There must have been a debtors in a prison in the Whitecross Street area for some centuries. It is recorded that in her will, Nell Gwynne, the mistress of Charles II, requested her son, the Duke of St Albans, to pay £20 a year to release debtors from the prison. This sum was paid every Christmas Day to the inmates of Whitecross Street prison for many years.
Debtors were often thrown into the same prisons as thieves, robbers and murderers. But in the early 19th century, there was a campaign to separate debtors from ordinary criminals. The result was Whitecross Street Prison which was built by the Corporation of London on the corner of Whitecross Street and Fore Street in 1813. It was a prison exclusively for debtors. It could hold 500 prisoners.
A Mr H Dixon visited the prison in 1850 and wrote about it in a publication called ‘London Prisons’. He reported that the person could hold 500 inmates, and that in 1850 there were 205 prisoners, of which eight were women. Under the Small Debts Act debtors could be committed for fixed terms, mostly of 10 days. Dixon gave an example of a woman who was locked up there for contempt of court because she couldn’t pay a debt of seven pence. Debtors who obstinately refused to pay their debts could be locked up in the prison for longer, and one of the conditions which was likely to encourage them to meet their debts, was that they were not allowed to use their own money to buy food and luxuries but had to accept only what food the county supplied as the daily allowance.
Most of the prisoners were allowed to maintain themselves to some degree. Dixon described a day room in the prison with benches and tables like a cheap coffeehouse, and with a large fire at one end at which the inmates could cook their food. Each prisoner had a pigeonhole or a small cupboard where he could look away his supplies. Luxuries and alcoholic drink were prohibited, except that each man was allowed a pint of wine a day. Dice, playing cards and other betting paraphernalia were forbidden. Life was forbidding but it was no unbearable. As Dixon put it: ‘A man may exist in the person who has been accustomed to good living, though he cannot live well.’
As the Victorian age progressed, imprisonment for debt declined and was eventually abolished. By 1870 there were not enough prisoners to justify keeping Whitecross Street prison open. Whitecross Street prison was closed and the remaining 27 prisoners were moved to Holloway prison.
In 1876-7 Whitecross Street prison was replaced by a railway terminus for goods and a booking office by the Midland Railway Company.