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Debtors prisons and petitions in eighteenth-century England

Woodfine, Philip (2006) Debtors prisons and petitions in eighteenth-century England. Eighteenth Century Life, 30 (2). pp. 1-31. ISSN 1086-3192

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Drawing on manuscript sources including the petitions of prisoners, mainly
in the county of Yorkshire, this article sets out to suggest a darker view
than is customary of what prison life was like for eighteenth-century debtors.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright 2006 by Duke University Press
Uncontrolled Keywords: debtors prison petitions eighteenth century England
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Schools: School of Human and Health Sciences
References: 1. Margot Finn, The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, I740-I9I4 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2003). 2. John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales [1777] (London: Everyman, 1929), 6-7- 3. Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin, 1991); V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, I770-I868 (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1994); J. M. Beattie, Policing and Punishment in London, I660-I750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2001); Hal Gladfelder, CriminaIityand Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ., 2001). 4. Some recent examples would include: Peter King, Crime, Justice and Discretion in England, I740-I820 (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 2000); Malcolm Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 2000); Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, I550-20oo, ed. MarkJackson (Burlington: Ashgate, 2002); Law, Crime and English Society, I660-I8]0, ed. Norma Landau (New York: Cambridge Univ., 2003); and Dana Y. Rabin, Identity, Crime and Legal Responsibility in Eighteenth-Century England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). 5. Joanna Innes, "The King's Bench Prison in the Later Eighteenth Century: Law, Authority and Order in a London Debtors' Prison," An Ungovernable People: The English and Their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. John Brewer and John Styles (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 251. 6. Information on conditions outside London can be found, but often in uneven and antiquarian works; see Eric Stockdale, A Study ofBedftrd Prison, I660-I877 (Chichester: Phillimore, 1977). 7- Humble petition of the poor Prisoners in the Common side of King's Bench Prison, Michae1mas 1741. Addressed to Rt. Hon. Sir William Lee, Knight, Lord Chief Justice, and the other judges of KB, from King's Bench affidavit bundles, Public Record Office, KB r/7, unfoliated, hereafter abbreviated as PRO. 8. Report of Inquiry into the State of the Prisons, presented by Mr. Oglethorpe, 14 May 1729, House of Commons Journals 21 (1729): 379, hereafter cited as CJ. Oglethorpe presented three reports into conditions in London's debtors' prisons, each of them titled "Reports from the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the State of the Gaols of this Kingdom." His first report was on the Fleet Prison, dated 20 March 1728129, with a further progress report on 14 May 1729, and a follow-up on the Marshalsea (which added yet further comment on the Fleet) on 24 March 1729/30.9. This scholarly pattern is exemplified in the essays in The Oxftrd History if the Prison: The Practice if Punishment in Western Society, ed. Noval Morris and David ]. Rothman (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1995).After two stimulating chapters surveying the ancient, medieval, and early modern European experience, the detailed analysis begins with a chapter on England from 1780. IO. Sean McConville, A History if English Prison Administration (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1981),62. H. M. Baker to Dr. Denis de Coetlogon, n.d., [ca. June 1737],British Library Additional Manuscripts, 32690, fo!. 323r, hereafter cited as BL, Add. MSS. 12. SamuelJohnson, The Idler 22 (16 September 1758),in The Yale Edition if the Works if Samue!]ohnson, vo!. 2 of" The Idler" and "TheAdventurer," ed. W.]. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (New Haven: Yale Univ., 1963), 69. 13. Roger Shackleton to the Duke of Newcastle, York, 12th of the 12th month called Feb I74r142,BL, Add. MSS 32699, fols. 52-53. Between them, the men owed £9 8s. 4d., with a further £57 3S.4d. in "charges at Law." 14. Roger Lee Brown, A History if the Fleet Prison, London: The Anatomy if the Fleet (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996), 164-66. IS. T. P. Cooper, The History if the Castle ifYork,from its Foundation to the Present Day with an Account if the Building ifClifford's Tower (London: Elliot Stock, I9H),227· 16. For example, the Master of the Pontefract House of Correction in April 1720 reported problems resulting when a slump in the wool trade hit his prisoners. See West Yorkshire Archive Service, Q§rl59/4, hereafter cited as WYAS. It The highly complex catering and subsistence position in King's Bench is discussed in Innes, "King's Bench Prison," 276-79' 18. See, for example, the orders against a rich father in January 1712,WYAS, Q§I/5I/z, and against well-off children in January 1714,WYAS, Q§I/53/r. 19. Margaret De Lacy, Prison Reform in Lancashire, I7oo-I8so: A Study in Local Administration (Manchester: Chetham Society, 1986). 20. Bryan Keith-Lucas, The Unreformed Local Government System (London: Croom Helm, 1980), 46-47, and Esther Moir, TheJustices if the Peace (London: Penguin, 1969), HO-I1. 21. R. B. Pugh, "Newgate Between Two Fires," Guildhall Studies in London History 3 (1978):140-43. 22. De Lacy, in Prison Reform, set out to challenge the radical view, popularized by Michel Foucault, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Michael Ignatieff, that eighteenth-century prison reform was the product of a bourgeois desire to exercise social control, and that the inspiration for this was Bentham's Panopticon. By focusing on one particular county, De Lacy was able to show instead what a complicated mix of people, bodies, and issues was involved in prison administration and reform (3-13, 225-28). 23. Classically expressed by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in English Prisons under Local Government, vo!. 6 of English Local Government (London: Longmans Green, 1922),1-31, and William S. Holdsworth, in History if English Law, 7th edn., 17vols. (1956;rep. London: Methuen, 1966), IO:I81.24. The original papers or "rolls" materials of quarter sessions, as opposed to formal entry and indictment books, have survived unevenly in the different counties of England. By no means all counties preserved the original petitions, with their revealing details and language, due to differences in the conscientiousness and storage facilities of clerks of the peace at the time, to the weeding-out strategies since, and to the many accidents to which archives are subject. Nonetheless, enough still survive to form an invaluable source of evidence. Convenient web guides are:, and 25. Deposition of Abraham Odell, 7 July 1742, PRO, KB rl7, King's Bench affidavit bundles. 26. In February 1797 the receiver proceeded against five counties and three cities for arrears of between nine and eleven years: Affidavits of Thomas Platt of Serjeant Inn, receiver of the exhibition money, 2 February 1797, PRO, KB Ih9, King's Bench indictment files, Hilary Term, 37 George Ill, fols. 40-47. 27- Sworn deposition of Robert Williams and Matthew Pugh, 16 June 1741, PRO, KB 1/7, King's Bench affidavit bundles, unfoliated. 28. The North and East Ridings were more agricultural, while the West Riding, the most populous of the three, included the prosperous and growing textile towns of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, and Wakefield. See Derek Gregory, Regional Transftrmation and Industrial Revolution: A Geography of the Yorkshire Woollen Industry (Manchester: Manchester Univ., 1982), and David Hey, Yorkshirefrom AD moo (London: Longman, 1986). 29. For instance, the East Riding List of Prisoners in York Castle that Receive the County's bread, 1726, East Riding of Yorkshire Archives Service, Beverley, ~FI76/GI5, hereafter referred to as ERYAS. 30. Memorandum of orders relating to allowance of bread and straw to prisoners in York Castle, ca. 1728, ERYAS, ~F/80/E/II. 31. PRO, KB Ih8, King's Bench indictment files, Easter Term, 35 George Ill, 61. By then, the offending establishments were no longer licensed to sell liquor. 32. PRO, KB rl29, King's Bench indictment files, Trinity Term, 36 George Ill, 31. The marshal of the prison was complained against in yet another petition of 1798 for having established his own rules, contrary to the same 1790 decree, about the terms on which prisoners were allowed to go out temporarily to settle their affairs. PRO, KB Ih9, Trinity Term, 38 George Ill, 14. 33. J. M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England, I660-I800 (Princeton: Princeton Univ., 1986), 297-98. 34. Oglethorpe, Report ofInquiry, 20 March I728h9, CJ 21 (I728h9): 277- 35. Oglethorpe, Report, CJ 21 (I728h9): 275-80. 36. Randall McGowan, "The Well-Ordered Prison: England, 1780-1865," in Morris and Rothman, Oxford History of the Prison, 73-75. 37. Petition to Sir Wm Lowther, Bart & other JPs at Leeds Qyarter Sessions, of the prisoners in the jail at Rothwell, signed by 14 men, 6 October 1721, WYAS, ~I/60/9·38. See, for instance, the petitions in WYAS for July 17lI, ~I/5o/6; April 1713, ~rl52/3; April 1715,~rl54/4; January 1719,~rl581r; April 1724, ~rl63/4; and January 1725,~I/641z. 39. See, for example, the Petition of poor debtors in York Castle for the allowance of three loaves of bread each per week, and Order for them to receive it, ERYAS, ~F/80/E/9-W. Similar orders exist in most of the above cases. 40. In April 1728,WYAS, ~I/67/4, and ERYAS, ~F/80/EIr. The jail population from the North Riding, the least populous of the three ridings, did not justify a separate apothecary. 4I. Information of George Keith sworn before Richard Witton, 24 September 174I,WYAS, ~ Rolls box 139,I. 42. Finn, in Character 0/Credit, has rightly stressed the acute consciousness of social hierarchy in prisons (143-44). 43. Oglethorpe, Report ofInquiry, 20 March 17281z9, Cl 21(17281z9): 277-78. 44. Oglethorpe, Report ofInquiry, 20 March 1728129.The two turnkeys each got 2S. as an entry fee from each prisoner, and 2S. 6d. as a dismission fee, whereas the prisoners claimed that the legally fixed fee was only 6d. See Brown, History 0/the Fleet Prison, 127- 45. Alex Pitofsky, "The Warden's Court Martial: James Oglethorpe and the Politics of Eighteenth-Century Prison Reform," Eighteenth-Century Lift 24.1 (2000): 88-89, WO-OI. The evil of the fee system is repeatedly asserted by surveys of prison administration and local government at this period: see Keith-Lucas, Unreformed Local Government System, 56-59. 46. Oglethorpe, Report ofInquiry, 20 March 1728/z9, C] 21(1728129):276, 277-78, 280-82. 47. On select committees, see P. D. G. Thomas, The House o/Commons in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 197I), 264-68. The procedures and times of business of the House are magisterially discussed in Sheila Lambert, Bills and Acts: Legislative Procedure in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 197I), 55-88. 48. Oglethorpe, Reports on the State of the King's Bench Prison, as affected by or arising out of the vested Interest of it as Private Property, presented by Lieut. Gen. Oglethorpe, 24 March 1752,Cl26 (I752):505-13. 49. Reports on the State of the King's Bench Prison, and Office of the Marshal of the Marshalsea, presented by Sir William Calvert, 16March 1753,Cl26 (1753): 680-94,762-64. This is a separate report by Calvert, but on behalf of the same Oglethorpe committee. 50. Andrew A. Hanham, in "Whig Opposition to Sir Robert Walpole in the House of Commons, 1727-1734"(unpublished PhD diss., Univ. of Leicester, 1992), gives a thorough analysis of the political context of the inquiry (226-53). SI. Stephanie Adele Leeman, "Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make: The Debtors' Prison, York," York Historian II (I994): lI-I2. Finn, in Character ojCredit, is wrong to say that the prison was merely renovated (lI8). She follows the erroneous summary of Robin Evans, The Fabrication ojVirtue: English Prison Architecture, I750-I840 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1982),4I.52. The jail has since 1952 been part of the Castle Museum, and is today flanked, on two other sides of the castle yard, by the Assize Court Building of 1773-77 and the Women's Prison of 1780-83' See "Royal Commission on Historical Monuments," The Deftnces, vo!. 2 of Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of York (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1972), 65-66, 78-82. 53. Peter Borsay, "Politeness and Elegance: The Cultural Re-Fashioning of Eighteenth-Century York," in Eighteenth-Century York: Culture, Space and Society, ed. Mark Hallett and Jane Rendall, Borthwick Text and Calendar Series 30 (York: Univ. of York, 20°3),5-9. 54. Francis Drake, Eboracum: or, the History and Antiquities of the City of York, from its Original to the Present Times (York, 1736), 287. 55. John Wesley,Journals and Diaries 4, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vo!. 21 of The Works ofJohn Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 187. 56. Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker [1771], znd edn., 3 vols. (London, 1771), 2:137. These observations were presumably based on Smollett's own visit, on his way from Scotland, in 1768. Since he also talks about the nonexistent magnificent spire of York Minster, Smollett may have been relying on memory and on common report rather than on careful notes. 57. Rides Round Britain, ed. Donald Adamson (London: Folio Society, 1996), 297- 58. Petition ofWilliam Wickham, 12 November 1707, WYAS, ~rl47h. The jailer was summoned before the magistrates in January 1708, WYAS, ~1/47h. 59. Petitions of Debtors, July 1709, WYAS, ~rl48/6. 60. Petition from the poor Distressed and Deplorable Criminals now confined in the Castle of York, September 1722, WYAS, ~rl6r19 61. Humble petition of the debtors and felons upon shares in York Castle, January 1724/z5, WYAS, ~rl641z. 62. Petition of the poor prisoners in York Castle being eighty in number, April 1725, WYAS, ~1/64/4. "Goal" and "Goaler" are the most common spellings encountered in the manuscript sources, and I have left them uncorrected in quotations. 63. Petition ofWm Greene, Michael Waterhouse, Richard Clark and John Hall in behalf of themselves &the rest of the poor prisoners in his Majties Goal the Castle of York, April 1728, WYAS, ~rl67/4. The East Riding justices were also petitioned: ERYAS, ~F/80/Eh. 64· Oglethorpe, Report ofInquiry, 14 May 1729, CJ 21 (1729): 377-78. 65. Thomas Herring, Archbishop of York, to Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke, Bishopthorpe, 14 February 1746, in Phi lip Yorke, The Lift and Correspondence of Philip Yorke, EarlofHardwicke, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1913), 501. 66. York Jail deaths and births entries, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, MS 489, cited hereafter as YAS. The prisoners were buried on 28 October 1737. 67. Petition of several of the poor prisoners for debt in the Castle of York, 14 July 1709, WYAS, ~rl48/6.68. Counter petition of fifty-two prisoners, 3 August 1709, WYAS, O.$rl48/t 69. Petition of 14July 1709, WYAS, O.$rl48/6. 70. Petition to Sir Wm Lowther, Bart & other JPs at Leeds Qyarter Sessions, of the prisoners in the jail at Rothwell, signed by 14 men, 6 October 1721,WYAS, 0.$1/60/9· 71. Oglethorpe, Report ofInquiry, 14 May 1729, CJ 21 (1729): 377- 72. Petition of6 October 1721,WYAS, 0.$1/60/9. 73. The latter sum was one third of a pound and one half of a mark, the historical money of account. Fractions of a mark were commonly used for fines and fees, and still used to discipline Cambridge undergraduates as late as 1970. 74. Petition of 6 October 1721,WYAS, 0.$1/60/9 75· Petitions of April 1708, WYAS, O.$rl4715; January 1720,0.$1/5912; and July 1770, O.$IIr09/6. 76. De Lacy, Prison RifOrm, 36-37. This judgment derives from her research into the Higgin dynasty, which ran Lancaster's jail from 1769 to 1833,and which may not be typical. This favorable view is echoed in Finn, Character ojCredit, 135. 77. Griffiths was Governor of the Castle of York from around early 1730 to June 1746, and died in the prison in November 1751.See B. R. Hartley, "Thomas Griffith of York, 'once Governor of the Castle and now a Debtor from the same,'" York Historian Il (1994): 40-55. 78. Griffiths was probably dismissed through the agency of the ardent Whig magistrate Dr. Jaques Sterne. Griffiths was succeeded by a man who seems to have been an innkeeper. See Hartley, "Thomas Griffith," 43, 52, and SIn. 79. Or, variously, Pettit and Petit. Petyt is the most
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Date Deposited: 29 Nov 2007
Last Modified: 28 Aug 2021 23:27


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