A sponging house was a place of temporary confinement in England for those arrested for non-payment of a debt. Until the Debtors Act of 1869 abolished imprisonment for debt, after a debtor’s arrest he or she would usually be taken first to a sponging house. The debtor might be held there for two or three weeks, while they tried to raise the money to repay their debt. If those efforts were unsuccessful, then the debtor would be transferred to one of the debtors prisons.
The sponging house could be a private residence, even the home of the bailiff who executed the arrest warrant. Although legislation was passed in 1728 to prevent bailiffs from using their homes as sponging houses, they continued to do so until at least the 1840s.
Sponging houses were notoriously uncomfortable, but good business for those who ran them and were free to extort money from their inmates, as the English barrister Montagu Williams describes in his Down East and Up West (1892):
Ah, my dear fellow, you’ve never seen a sponging-house! Ye gods! What a place! I had an apartment, they were pleased to call a bedroom to myself, certainly, but, if I wanted to breathe the air, I had to do so in a cage in the back garden, iron bars all round, and about the size of one of the beast receptacles at the zoo. For this luxury, I had to pay two guineas a day, a bottle of sherry cost a guinea, and a bottle of Bass, half-a-crown, and food was on the same sort of economical tariff.