.

Prisons were profit-making enterprises. Nothing was free in prison. Food and lodging had to be paid for by the prisoner. There were fees for turning keys, fees for putting on of irons and fees for taking them off again. Even visitors had to pay fees. And the Fleet had the highest fees in the country. Prisoners with a trade such as tailoring might continue to work and earn while in captivity, but many others were reduced to begging. A grille was built into the wall on the Farringdon street side of the prison, so that prisoners could beg alms from passers-by.

While the poorest prisoners languished in the cellar dungeons (known as Bartholomew Fair), those able to afford it could be lodged in large comfortable quarters on the Master's Side. The Fleet Prison management also supplemented its income by the provision of a prison tap room and coffee-room which were open to the public. The rackets court was also open to the public.

Prisoners of the Fleet did not necessarily have to live within the prison itself; they could take lodgings close to the prison as long as they paid the keeper to compensate him for loss of earnings. The area in which prisoners could exercise this privilege was known as the "Liberty of the Fleet" or the "Rules of the Fleet".

The Liberty of the Fleet became known for its quickie weddings. Ministers (or those only claiming to be ministers) set up shop in taverns and houses. Couples wishing to marry in secrecy or in haste flocked to the area - many of them quite drunk and only briefly acquainted. When the fleet was in and the sailors on leave, there might be two or three hundred weddings in a week. Tens of thousands of these ceremonies were performed before the Marriage Act of 1753 put an end to Fleet weddings.

holborn dorset garden theatre barts holborn lincolns inn fire bridewell start of tour home

(c) 1996 Molly Brown