Monthly Archives: April 2011

Thomas Baston’s “Little Republick”

Little is known of Thomas Baston, a printmaker specializing in naval scenes. It appears he was born in the early 1670s, fought the French at sea and perhaps the Irish on land, lived and worked in London, had prints commissioned by William and Mary, and spent the best part of the 1710s in the Kings Bench prison for debt.

It was whilst in prison that he wrote Thoughts on Trade And a Publick Spirit, a wide-ranging attack on corruption, malpractice and fraud, in state, economy and law alike. Against such tyranny, not only does he plead the case of those on the receiving end, the poor debtors and ill-used sailors, but counterposes the example of the Southwark Mint, in a glowing, almost utopian, description of it as a ‘little Republick.’ There, the Minters are honest, honorable and hard-working, regular in government, needing few law books. Justified by both scripture and ‘ancient liberty’, ‘they live very lovingly together.’ An idealistic description without a doubt, but also a radical, political vision of how the whole country could be: ‘the best Way to set this Place on the same level with the rest of the Kingdom is to bring the rest of the Nation on a nearer level with them.’

There is much more to discover about both the man and his book. I’m not even certain he had any first-hand experience of Southwark Mint. Most of the information I’ve found on Baston comes from Charles Harrison Wallace’s site, who notes the suggestive co-incidence of publication and reprinting with crisis: the South Sea Bubble in 1716, the Navy’s Porto Bello disaster of 1728 and the Customs and Excise Bill of 1732. But pending further research, I present his remarkable portrait of a sanctuary.

Of the Mint

from Thomas Baston, Thoughts on Trade and a Publick Spirit, 1716, pp.111-113.

There is a Place on the other Side of the Water, in St. George‘s Parish, call’d the Mint, where a great Number of unfortunate Persons have agreed together to recover a little of ancient Liberty, and rather to loose their Lives than be carry’d to Prison for Debt, tho’ they do not in the least resist the Execution of the law in any other particular; for this little Republick (in this respect) has a very regular Government, executed by their Senators, which they call Clubs, in which some Days every Week they meet together, and examine all Enormities, for they give shelter, or Protection unto none, except purely to the Unfortunate in the case of Debt. They protect no Man who has it in his power to make Satisfaction; no Man who flyes from his Bail; no Cheat of any Sort: In short, they are a tolerable good Sort of People, as Times go, and every whit as honest as their Neighbours, notwithstanding they are call’d by a great many bad Names; yet I am of Opinion they are at worst, very diminutive Rogues in Comparison of those out of the Place; however, their Creditors, and the Bailiffs in general, are mighty Angry with them, because they will not quietly go to Goal, and there be starv’d; tho’ abundance of them, being at liberty to Work, having Time, with their Industry, have paid their Creditors their whole Debt; and others part, according as they can agree, which cou’d never have been done if their Creditors had had their Wills to throw them into Prison. God allow’d several Sanctuaries, or Cities of Refuge; and seeing the Law of our Land allows of none, these Gentlemen allow themselves one. When they catch a Baily (who is an Enemy to their Constitution) they treat him according to the Custom of the Place, which like most of our Courts, is as binding as a Law. ‘Tis true, they make use of very few Law-Books, for which Reason they live very lovingly together, consulting one anothers Good, and Safety, and account their little Cottages happier Dwellings, than Palaces out of the Place, where Bailiffs and their Dogs are continually waiting at their Doors with Writs and Executions. They give Credit to one another, as well in this Place as in any other, according to their Abilities, only upon Honour, and honestly pay when they have it, and better than those out of it, notwithstanding the infallible Security of a Prison, as some foolishly and ridiculously account it. It has been talk’d a long time of putting down this Place, but I believe it will not be easily done without a great deal of Mischief; but the best Way to set this Place on the same level with the rest of the Kingdom is to bring the rest of the Nation on a nearer level with them; that is, to let all the other good People of England have the same Protection for their Persons by Law from a Prison for Debt, as they have by Force.