Debtors, Dickens and Dorrit at St George the Martyr, Southwark | Human Anthropology


Illustration from Dickens's Little Dorrit
Illustration from Dickens’ Little Dorrit (May 1856) Image scan by Philip V. Allingham.

In the Natural History Museum’s collections are a number of human remains from a disused post-medieval burial ground at the church of St George the Martyr. These were recovered during widening road-works in the early 1900s and were initially curated by the Royal College of Surgeons before later being transferred to the Natural History Museum.

A team of scientists at the museum have been digitising and analysing these remains in order to learn more about past people who lived and died in London. While delving deeper into the history of the church, one of the team, Rosalind Wallduck, found fascinating insights into life in Post-Medieval London and found that this church shares a common past with Charles Dickens’ life and works.

A burial place for debtors

St George the Martyr
St George the Martyr ©John Salmon (licenced for reuse)

The church of St George the Martyr (Southwark) was initially built in 1122, and was later rebuilt twice, initially in the fourteenth century and again in 1734-36 as the building that exists today. The churchyard was used for many years as a burial-place for prisoners who died in Marshalsea and King’s Bench prisons; both debtor’s prisons. In the past it was common to incarcerate people who couldn’t pay their debts. During this time they would be sent to work, with a portion of their earnings going towards paying their dues.

Conditions at these prisons were unpleasant to say the least. There were persistent complaints of overcrowding and extortion by prison officers at King’s Bench, with a Parliamentary inquiry (the Gaols committee) finding mistreatment, misbehaviour and overcrowding at prisons throughout Britain. There were poor living and working conditions in the prisons and workhouses, and it is perhaps unsurprising that analyses of human remains from St George’s have revealed that many of the individuals suffered from malnutrition and poor dental health.

Dickens’ inspiration

Marshalsea prison wall
Marshalsea prison wall as seen from St George’s garden in 2010. Photocredit

During a traumatic period of his life, the Church of St George the Martyr was likely well-known to Charles Dickens. His father, John, was arrested in 1824 for debt and along with Dickens’ mother and siblings (except his older sister) they were sent to Marshalsea prison. The prison was located adjacent to St George’s until its closure in 1842, with one original prison wall still surviving today.

Little Dorrit window
Little Dorrit can be seen praying in the lower right corner of the right stained glass panel.

Dickens and his older sister were forced to work full-time to pay for lodgings, and his visits to see his family undoubtedly affected his literary works. Debtors’ prisons and workhouses feature throughout his novels and Marshalsea was the place of imprisonment for the Dorrit family in the novel ‘Little Dorrit’, with the church St George the Martyr frequently mentioned. The fictional character Little Dorrit has since been depicted in one of the Church’s stained glass windows and so is often referred to as ‘Little Dorrit’s Church’.

By Dr Rosalund Walduck

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The Human Remains Digitisation Project was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust.

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