Those unable to pay off their debts were put into a debtors’ prison. A debtor could not be released until the debt was settled. Since imprisoned debtors were unable to work or earn money, the debtor was himself unable to earn the sum required to pay off his debts, so it was left to the debtor’s family to raise the money.
This episode of the novel is based on Dickens' father, whom Charles described as “a jovial opportunist with no money sense,” which led to the Dickens family experiencing the same fate as that of Wilkins Micawber.
In 1824, John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison because he failed to pay a baker a debt of £40 and 10 shillings. To assist in paying this off, Charles Dickens was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, but the debt was actually paid upon the death of John Dickens’ grandmother, who had bequeathed her grandson £450.