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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

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,
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),
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
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,
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

Depositing User: Sara Taylor
Date Deposited: 29 Nov 2007
Last Modified: 23 Dec 2016 01:26


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