Inside debtors’ prisons: what life was like for people jailed in Georgian Britain
Debtors’ prisons inflicted untold misery on families in the 18th and 19th centuries, with people facing unlimited imprisonment if they could not pay off their arrears. Yet England’s credit-fuelled economy would have ground to a halt without them. Alexander Wakelam explores their history and the lives of some of the people behind bars – including the father of Charles Dickens
In May 1728, the 36-year-old trumpet player John Grano discovered his luck had finally run out. Grano’s debts had been piling up for weeks. Business had not been good of late but his spending on fine clothes and finer wines had not slowed. By Thursday 30th his creditors had finally had enough of Grano’s empty promises and applied to the court for his arrest. He was seized by a bailiff in the street and instructed to pay up or face the consequences of his spending.
Grano was not panicked – this was hardly the first time he had faced his creditors’ threats. However, this time there was no deal to be done, no new extension to be found and, as he wrote in his diary that night, no “brother, relation or friend came nigh me” to bail him out. Unable to pay, Grano was taken to “this Hell between 7&8 at night” – the Marshalsea debtors’ prison.
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The debtors’ prison was not a distant threat in 18th-century England but a feature of everyday life. Almost every town had a jail, and some maintained several – when Grano was arrested, at least 15 were operating in London. Prisons stood on bridges, on the edges of marketplaces, and in the middle of fashionable high streets. Many castles in Britain were converted into jails, meaning that in the countryside, debtors’ prisons dominated the landscape for miles around. While some were grim dungeons, others were built in opulent style, looking more like palaces than prisons.
York’s debtors’ prison – the only purpose-built jail still standing today – cost the town more than £8,000 in 1705 and its fabulous baroque styling ensured it quickly joined the medieval walls and cathedral on the city’s burgeoning tourist trail. Visiting shortly after it opened, the spy and travel writer John Macky described it as “by much the finest, as well as the pleasantest [prison] in England”.
What were debtors’ prisons?
Debtors’ prisons were not just an abstract reminder to look after your money, but a functioning system that processed thousands of men and women across the country every year. Many more faced a real possibility of their debts catching up with them, with as many as one in 25 adult men at risk of imprisonment in London by the end of the 18th century. Few people in cities would not have known at least one friend, relative or co-worker who had been arrested.
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It is easy to assume debtors’ prisons were a cruel medieval hangover where the poor were sent to die, inevitably brushed aside by enlightened thinking and the rise of a rational capitalist society. However, while imprisonment for debt had been introduced in the 13th century, it remained on a small scale and focused on the merchant class until the commercial explosion from the 1660s.
As many as one in 25 adult men were at risk of imprisonment in London by the end of the 18th century. Few people in cities would not have known at least one friend, relative or co-worker who had been arrested
As the law around arrest liberalised and the costs of obtaining a warrant collapsed, the debtors’ prison entered its heyday. The prison was an integral part of the developing economy. Almost everyone in England was in debt. For most, this was not due to the carefree spending habits of the likes of John Grano, but simply the way people did business.
Money was still based on the weight of the gold or silver it contained but, since the late 16th century, supplies of both had been insufficient to meet inflation or demand. Rampant counterfeiting and coin-clipping – the illicit practice of removing small pieces from the outer edge of a coin to use in forging counterfeits – meant that even circulating currency might not be accepted by traders.
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People regularly had the wealth to buy, but not the cash to do so (storing their money not in gold, but in land, goods or debts owed to them). Most buying was, therefore, done on credit, whether for everyday goods like bread, luxuries like a new watch, business supplies to make watches, or even paying the watch maker’s assistant’s wages. The credit of merchants and the state was beginning to look like that of modern high finance, but most everyday credit was given without interest or even without specified terms of repayment.
These were handshake agreements “to pay” when demanded without a written contract. The value of a buyer’s credit – the amount they could buy on credit and, in some cases, the length of time allowed for repayment – was based on their reputation in the community, for example increased by regular church attendance or decreased by incidents of public drunkenness, rather than their physical wealth. As the person of the buyer determined the value of their credit, it was the person of the buyer that was at stake when they defaulted.
Liberal credit kept the wheels of commerce spinning at the pace of demand rather than the glacial movement of silver. Most people did pay when they had cash, or at least when asked to by creditors. Consumers were reminded of the importance of prompt payment by shopkeepers, in the books they read, and every Sunday from the pulpit. In 1718, the bishop of Ely preached to his flock that God commanded money should always be put “first, to the payment of… debt, and secondly, to the sustenance of [your] children”.
But when polite reminders were not enough, greater pressure was needed to ensure money changed hands. Suing in court was expensive and slow – shopkeepers who had debts of their own could not wait. An arrest, by contrast, required only swearing to the reality of the debt and payment of a shilling. Once a bailiff caught up with the debtor, they could be held indefinitely until creditors were satisfied.
What was life like in a debtors’ prison?
As Grano discovered when he reached the Marshalsea, being imprisoned without limit was far from a death sentence. Prison might even be comfortable. Arriving in the lodge, he was greeted by the Master Turnkey (the prison warden’s second in command) who “made me set down & offer’d to treat me with something to drink”. He was then asked “if I was for the [more comfortable and private] Master’s Side and if so wither I was provided with five shillings advance for a fortnight’s Beding, a shilling for sheets, and sixpence for the bedmaker”.
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For debtors, imprisonment was not free. As well as having to pay fees for their own commitment (and their eventual release) they could also choose to pay rent on a room in the Master’s Side. There were free Common Sides – though, as a visitor to one such in London’s Wood Street prison discovered, there were good reasons to pay:
“We entered a sort of dark hall, where we saw some people eating and drinking with little seeming concern. The smell of the place was almost intolerable. I observed, the beds of such as had any, were placed in ranges, as our shelves, over each other; and those who had none, were obliged to lie upon the boards.”
Master’s Side rooms were cleaner, more comfortable, and offered greater privacy, even if you had to share a bed (a not uncommon situation in 18th-century renting), while rent was usually below market rates
At the Marshalsea, those on the Common Side were kept behind a high wall, out of sight and out of mind of the wealthier debtors. Master’s Side rooms were cleaner, more comfortable, and offered greater privacy, even if you had to share a bed (a not uncommon situation in 18th-century renting), while rent was usually below market rates. One guide book for imprisoned debtors recommended the third-floor rooms at the King’s Bench prison due to the “pleasing view of the Surry and Kentish hills”.
Debt imprisonment did not end the rigid class structures of 18th-century Britain. Grano had no money on him but assured the Turnkey that he would by tomorrow and, given his fashionable status, was provided his first night’s rent on credit.
Were women sent to debtors’ prisons?
Separate wards were also usually provided for female debtors. There were no women’s prisons, and so jails were mixed spaces. Sometimes women in the prison were not actually imprisoned, but the wives of male prisoners. They lived there voluntarily, often with their children, and were thus able to leave each day to work or buy goods. Married women were protected from debt imprisonment, though only because they could not own debt independently of their husbands.
Single women and widows, however, had no legal protections against imprisonment and, if engaged in trade, were just as likely as men to be arrested. In the 1720s, around one in three prisoners in London were female – though by 1800 that figure had plunged to around one in 20, due to higher rates of marriage. Despite women usually sleeping in their own ward within the prison, there was no rigid separation between the sexes and prisoners regularly mingled in communal yards during the day.
Invited or not, Grano frequently visited the female ward. On one occasion, having barged into the room of a group of women during dinner, he noted how he was given the cold shoulder: “I had a very cold bow, not so much as how do you do or will you seat yourself.” There was apparently little to prevent Grano from walking in or staying, as he “took my seat on the opposite bed… and as I was not spoken to, said nothing”.
Other debtors interacted more successfully and the comedic actress Mary Wells, during her imprisonment at the Fleet in 1797, actually married a fellow debtor in the prison, treating the other prisoners to a “great feast” reported extensively in the newspapers.
How did people secure their release from debtors’ prisons?
Grano adapted to prison life – though perhaps not always as his creditors intended. He spent much of his time in the prison’s coffeehouse, playing backgammon and flirting unsuccessfully with female prisoners. Not all prisoners were as relaxed about the situation in which they found themselves as Grano.
Unlimited imprisonment was an excellent motivator to find money as soon as possible – and so most inmates directed all of their energies towards achieving that, whatever the personal cost. The result is that more than 90 per cent of inmates managed to secure their release within a year. Many tasted freedom much earlier than that. When the explorer Henry Timberlake was imprisoned in the early 1760s, he actually had the cash on him, and so was released that same day. Paying, however, left him with “but two shillings left” of his planned expedition fund.
Unlimited imprisonment was an excellent motivator to find money as soon as possible... more than 90 per cent of inmates managed to secure their release within a year
Other prisoners sent word to friends and family for help, though not always successfully. Elizabeth Foote, confined in Truro prison from December 1742, wrote to her son in London: “Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt. Come and assist your loving mother”, only to receive a reply from the Fleet prison: “Dear mother, so am I.”
Others began selling property. Some debtors parted with prized luxuries to regain their freedom, but others took more drastic courses of action. In 1738, Michael Dicq, apprentice to a Westminster jeweller, appeared before the city begging for assistance as his master had “sold all his tools and goods” to get out of prison, leaving Michael unable to work and “almost starved”.
What work could prisoners do?
Many prisoners accepted that freedom was not coming immediately and so threw themselves into work. Most debtors were middle-class dealers and craftspeople (few inmates came from the working poor, as they were rarely offered enough credit to be worth imprisoning) and often chose to practise their trade within the confines of the prison.
When a parliamentary inquiry investigated life in the prisons in 1792, it spoke to John Stanley, a silk-weaver at the King’s Bench prison. Stanley was keen to be moved to a different room as “I can’t carry on my trade here”. He had recently been contracted to weave cloth within the prison but “as the trade in which I was employed requires… much length and light”, his current room was unsuitable. Though Stanley was frustrated, the only thing apparently stopping him from moving his loom into the prison was the ceiling.
Grano also eventually got to work, offering music lessons to the children of local craftsmen. Debtors’ prisons offered cheap goods and services for those who would otherwise find them too expensive. Prisoners like Grano had to take what rates they could. At Wood Street the committee found “one attorney, a carver, a taylor, a pattern drawer, and a cabinet maker” plying their trades on the Master’s Side.
This suggests that it wasn’t uncommon for those in need of cheap legal advice, new shirts, or even furniture to pop into the local jail. Prisoners also sold among themselves. The keeper of Newgate prison waged a constant battle against the wives of debtors who smuggled in gin under their skirts for sale in the prison’s black market. Others acted as servants to richer prisoners like Grano, who employed a maid from the Common Side and was shaved by an imprisoned barber.
The Marshalsea’s coffeehouse was run by a prisoner called Mother Bradshaw from her rooms. Upstairs, Grano occasionally dined at “Titty Doll’s”, a restaurant run out of the rooms of Mr and Mrs McDonnell. Such enterprises certainly helped some incarcerated debtors repay their creditors.
What happened to those who could not pay for their release?
Many prisoners had no hope of raising the funds to meet their creditors’ demands – no matter how desperate those demands grew. They would never pay their way out of prison. This presented the authorities with the spectre of overcrowding, with hundreds of debtors potentially languishing in prison for years. To head off this prospect, parliament passed a series of amnesties releasing debtors if they turned over all their remaining assets to their creditors.
The keeper of Newgate prison waged a constant battle against the wives of debtors who smuggled in gin under their skirts for sale in the prison’s black market. Others acted as servants to richer prisoners
Around 10–15 per cent of prisoners took up this option, though it was almost always a last resort: while those who paid their debts returned to society with their credit restored, those freed by parliament were shunned. Grano, whose many money-making schemes (including organising a concert, writing new music and even being allowed to play in the lord mayor’s annual parade) never seemed to bring success, was one of the latter. In September 1729, after more than a year at the Marshalsea, he walked free; we know little of his subsequent life until his death in 1746.
Almost 100 years later, another resident of the Marshalsea walked free. Unlike Grano, John Dickens spent just three months incarcerated in the south London prison. However, as his son Charles would later make clear, even this “short” imprisonment was devastating to the family.
In his novel Little Dorrit, when William Dorrit (an analogy for the author’s father) is told the release he has been dreaming of for 20 years is to be delayed by “but a few hours”, the old man breaks into tears and, “with a sudden passion”, dismisses the insignificance of the delay: “You talk very easily of hours, sir! How long do you suppose, sir, that an hour is to a man who is choking for want of air?” The Dickens family had been ripped apart by John’s imprisonment, Charles having to leave school and enter the boot blacking factory he would later immortalise in David Copperfield to support the family.
Why was debt imprisonment so common?
The answer is that it worked. It meant creditors got paid and it helped commerce continue in an era of pre-modern credit. But while John Grano had a relatively pleasant time at the Marshalsea, the system shattered numerous families. Even those who returned to their lives and enjoyed commercial success were forever haunted, as was the young Charles Dickens, by their humiliating experience of imprisonment.
By the time Dickens wrote Little Dorrit in the 1850s, the economy had changed significantly. Credit had declined as a new reliance on wage labour took many out of the trade world, and the greater availability of coin meant people could actually pay for what they could afford. Most of the prisons closed out of a lack of business long before parliament finally abolished the practice of indefinite imprisonment for debt without trial in 1869.
Few lamented their loss. Charles Dickens certainly didn’t. Writing of the closure of the Marshalsea (but maybe, also, of the system as a whole), he declared: “It is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it.”
Alexander Wakelam is a research associate at the University of Cambridge and author of Credit and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England: An Economic History of Debtors’ Prisons (Routledge, 2020)
This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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