For the unforgiveable crime…of debt

"Pray remember ye poor debtors": inm...

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To a nation built on trade, there could be no greater crime than that which injures its merchants, for without good credit, there could be no commerce, and weak commerce could lead to economic collapse.  Thus, the only just punishment for insolvency was deemed imprisonment!  (Unless one happened to be a peer of the realm! For more, please see my prior post on a peer’s privilege.) 

Hogarth's plate #7 (Debtor's Prison) From A Rakes Progress

The laws regarding insolvent debtors gave a creditor the power to exact a horrible revenge, which could mean lifelong imprisonment. By appealing to the bailiff, a writ could be issued to the debtor, whereby the creditor could summon him to court or have him arrested. If the debtor could not afford bail, the creditor could order imprisonment on “mesne process” until the court appearance. Once the trial had taken place and the debt found to be as alleged, the creditor could either have the debtor’s property seized and sold or have the debtor imprisoned against a promise of future payment (‘imprisonment on final process’ or ‘in execution’). 

 “The Law said to the debtor: Whether you are to blame or not, you owe money which you cannot pay: you shall be locked up in a crowded prison; you shall be deprived of your means of getting a livelihood; you shall have no allowance of food; you shall have no fire; you shall have no bed; you shall be forced to herd with a noisesome unwashed crowd of wretches; and whereas a criminal may get off with a year or two, you shall be sentenced to life-long imprisonment.”  Ref: South London, Besant, Walter, London 1899

This power was abused in the most monstrous manner. For a debt exceeding twenty shillings, a man (or woman) could be imprisoned only to find the next day the debt was doubled, compounded by attorney fees and other “taxed costs”.


Grounds of the Kings Bench, the largest debtors prison


As all insolvent prisoners were required to pay for their own food and lodging, those who could not were forced to beg from their cells overlooking the street. Failing that, they might be locked up, beaten, and starved.

The lucky ones, whose family or friends helped maintain their support, could buy privileges, such as the right to live outside the prison walls within the district surrounding the Fleet Prison known as “The Rules.” In the rules, prisoners had the means to make a living and could live as comfortably as their means could provide.

In the 18th century, tens of thousands were interned in the debtors’ prisons: The Kings Bench, the Fleet, the Marshalsea, and the Borough Comptor. Each prison was administered under the authority of a warden, appointed by a Letter Patent. As in other such government positions in the venal 18th century, the warden was permitted to auction off the administration of the prison to the highest bidder.

One such purchaser was Thomas Bambridge, a horrifically evil man, who would become the de facto warden of the Fleet in 1728. During his tenure, Bainbridge used his office for the express purpose of extortion, arbitrarily and unlawfully loaded debtors with irons, put them into dungeons, and treated them in the most barbarous and cruel manner. 

The Fleet Committee Hearings,1729 

Tomas Bambridge ( far left) questioned by James Oglethorpe of the parliamentary Gaols CommitteeThomas Bambridge was a notorious warden of the Fleet Prison in England, who paid  £5000 to John Huggins for the wardenship. He was found guilty of extortion, and, according to a committee of the House of Commonsappointed to inquire into the state of English gaols. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC UK special on the FLEET “History’s Hardest Prisons”


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