So far, most of the texts I have found concerning the debtor sanctuaries of London have been written by their opponents: laws and indictments, and also the last dying words transmitted via the Ordinary of Newgate. There has also been some street literature and popular and historical accounts, written by third parties. So far, the only item that can be said to have come directly from a debtor and a minter is the pamphlet by Thomas Baston.
Here I present a petition sent from Southwark Mint to Parliament, debated on February 11 1723 (new style), as recorded in the eighth volume of Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England. Presented as coming from “several thousands of his Majesty’s subjects” – but without transcribing the names – this can be considered as a sort of collective voice, probably dictated by a handful of people but echoed by many. (I don’t know if the original still exists, with the names intact. Nothing has turned up through searching the archives’ catalogues; my guess is that it was consumed in the Burning of Parliament in 1834.)
But it is not an unproblematic, unmediated or ‘authentic’ voice. As a petition it conforms to the standard language of the genre: respectful, pleading, supplicating. Protest is not the tone of this text: it is begging the authorities to intercede for them. The Minters describe themselves as “poor unfortunate gentlemen, merchants, and tradesmen, &c”, respectable and miserable rather than criminal, dissolute or lazy. Their ills are blamed upon “the late calamitous times” and the contractual severity of their creditors; their rents are “thrice the real value”, and their homes are overcrowded gaols; they have no possibility of paying their debts due to the depredations of their landlords. In short, their situation is due to no fault of their own, and they beg Parliament grant them a remedy.
But there is an undercurrent of antagonism here. There is a reference to industry fleeing abroad, “to the improving of their manufactures abroad, and impoverishing our own, which is the life and treasure of this nation.” Perhaps this is just patriotic rhetoric; it certainly posits a threat to national wealth. The landlords of the Mint are singled out as a cause for distress, charging high rents and seizing the goods of their tenants, suggesting conflict within the sanctuary. (How debtors could pay rent, and what resources they took with them into the Mint is a central question, to which I shall return.) Finally, in obliquely referring to earlier debtor legislation – I think, to the Bankrupts Act of 1720 – the law is censured as being too narrow and too expensive.
Cobbett also records the debate on the Southwark Mint act, a few months after this petition, in which he reproduces two anonymous letters. Those are far more assertive in their language, yet also have some similarities with this petition. They’ll be the subject of my next post.
Note that although the petition was rejected, the final law was far less draconian than either the 1697 act or the act the following year against Wapping Mint. An amnesty was offered and debts were written off; much more than the “limitation of time for the payment of their just debts” asked for here.
A Petition of the Minters rejected
Feb 11 [1722 old style; 1723 new style]
A Petition of several thousands of his Majesty’s subjects under Insolvency in Suffolk-place, in the borough of Southwark, was presented to the House, and read; setting forth,
“That the Petitioners, who, by great losses sustained in merchandize, trade, and unavoidable misfortunes which fell upon us, through decay of trade, by the late calamitous times; by which we are rendered uncapable to make payment according to our dealings; having offered, according to our powers, divers sums in part; praying time for payment for the rest; yet, by refusal and severity of some of our creditors, we are deprived, and cast out of, the world, without any law to help, having nothing left but a natural right to the liberty of our persons, and are even deprived of that: by which severity our effects are wasted, and we rendered insufficient to pay our whole debts, according to our former proposals; as also to defray the great expences of a statute of bankruptcy; and, many thousands of us not coming within the description of the statute, &c. others of us have submitted to a statute, finished our examination, and delivered up our all, upon oath several years since: and our distresses having forced us either to make our houses our gaols, or defraud our creditors by carrying away our effects, with our arts and sciences, into foreign countries, to the improving of their manufactures abroad, and impoverishing our own, which is the life and treasure of this nation; and are drove to take refuge in Suffolk-place, Southwark, commonly called the Mint, a place of great poverty and want; and, though not prisoners in the King’s-bench, are, by being debarred of our liberty, as if we were actually confined; and the vast numbers crouding in houses, &c. hath advanced the rents to thrice the real value; and the landlords are daily distraining upon the goods of poor unfortunate gentlemen, merchants, and tradesmen, &c. And praying, That the House will grant the petitioners such a limitation of time for the payment of their just debts, in proportion to their extreme poverty.”
And a motion being made, and the question being put, That the Petition be referred to a Committee; it passed in the negative. Resolved, That the Petition be rejected.