A type of small English prison controlled by a sheriff. The inmates were usually civil prisoners, for example dissenters and debtors. The Poultry Counter is one example.


This text was copied from Wikipedia on 5 July 2024 at 4:10AM.

A compter, sometimes referred to as a counter, was a type of small English prison controlled by a sheriff.[1] The inmates were usually civil prisoners, for example dissenters and debtors. Examples of compters include London's Wood Street Compter, Poultry Compter, Giltspur Street Compter and Borough Compter and the lock-up over the Abbey Gateway, next to St Laurence's church, in Reading, Berkshire (this was the Compter Gate and the lock-up was known as the Compter).

The Compter's Commonwealth (1617), by William Fennor, was a work written from the author's experience of imprisonment at London's Wood Street Compter,[2] and is regarded by many historians as one of the principal primary sources for assessment of English 16th-century prison conditions.


4 Annotations

First Reading

Terry F  •  Link

A Counter is, in general, a prison or detention facility. For the 17th century, British History Online names, besides the Counter in Poultry, Wood Street Counter (formerly in Bread Street); and the Counter in Southwark, which was in a part of St Margaret's Church and "in 1714 it was said to be a prison only for debt."

From: 'The borough of Southwark: Borough', A History of the County of Surrey: Volume 4 (1912), pp. 135-41. URL:…. Date accessed: 05 April 2007.

cumsalisgrano  •  Link

Counter, besides the modern dictionary meanings of counting [up] or against, a ledge, to deal under or over, or an token it can mean a serjeant at law [Countour] , it was a board for counting monies like an abacus

3. A table or desk for counting money, keeping accounts, etc.; a bureau. Obs.

In quot. 1369 perh. an abacus or counting-board.

4. a. A banker's or money-changer's table; also, the table in a shop on which the money paid by purchasers is counted out, and across which goods are delivered. The tradesman stands behind the counter; goods are sold and money paid over the counter.
(In modern times the shop-counter is also used for the display of goods, but this is not implied in the name.)

1688 R. HOLME Armoury III. 259/1 He [is]..behind a Counter or Counting Table.
5. A counting-house: a. In early use. Obs.
6. The office, court, or hall of justice of a mayor. Obs. 1479 Mayor ........

7. The prison attached to such a city court; the name of certain prisons for debtors, etc. in London, Southwark, and some other cities and boroughs. In this sense the official spelling from the 17th c. was COMPTER, q.v. Obs. exc. Hist. ......1388 ....

1645 E. PAGITT Heresiogr. (1662) 215 He was committed by the Lord Mayor to the Counter, and from thence removed to the new prison in Maiden Lane.
1631 Wat Tyler in Evans O.B. (1784) I. li. 282 Into the counters then they get, Where men in prison lay for debt; ........

Then other meanings or uses..such as a fake, of no value, debased,

II. 3. That part of a horse's breast which lies between the shoulders and under the neck.

4. Naut. a. The curved part of the stern of a ship.

1. Fencing. A name applied to all circular parries

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Compter (The), St. Margaret's Hill, Southwark, a prison for the Borough of the City of London, wherein debtors and others for misdemeanours were imprisoned. It was so called from Computare, "because," says Minsheu, "whosoever slippeth in there must be sure to account, and pay well too, ere he get out again." It was built on the site of old St. Margaret's Church, opposite the Tabard, and was destroyed in the great Southwark fire of 1676. Counter Street, Counter Row, and Counter Alley, in the locality of St. Margaret's Hill, preserve a street recollection of a place once sufficiently well known.

Five jayles or prisons are in Southwarke placed,
The Counter once St. Margaret's Church defaced,
The Marshalsea, the King's Bench and White Lyon;
Then there's the Clinke, where handsome lodgings be,
And much good may it do them all for me.
--Taylor, the Water Poet, 1630.
---London, Past and Present. H.B. Wheatley, 1891.

Terry Foreman  •  Link

Mansions of Misery review – Marshalsea and the horror of debt
Jerry White offers an exuberant history of the debtors’ prison in Southwark, London, immortalised in the novels of Dickens…

Log in to post an annotation.

If you don't have an account, then register here.


Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.



  • Mar



  • Apr