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According to the law under the Statute of Acton Burnell 1283, if one was owed money, the debtor could be imprisoned until the debt was paid. Since the debtor could not easily work, this meant that his or her friends would have to pay the debt. If they turned out not to be able to (or just not such good friends), the debtor would have to stay in gaol.


This law was the cruellest of poverty traps, as gaolers made up their earnings by charging their prisoners. ‘Gaol fees’ could include anything from the basic service charge (garnish) to rent of bedding, surcharge for a private cell and exorbitant charges for food and drink. Even if the debtor paid off his original debt, he still owed the ever increasing gaol fees and until they were paid, he would not be released. ‘Charles Pitman, Richard Falkar, Richard Feathers, Edward Jordan, Zachoriah Bionis, Mary Wallingford, Richard Farthing, Elizabeth Dixson, John Flenday and one Matthews’ were Clink debtors, presented to the Surrey Quarter Sessions courts in 1729. By this time almost all the local prisons were given over largely to debtors, though The Clink was in merciful decline.

In 1649, the old Bishop’s Palace had been sold to property developer, Thomas Walker for £4,380 6S 8d, who had turned it into shops and dye-houses. He established an alley (Compter Alley, now Stoney Street) leading to The Clink. In 1660, the building was returned to the bishop, who assumed the rents. In 1720 the historian John Strype wrote that The Clink ‘of late years had been of little account’; the 1732 census recorded only two inmates and by the end of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion it was ‘so decayed’ that a temporary prison had to be rented nearby, apparently on Park Street. In 1761, it was labelled ‘a very dismal hole, where debtors are sometimes confined, but little used’. A guide book of 1765 described The Clink as a ‘filthy noisome dungeon’, adding that its gateway still stood, but that the rest was warehouses.

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