Resource: Cobbett’s Parliamentary History

As with many records I’ve been using to discover debtors both imprisoned and escaping, parliamentary debates both constitute elite discourse and preserve plebian traces. Imprisonment for debt was frequently dicussed in the Houses, legislation regulating it and relieving insolvents continually proposed and often passed, and petitions from prisoners regularly received and acknowledged.

The official record of the proceedings, Hansard, began in 1803, and is now available online. It has an interesting companion website Hansard at Huddersfield, allowing linguistic investigation of the debates. The following graph traces the use of the term ‘Imprisonment for debt’ across the nineteenth century: the 1869 peak being when civil imprisonment for debt was abolished. (This was something of a sleight of hand: default was criminalised and substantial numbers of debtors continued to be incarcerated. See Rubin’s article “Law, Poverty and Imprisonment for Debt” in Sugarman and Rubin, Law, Economy and Society, 1750-1914.)

The term 'Imprisonment for debt' as recorded in Hansard, 1803-1899

The term ‘Imprisonment for debt’ as recorded in Hansard, 1803-1899

Hansard at Huddersfield (2019). “Imprisonment for debt, 1803-1899” [Figure]. University of Huddersfield. Available from: https://hansard.hud.ac.uk.

However, the modern digital Hansard’s coverage starts with 1803, and then only intermittently for the early nineteenth century. Previously, the publication of the debates was punishable by law; popular campaigns for the freedom of the press to report them came to fruit in 1771, after which there were various private publishing initiatives, until the government stepped in to produce an official account. (A potted history of this can be found on Wikipedia.)

For eighteenth century debates, aside from the Journals of the House of Commons and Lords, a useful resource is Cobbett’s Parliamentary History. Cobbett was an important figure in the fight for a free press and for reporting parliament, and in the early nineteenth century he set about compiling earlier proceedings, to complement his contemporary reporting. All 36 volumes are online, scattered thoughout Google Books, with the usual terrible metadata, foul OCR, and occasional page images blurred beyond comprehension. Below I list them, with links to the best available copy I could find.

For present purposes, volumes 5 and 8 have the debates and reports on ‘pretended privileged places’ and the Mint; the 1705 debate on the Mint recorded in the Journals of the Houses is absent from these volumes. There is of course much other material on imprisonment for debt throughout.

Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, from the Norman Conquest, in 1066, to the Year, 1803.

Volume 1: 1066 – 1625.
Volume 2: 1625 – 1642.
Volume 3: 1642 – 1660.
Volume 4: 1660 – 1688.
Volume 5: 1688 – 1702.
Volume 6: 1702 – 1714.
Volume 7: 1714 – 1722.
Volume 8: 1722 – 1733.
Volume 9: 1733 – 1737.
Volume 10: 1737 – 1739.
Volume 11: 1739 – 1741.
Volume 12: 1741 – 1743.
Volume 13: 1743 – 1747.
Volume 14: 1747 – 1753.
Volume 15: 1753 – 1765.
Volume 16: 1765 – 1771.
Volume 17: 1771 – 1774.
Volume 18: 1774 – 1777.
Volume 19: 1777 – 1778.
Volume 20: 1778 – 1780.
Volume 21: 1780 – 1781.
Volume 22: 1781 – 1782
Volume 23: 1782 – 1783.
Volume 24: 1783 – 1785.
Volume 25: 1785 – 1786.
Volume 26: 1786 – 1788.
Volume 27: 1788 – 1789.
Volume 28: 1789 – 1791.
Volume 29: 1791 – 1792.
Volume 30: 1792 – 1794.
Volume 31: 1794 – 1795.
Volume 32: 1795 – 1797.
Volume 33: 1797 – 1798.
Volume 34: 1798 – 1800.
Volume 35: 1800 – 1801.
Volume 36: 1801 – 1803.

Addenda: The Bodleian Digital Library also has a full set of Cobbett. But with a completely unnavigable interface, easily the worst I’ve ever had the misfortune to run into, that renders the entire project useless. Tip of the hat to Paul Seaward for the reminder.

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