Author Archives: John

London’s Debtor Prisons

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Westminster Gatehouse

Westminster Gatehouse was the prison of the Liberty of Westminster.

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Marshalsea Prison

The Marshalsea Prison was the second largest debtor prison in Southwark.

Westminster Gatehouse

Location of Westminster Gatehouse Prison, demolished in 1776.

Marshalsea Prison

Marshalsea Prison, Southwark.

The Marshalsea Prison was erected in 1373, on Borough High Street. Although there are references to it from 1294 on, it appears that there was no dedicated building prior to this date. Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, it moved a short way down the road, to the site previously occupied by the King’s Bench prison.

The Foreigner’s Guide to London, 1730, described the Marshalsea thus:

The Marshalsea; where a Number of miserable Insolvent Debtors are put for small Sums, and are true Objects of Compassion; who there spend a wretched Life, unless some charitable Persons release them, in paying their Debts and Fees; or till the Government discharge them by an Act of Grace, which happens sometimes not once in seven Years.

Bibliography & further reading:

Foreigners Guide, 1730.

Survey of London, vol. 25: Southwark Prisons, 1955.


Resource: John Howard’s The State of the Prisons

The first comprehensive account of the prison system in England and Wales was John Howard’s “The State of the Prisons”, published in 1777. It went through four editions over fifteen years, each based on his own visits to the gaols, and expanded to take in Scottish and Irish institutions, as well as some across Europe. Predating the first governmental surveys, he has been credited with starting the movement for prison reform, indeed even re-envisaging the role of prisons, how they should be designed, built and managed, and what rights and restrictions the prisoners whould have. As such, it is both a unique source on eighteenth century prisons, and an important artifact in its own right.

Debtors feature throughout; by his counts, in 1779 47.½% of the prison population were debtors (2078 men and women), and in 1782, 49.½%, 2197 people. (Source: 4th ed.) From prison to prison, he describes the debtors, their conditions, the charity due to them, and sometimes their cases. Although he does not seem to have ever criticised the principle of imprisonment for debt – his proposed improvements include separate wards for male and female debtors, and segregation from the criminal cells – he exposed their mistreatment and defended their particular rights as civil prisoners.

Each edition published during Howard’s life was different, and sometimes published in other formats. Various reports were serialized in the newspapers and magazines of the time; the third edition was published by the Proclamation Society as a series of pamphlets, one per Assize circuit. A fourth volume was published posthumously, in 1792, two years after Howard contracted typhus in a Russian prison; it is identical to the third. There was also an appendix published in 1780, and then republished in 1784, seemingly revised to go by the page counts in the ESTC entry, but that second version is as yet undigitized. Howard also wrote ‘An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe’, which included British gaols, and went to two editions, the second being augmented by an appendix, which was also published separately.

Because of this multitude of formats, it is worth cataloguing each of his works. Unfortunately, some of the freely available copies are in poor condition; for this reason I’ve included links to the copies held by JISC Historic Texts. (The copy of the fourth edition was digitized by the Wellcome Institute, and is accessible to all.)

The State of the Prisons in England and Wales:

First edition, 1777: Google. Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts.

Second edition, 1780: Google. JISC Historic Texts.

Third edition, 1784: Google.* JISC Historic Texts.

Fourth edition, 1792: Google. Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts (free).

Appendix to The state of the prisons, 1780: Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts.

* Google’s copy of the 1784 edition is bound in with a pamphlet on the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford.

An Account of the Principal Lazarettos:

First edition, 1789: Google. Internet Archive. Jisc Historic Texts.

Second edition, 1791: Google. JISC Historic Texts.

Appendix, 1791: Internet Archive. JISC Historic Texts.

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:

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.

Resource: Journals of the House of Lords

As a follow up to my previous post on the Journals of the House of Commons, a list of freely available volumes of its companion,  the Journals of the House of Lords. Truth be told, this is a far less interesting record than those of the Commons, being mainly procedural. I haven’t found a great deal to do with debtors, save for the occasional mention of a petition, and the nodding-through of the various relief bills. That said, there’s pages of testimony concerning a private bill for divorce, so there may be some substantive material within, or at least some good gossip.

British History Online has volumes 1 to 39, covering 1509 to 1793, and volumes 62 to 64, for 1830 to 1832, in well transcribed text. The Parliament website hosts volumes for 1997 on. Below are links for volumes 40 to 65, 1794 to 1833, save for three missing volumes. After 1833, the number of digitized volumes is very sparse indeed.

Apparently, a complete run up to 1835 is available on the proprietary ‘Parliamentary Papers’ database. But as is always the case for such collections, the interface is appalling, the curation sloppy, and without academic affiliation it is difficult to access.

Vol. 40, 1794-1796: Google Books
Vol. 41, 1796-1798: Google Books
Vol. 42, 1798-1800: Google Books
Vol. 43, 1801-1802: Google Books
Vol. 44, 1802-1804: Google Books
Vol. 45, 1805-1806: Google Books
Vol. 46, 1806-1808: Google Books
Vol. 47, 1809-1810: Google Books
Vol. 48, 1810-1812 : Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 49, 1812-1814: Google Books
Vol. 50, 1814: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 51, 1817: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 52, 1818-1819: Google Books
Vol. 53, 1820. Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 54, 1821: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 55, 1822: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vols. 56 & 57, 1823 to 1825, not found.
Vol. 58, 1826: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 59, 1826-1827: Google Books
Vol. 60, 1828: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek
Vol. 61, 1829, not found.
Vol. 62, 1830: British History Online.
Vol. 63, 1830-1: British History Online.
Vol. 64, 1831-2: British History Online.
Vol. 65, 1833: Bayerische Staatsbibliotek

An Index to volumes 53 to 64: Google Books

Resource: Journals of the House of Commons

William Blake said, “Nothing can be more contemptible than to suppose Public RECORDS to be True.” And I am bemused that I spend so much time sorting out ‘high’ texts, like the statutes, when my interests and sympathies are very much with the ‘poor, unfortunate’ debtors lying in prison or sheltering in the sanctuaries. Again, Blake: “For the facts are such as none but the actor could tell.”

But official records can contain, however refracted, a great many traces of the plebian world. For example, the twenty relief acts passed between 1712 and 1812, that released thousands of debtors from prison, produced, in the pages of the London Gazette, lists of these prisoners, giving names, places of residence and trade. A goldmine of social historical data, allowing the historian to build up a picture of the indebted population across a century.

Parliamentary records also preserve traces of the life of commoners, notwithstanding the obstacles to reporting, a desire to keep governance shrouded, the priviledging of grandiloquent performances and the distorting lens of supplication to, and investigation by, higher authorities. With relief acts being passed on average twice a decade, and many more proposed but not passing, the Journals of the House of Commons contain a wealth of information relating to the politics of debt: many debates on legislation, two investigations of the sanctuary of Southwark Mint, in 1705 and 1722, and countless petitions of debtors from prisons all over the country, campaigning for release from prison.

But as with the statutes, the Journals of the House of Commons are strewn about the internet, the digitization and transcription of varied quality and the metadata just chaotic. So I present here the fruits of hours of googling, a nearly complete set of the Journals for the ‘long eighteenth century’, from the restoration of 1660 to the reforms of the 1830s.

Volumes 1 to 12, from 1547 to 1699, are available in hand-transcribed text as webpages from British History Online, and an almost complete set of volumes from 1835 (vol 90) to the present day, with numerous indexes, can be found as PDFs on For the eighteenth century, a complete run can be found on Google, and for the early nineteenth, most volumes (6 missing) can be found through Google, the Bavarian State Library and British History Online. Note also that historic accounts from Hansard are now online as part of the official Parliament website, dating back to Hansard’s origins in 1802, skimpy coverage at first but ever more comprehensive as the nineteenth century runs on. And an important supplement to these volumes are ‘Grey’s Debates of the House of Commons‘, in 10 volumes covering 1667 to 1694, all online in hand transcribed text courtesy of British History Online.

v.8, 1660-1676: via Google.
v.9, 1677-1687: via Google.
v.10, 1688-1693: via Google.
v.11, 1693-1697: via Google.
v.12, 1697-1699: via Google.
v.13, 1699-1702: via Google.
v.14, 1702-1704: via Google.
v.15, 1705-1708: via Google.
v.16, 1708-1711: via Google.
v.17, 1711-1714: via Google.
v.18, 1714-1718: via Google.
v.19, 1718-1721: via Google.
v.20, 1722-1727: via Google.
v.21, 1727-1732: via Google.
v.22, 1732-1737: via Google.
v.23, 1737-1741: via Google.
v.24, 1741-1745: via Google.
v.25, 1745-1750: via Google.
v.26, 1750-1754: via Google.
v.27, 1754-1757: via Google.
v.28, 1757-1761: via Google.
v.29, 1761-1764: via Google.
v.30, 1765-1766: via Google.
v.31, 1766-1768: via Google.
v.32, 1768-1770: via Google.
v.33, 1770-1772: via Google.
v.34, 1772-1774: via Google.
v.35, 1774-1776: via Google.
v.36, 1776-1778: via Google.
v.37, 1778-1780: via Google.
v.38, 1780-1782: via Google.
v.39, 1782-1784: via Google.
v.40, 1784-1785: via Google.
v.41, 1786: via Google.
v.42, 1787: via Google.
v.43, 1787-1788: via Google.
v.44, 1788-1789: via Google.
v.45, 1790: via Google.
v.46, 1790-1791: via Google.
v.47, 1792: via Google.
v.48, 1792-1793: via Google.
v.49, 1794: via Google.
v.50, 1794-1795: via Google.
v.51, 1795-1796: via Google.
v.52, 1796-1797: via Google.
v.53, 1797-1798: via Google.
v.54, 1798-1799: via Google.
v.55, 1799-1800: via Google.
v.56, 1801: via Google.
v.57, 1801-1802: via Google.
v.58: 1802-1803: via Google.
v.59, 1803-1804: via Google.
v.60, 1805-1806: via Google.
v.61, 1806: via Google.
v.62, 1806-1807: via Google.
v.63, 1808: via Google.
v.64, 1809: via Google.
v.65, 1810: via Google.
v.66, 1810-1811: via Google.
v.67, 1812: via Google.
v.68, 1812-1813: via Google.
v.69, 1813-1814: via Google.
v.70, 1814-1816: via Google.
v.71, 1816: via Google.
v.72, 1817: via Google.
v.73, 1818: via Google.
v.74, 1818-1819: via Bavarian State Library.
v.75, 1819-1820: via Google.
v.76, 1821-1822: via Google.
v.77: – not found.
v.78: – not found.
v.79, 1824-1825 via Bavarian State Library.
v.80: – not found.
v.81, 1826: via Google.
v.82, 1826-1828: via Google.
v.83, 1828: via Google.
v.84, 1829: via Google.
v.85, 1830: via British History Online.
v.86, part 1, 1830-1831: via Google.
v.86, part 2, 1831: via Google.
v.87: – not found.
v.88: – not found.
v.89: – not found.


Index for 1547-1659.
Index for 1667-1697.
Index for 1697-1714.
Index for 1714-1774.
Index for 1774-1800.
Index for 1801-1820.

James I’s sanctuary legislation

I have just added two pieces of Jacobean legislation to the statutes archive: the clause of 1604 repealing sanctuary acts and  the clauses of 1623 that purportedly abolished sanctuary outright. Unlike all the other laws on sanctuary, these are extreme in their brevity, and aren’t even full acts, but sections of longer acts that extend, revive or revoke a great miscellany of diverse laws.

The tortuous wording of many laws, with their repeated stock phrases, such as ‘Sheriff or Sheriffs, Gaoler or Gaolers, or Keeper of any such Prison’, make me think that they are trying to pre-empt overly literal argumentation by including as many possible variants as possible. This makes them very difficult to follow, to the point of inducing headaches. Here we have the very opposite: minimal and concise, as if fewer words means less to debate. Yet these clauses are quite unfathomable.

To take the clause of 1604 first, this repeals the whole body of legislation on sanctuary prior to 1592, all swept away, without even specifying which particular acts are refered to. Quite why this was done has yet to be explained; the historians I’ve read on sanctuary do seem to scratch their heads at this point. It’s difficult to understand why 1592, Elizabeth’s  35th year, was taken as a cut-off point; there isn’t, as far as I can see, any legislation relating to sanctuary in that year, and the only mention of it after that is to deny the benefit of it to raiders and brigands in northern England. But what this benefit could be is thrown into doubt because there is now nothing on the statute books to define it.

What the act actually means for sanctuary is just as unclear. Given that in the same year taking sanctuary was listed as an act of bankruptcy (1 or 2 James 1 c.15) it abolishes neither the practice nor the spaces.

The 1604 clause was itself amended by the 1623 act, which was just as sweeping. Twenty years after all the acts touching sanctuary were repealed, those parts that took away sanctuary were restored. This is paradoxical, like throwing a hole into a void. Only the negation of sanctuary exists on the statute book; there is no recognition or definition of it there otherwise.

And to confuse matters still more this clause is immediately followed by what seems to be a definitive end to sanctuary: “no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.”

Interpreting this second clause as the absolute abolition of sanctuary might be due to Danby Pickering’s annotation of it. His marginal note reads “All Sanctuaries taken away”, citing Coke’s Institutes, volume 3, first published 1644. But this is a circular argument: Coke simply repeats the the meat of the clause,  dropping the word “hereafter.”

So as David Loades has written in connection with the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, “it did not actually legislate the surviving sanctuaries out of existence, it merely declared that no one could take advantage of them.” (David Loades, The Sanctuary, in Knighton, ed., Westminster Abbey Reformed: 1540-1640, p.91.) To be precise, I think this should read no one could take sanctuary ‘hereafter’; it is not clear that those already in sanctuary are required to give up their situation. The phrasing also suggests that it is to do with sanctuary in a procedural sense – “in any case” – leaving the geographical rights in place. This is supported by the three subesquent references to sanctuaries in English legislation, where they are listed as a form of special territory, alongside liberties, franchises and ancient demeasnes. Quite how someone could avail themselves of the rights of these places when such rights were stripped from the person, is, like much else here, a mystery.

Sanctuary has been said to have been a hard right to end. On the basis of this legislation, one could suggest that the law-makers made a very bad job of it, creating an ambiguity that was exploited later by the ‘Alsatians’ of Whitefriars.