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.


Weavers in the Mint

Below is the short – 20 minute long – talk I gave at the Radical Histories / Histories of Radicalism conference at the beginning of July. I was presenting alongside Sarah Wise, speaking on the radical venue Eclectic Hall on Denmark Street, and Judith Walkowitz, who discussed the debates and demonstrations around prostitution in King’s Cross in the 1980s. (Abstract.)

Although the strand was ‘Radical Londons’, none of the three papers took London as a whole, but concentrated on small parts of it, at different times across three hundred years. My contribution focused on one section – weavers – of the population of the debtors’ sanctuary of Southwark Mint. The paper is more or less what I delivered, minus a little ad libbing: I couldn’t resist singing the song the Minters made the bailiffs they pumped sing:

“I am a rogue, and a rogue in grain, And damn me if I ever come into the Mint again.”

A recording was made, though not yet released, so you will be able to hear my dulcet tones at some point in the future.

In the discussion afterwards, a couple of things came up. Firstly, writers in the Mint and the other sanctuaries. There were a few, such as Tom Brown who took to Baldwin’s Gardens a few times, and Nahum Tate, poet laureate, who died in the Mint in 1715. It’s a source of frustration that none wrote anything substantial about the sanctuaries

As is the way with these things, I also got asked a couple of questions I couldn’t answer. One was to do with the administrations of London, and how various areas had particular and peculiar rights. Quite simply, organizationally London was quite chaotic; it was subdivided into (secular) wards, covered by a (religious) parish system as well, stimuated urbanization outside its own control and  bounded by counties that did not have the capabilities to deal with that growth. At the same time, there was an order of sorts: no sanctuaries within the old city walls, and the powers of the City of London. Beyond depicting the chaos of it all, I couldn’t really describe or comprehend it.

Another question related to the usage of the word ‘Republic[k]’. I think I have presumed two things in the talk below: that the word would have echoes of the Interregnum and therefore express an active, radical, anti-monarchical aspect, and that it is fundamentally geographical, refering to an particular area.

My feeling now is that neither is true. The word may well have been more commonplace and not always have such ardent political connotations. Furthermore, as in the idea of a ‘Republic of Letters’, it need not imply a particular space but can refer to a dispersed community. As such, the term also moves the stress from place to people. This is something I need to consider more carefully.

I was also asked about Huguenot names appearing on the Minters’ lists. I need to check this carefully, but my impression is that there are very few French-derived names.


This Little Republick: The Weavers in Southwark Mint


Good afternoon. My name is John Levin, I’m a PhD student at the University of Sussex, writing a thesis on imprisonment for debt and debtors’ sanctuaries in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Today I’m going to talk about Southwark Mint, the longest lasting of these sanctuaries, the weavers amongst its population of debtors, and the politics of the Mint.

Debtors Sanctuaries in London, circa 1673 to 1723

Debtors Sanctuaries in London, circa 1673 to 1723


A debtors sanctuary was a place where there was some claim of exemption from arrest under civil process. Although there was a long tradition of religious sanctuary, of inviolable church territories where even criminals could take refuge, by the time of the restoration these exemptions were for civil matters only, and therefore fundamentally for debtors as they could be prosecuted and imprisoned for nonpayment of debts. After the reformation, these rights were never clearly settled nor abolished, needing to be asserted and enforced amidst a number of contradictory statutes.

At some time in the 1670s, – 1673 is the earliest date I’ve found of debtors, in the savoy, asserting these rights –  communities of debtors were formed in certain presumed ‘privileged places’ in London, where they asserted their immunity from arrest by bailiffs. If you look at this map – from a project I’m working on with Nick Valvo of Northwestern University, called Spaces of Exception . org – you’ll see a cluster of markers on the north bank of the Thames. The markers note the places in London named in the act of 1697 that abolished the sanctuaries. These, centred round Whitefriars, constituted ‘Alsatia’, so nicknamed by the journalist Henry Care in 1676, and the most renowned of these refuges. The term alsatia is still used today to denote a place outside the law, but it is important to remember that whatever cover it provided for criminal activity, the core population were civil debtors and the legal exceptions were of civil law.

All the sanctuaries were outside the City of London’s walls, with only Whitefriars and its neighbours in the City at all, in the ward of Farringdon Without. [Blackfriars and St Martin’s Le Grand were not debtors sanctuaries at this time.] To the East, the Minories, once an abbey and in 1697 part of the Liberties of the tower of London. To the North, Baldwin’s Gardens, Holborn / Middlesex,  possibly having some inherited religious rights. Transpontine, there were three sanctuaries, Montague Close around Southwark Cathedral, the Clink and the Mint.

Although some of these sanctuaries had some sort of religious precedent – Whitefriars was as the name suggests a monastery – others did not. Places like the Savoy, the western-most point on the map, were, as part of the Duchy of Lancaster, independent of the local administrations. Similarly, the one sanctuary that revived after 1697: Southwark Mint, the bottomost marker on the map. The Mint had no religious precedent – as its name suggests, it housed a mint and as such was directly under the control of the king. When part of Southwark – Bridge Ward Without – was sold to the City of London in 1550, the Mint was expressly excluded from the area purchased. Even though the Mint ceased operation in 1551, and over the next century tenements were built there, the area remained, and retained the status of, a Royal Palace.

Despite suppression by statute, the Mint revived in the early 1700s, due to a combination of unforeseen legislative side effects, of bankruptcy and debtor prisoner relief acts, of having another spatial claim by being entirely within the rules of the Kings Bench prison, and – most importantly – debtors willing to physically defend themselves against the bailiffs.

When Southwark Mint was abolished in 1722, an amnesty was offered for the relief of the debtors residing there, similar to the regular relief acts for those in prison for debt. Those with debts of under £50, on giving up their property, would have their debts written off. Because of these measures, requiring the minters to give notice of their application, we have, at its end, a veritable census of Southwark Mint, giving the names, occupations, place of last residence, and from which gender can be divined.

This practice, of publishing details in the London Gazette, was first established by the act for the relief of imprisoned debtors in 1712. Similar acts were passed in 1720, 1725 and 1729, and I shall be drawing upon those lists as well.

A note on numbers: whilst this sounds like a clean and clear source, these lists are not. There isn’t a standard orthography, there’s curious spellings, strange geographies and so on. Also, the lists have doubles – not many, but the problem is in identifying them rather than their number. Consequently, the figures I will be giving, whilst I think them broadly accurate, and not precise.

Weavers as debtors

The Mint relief lists published in the London Gazette total 6,256 entries. Of these around 600, some 10%, gave their trade as weaving, the largest single occupation. The majority came from London, although there were contigents from Norwich (around 30) and Dublin (around 20). And within London the majority came from the East End, from around Spittlefields, Whitechapel, Shoreditch and Stepney, with a sizeable minority coming from south of the River, Southwark and Bermondsey. As with the sanctuaries, they came from outside the walls of the city of London.

By contrast, a mere 48 male weavers were among the debtors applying for release under the 1720 act, and of them only 9 were from the London area. After the abolition of the Mint, of 66 weavers applying for release in 1725, half came from London. But by 1729, 148 weavers were in prison for debt. (A further 29 surrendered themselves as fugitives, under the terms of the act.) This mirrored the increase in absolute numbers of people imprisoned for debt (and applying for relief): from less than 2 and a half thousand in 1720 to over 4 thousand in 1725 and 6 thousand in 1729. An illustration both of how successful the Mint was, and how much it was needed.

The weavers counted thus are overwhelmingly male. Women made up about 7.5% of the names on the Mint relief lists, totalling around 450 entries. Over 90% of the female minters came from the greater London area (London, Middx, Surrey; only 42 from elsewhere). Women generally comprise between 8% and 10% of the prisoner relief lists. How many women were weavers is unknown: the entries in the lists often give a woman’s marital status rather than occupation, and due to the doctrine of feme covert, whereby a wife’s debts were – along with her person and property – subsumed into her husbands’, the vast majority of these statuses are either widow or spinster. The absence of servants also adds to the general gender imbalance; I have yet to calculate the proportion of female debtors as a proportion of the general adult unmarried female population

There were many other trades represented in the Mint, the largest being bricklayers, tailors, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. There were many in retail, traders and victuallers, around 200 farmers and husbandmen, less than 100 labourers. And some were not plebian, but gentlemen (130) and even 11 brokers, perhaps suffering from the South Sea Bubble. But the weavers were the largest single group, followed by others in the clothing industry.

Why were weavers in debt? On this the relief lists are silent. We don’t know who their creditors were, nor how much they owed. The 1723 act set a maximum of £50 of debt to be eligible for relief, so we do know that the debts were not individually enormous, although widespread. But other than that, without the specific stories, we have to rely on larger, macro-economic conditions as an explanation.

Weavers’ wages could be low and, on piecework, irregularly paid. Overheads like renting a frame require a continual flow of work, which couldn’t be guaranteed. In terms of economic structure, a lack of circulating coin made the use of credit inevitable, and meant that one could be nominally solvent – owed more than owing oneself – yet still threatened with imprisonment. Cycles of war and dearth, and foreign competition also made the weavers lot precarious. And the whole period of the so-called ‘Financial Revolution’ was punctuated by economic crises, from the stop of the exchequer, via the great recoinage to the south sea bubble.

Thus far, the weavers in the Mint. We turn now to the weavers considered as *of* the mint, as active contributors to the Mint.

A Little Republick?

“Of all the groups of workers who used such devices to coerce their employers, none had so long a history of struggle, none were so remarkably persistent, and, maybe, none so violent as the silk weavers of Spitalfields, Moorfields, Stepney, and Bethnal Green.” Says Rudé, in his “The Crowd in History.”

Throughout the period of the sanctuaries, from the 1670s to the 1720s, the weavers were continually protesting, not just in London but throughout the country, wherever their trade had taken root. Protesting took two tracks: physical demonstration, in the streets, and arguing ‘in the public sphere’: petitioning and campaigning for laws to set wages and to ban imports of calicos.

This dual strategy, of violence and negotiation mirrors the campaigns against imprisonment for debt. There, there was both physical action, fighting bailiffs and rescuing debtors from their clutches on the streets as well as rioting within the prisons, and public debate by means of petitions for amnesty and relief, and pamphlets as to the legal and moral rights and wrongs of imprisonment.

Beyond being present in the Mint, weavers  were clearly active within it. At least one, probably two, of the leading Minters named in the Parliamentary inquiry of 1722 are found on the relief lists described as weavers. Weavers assembled in the Mint during the Calico riots of 1719; two arrests were made, both of weavers from Spittlefields. But the Mint had, aside from the rioting and petitioning, an extra dimension, of organizing governance over a territory.

The pamphlet “Memoirs of the Mint”, of 1713:

“the [species of government is] Democracy, and extends its Jurisdiction throughout that part of the Country known by the Name of the <i>Mint</i>, which Government is excercis’d by a <i>Triumvirate</i>, call’d Stewards; who sit to despatch Affairs of State, at three Principal Offices, which are so many Entrances to their Dominions. Each of these is attended by six Representatives of the People, who bear the Character of <i>Beadles<i>, with their Subaltern Officers, under the Appellation of <i>Spirits<i>; these execute the Commands of their Rulers.”

A democracy, with representatives of the people! Or in even more radical terms, three years later, Thomas Baston, print maker and sailor, wrote whilst imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench:

“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.”

That there was a parallel government in place was testified to by the former M.P. for Southwark, John Lade, who had dispersed the weavers in the Mint during the calico riots: “that several persons within the Mint have set up a jurisdiction of their own; and take upon them to regulate and determine matters.”

At this point I’d like to make a jump, and suggest that the weavers, with their long and concerted political experience, wrought an organizational change in sanctuary practice. These words, democracy, republic, jurisdiction, were never used to describe the earlier debtor sanctuaries of the late seventeenth century. Nothing like it appears in, for example, Shadwell’s Squire of Alsatia of 1688. And clubs are found amongst the early proto-unionism of weavers, and of tailors, around 230 of whom are on the Mint relief lists.

This is rather speculative, in that there is very little evidence of this early trade unionism, due to a necessary secrecy. The other absence is writing of the Minters themselves, of whom we have only a handful of formulaic petitions and anonymous threatening letters, both of which were written for a purpose other than to describe their ideas. Whilst Baston cannot be dismissed out of hand, there is an air of rhetoric about his claims. It should not be forgotten that the Mint was also the site of the most appalling poverty, and continued to be so right up to the late nineteenth century.

What do we have aside from a small body of literature? The relief lists, which offer different methodologies for understanding sanctuaries, and for considering those debtors as part of a larger population. By analysing the composition of the sanctuary, and extrapolating from the individuals to their working communities, we can, if not declare outright for a republic, see the Mint as part of that plebian world, and not as outside of it as it was outside civil law.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Nick Valvo for making the map, taken and lightly edited from Spaces of Exception. Thanks to my fellow panelists Sarah Wise and Judith Walkowitz, our chair Carlos Galviz, and to the organizers of the conference.

This paper is released under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike international license, 4.0.

Weavers and Minters talk at Radical Histories conference

In a couple of weeks time I’ll be giving a short paper as part of a panel on Radical London at the Radical Histories conference at Queen Mary University in Mile End. I’m talking at 4.15 on Friday 1st July (program [pdf]) alongside Sarah Wise, discussing Soho’s Eclectic Hall in the nineteenth century, and Judith Walkowitz, examining feminism and prostitution in King’s Cross in the 1980s.

The abstract for my paper is below; the full talk will be posted here shortly, both as text and – all going well – in glorious technicolour audio, so you can here how flat my voice is.

“This Little Republick.”

Weavers in the debtors’ sanctuary of Southwark Mint.

“Of all the groups of workers who used such devices to coerce their employers, none had so long a history of struggle, none were so remarkably persistent, and, maybe, none so violent as the silk weavers of Spitalfields, Moorfields, Stepney, and Bethnal Green.” Rudé, The Crowd in History, 1964.

Although the weavers of the East End are well known for over a century of political and economic struggle, their involvement in the debtors’ sanctuary of Southwark Mint has so far escaped attention.

The Mint was the longest lasting post-restoration debtors sanctuary, an enclave outside the jurisdictions of the City of London and Surrey County, within which debtors sought to avoid imprisonment through taking advantage of jurisdictional anomalies and by physically resisting the bailiffs.

Finally abolished in 1723, an amnesty was offered to those of its residents owing less than £50. The resulting lists of minters published in the London Gazette reveal that a very significant proportion of them were weavers, many of whom came from the areas east of the City’s walls.

Taken together with the four amnesties relieving imprisoned debtors between 1712 and 1729, it can also be shown that the weavers made up a much smaller proportion of the prison population at the time the Mint gave refuge.

This paper argues that the East End weavers were not only significant numerically, but that they brought an organizational practice to the Mint, based on their collective experience. It was their system of clubs that maintained the defence of the refuge over many years, and their customary humiliations of bailiffs that asserted the rights of the place.

Through this they gave substance to Thomas Baston’s claim that the Mint was a “Little Republick.”

Elopement notices in the London Gazette

(Note: This is a slightly edited copy of an article I had published on the Gazette website a few months ago. I am now part of the ‘official public record’! I post it here so place it in my personal record, and because it discusses the consequences of the law of coverture in regards to debt.)

As the official journal of record, the bulk of the London Gazette is taken up with Royal proclamations and political appointments, court arrangements and military engagements, financial affairs and foreign intelligence. But amongst these matters of high state, there are also advertisements taken out by private individuals concerning more personal dramas. For example, one finds such items as this, from July 1714:

Whereas Elizabeth, the Wife of Edward Game, of Bruges in Flanders, Merchant, lately come to England with her said Husband from Bruges, hath eloped from him, and carried away his Papers, Writings, and a Sum of Money; she went away with one Darby Ressell, Mariner. The said Edward Game doth hereby give notice to all Tradesmen, Shopkepers and others, that they do not receive or entertain the said Elizabeth Game, or give her any Credit for any thing whatever, for that he will not pay any debts she shall Contract after the Publication hereof.

More frequently, such advertisements are terser, giving less surrounding detail so as not to detract from the point:

Whereas Jane, the Wife of Francis Fry, of Barnaby Street in Southwark, Baker, hath Eloped from her said Husband, and run him into Debt; these are to give notice to all Persons not to Trust or give Credit to the said Jane Fry with Mony or Goods on Account of her said Husband, for that he will not pay any Debts she shall Contract after the Publication hereof.

In all, a search for ‘eloped’ returns 73 relevent items, all published in the early 1710s. The earliest I have found was published on the 1st of January 1711  and the last in October 1714.  They continued to appear in local newspapers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but not in the official record. For despite the Gazette’s undoubted authority, such advertisements did not take on that lustre. Early in the eighteenth century, that curious forerunner of the advice column the “Athenian Mercury” recommended to a man whose wife had absconded with the silver plate:

The first thing you do, put her into the Gazette, declaring for Reasons best known to your self, that no one give Credit to her, either as to Money or Commodities ….

But by 1736 it was advised that it had no standing in law, Giles Jacob’s handbook “Every Man his own Lawyer” stating firmly:

But on an Elopement, the putting a wife in the Gazette, or other News-Papers, is no legal Notice to Persons in general not to trust her; tho’ personal Notice to particular Persons given by the Husband will be good not to be chargeable to them.

In other words, publishing in a local paper could be seen as a communicating to a more specific audience.

But why were such notices felt to be necessary, and why the stress on credit and debts? At this time – and until the Married Women’s Property Acts of the late nineteenth century – married women were governed by the doctrine of feme covert by which her legal rights were subsumed into those of her husband. She could not own property or enter into contracts in her own name. The converse of this was that the husband became responsible for his wife’s financial obligations. Consequently, any debts she incurred were laid at his door. And so these notices were taken out in a bid to restrict the credit the absconding wife could muster.

These adverts only give the man’s side of the story. We don’t know the woman’s reasons for leaving her home and husband, nor even if the silver plate she took was not brought by her into the marriage. But in 1807, one Mary Hoof responded to a similar notice in an Exeter newspaper thus:

Now I do hereby solemnly inform the public, that I never gave my said husband any just cause or provocation for such illiberal treatment towards me, but, on the contrary, have borne his ill usage with silence and resignation; nor should I now complain, but with a view to justify my character, which might otherwise be injured.

Exeter Flying Post – Thursday 10 September 1807 (paywalled)

The Distribution of Debtors’ Prisons, 1712

Debtor prisons in England & Wales, 1712

Using the lists of debtor prisoners applying for release under the 1712 act, as published in the London Gazette, here’s a map of the places in which they were incarcerated. For the most part it’s places, not actual prisons, that are mapped, due to difficulties with the data. Sometimes it’s unclear how many places had multiple prisons; sometimes the same building seemed to have housed more than one gaol; a single prison may be referred to by numerous names.

So there’s all sorts of problems with the data. Hence this simplification to places that had one or more gaols, save for London where each prison is noted. In total, there are 164 markers. I estimate that there are about 200 prisons holding debtors in all, including some that, for whatever reason, didn’t have debtors apply under this act.

What this map indicates is the national comprehensiveness of the carceral system. Whilst it is unsurprising that every county had a lock up, similarly every major city, there are seven in Cornwall alone. The London urban area has ten*, four of which are in Southwark. At the time, prison sentences for crime were rare, and the main role of imprisonment was to hold the condemned until execution or transportation. This map shows an infrastructure directed primarily at debtors.

This is a work in progress. The next step will be to add the prisons from the amnesties of the 1720s, to locate each one, and give an indication of the number of prisoners they held. Meanwhile, with usual caveats and warnings of unstable data, if you want the data – which is just place names with co-ordinates, here’s the data as CSV.

* For some reason the Fleet prison isn’t showing up on this map. Debugging in progress.

Francis Winter’s Other Farewell

I have previously discussed the ballad Francis Winter’s Last Farewell, an account of the execution of Captain Winter, condemned to hang for his part in the death of a constable during a riot against the bricking up of a gate connecting the Temple to Whitefriars.

Here, I present a different ballad of the same title, one that I only recently found in the wonderful English Broadside Ballad Archive. Unlike the first Farewell, this song is decidedly uncontroversial and sparse of detail, giving no account of the crime for which he was hanged. The sentiment is overly religious, and gives the impression of being a boilerplate narrative of repentance that could be easily adapted for any execution. That said, having looked for similar versions turned to other victims of the gallows, I’ve found nothing recycling these lines.

What is of interest is that it is the only source on Winter I’ve found that refers to the Captain being married and having children. No other document I’ve found mentions his marital status or family.

There is, however, in the Whitefriars listings for the 4 Shilling tax of 1693/4, an entry for Winter (Widow), who has property worth £3.60, rental value £18, but no stock. The value of the house is average for the precinct. This could be his widow. Some support is given to this theory by the Examination of Francis Winter of March 1692, where he claimed to have been “at his owne house” at the time of the riot. (The transcription gives “at this owne house” but the manuscript clearly lacks the leading ‘t’.) This implies he was a property owner: it doesn’t say ‘in his own rooms’ as if he were renting. This house would presumably have been inherited by his wife. Against this, the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account has Winter “Contract[ing] some Debts in the World, which occasioned him to fly for Refuge into White Fryers”, giving him more of a desperate air.

As a footnote to this, another collection suggests that there is further ballad of Captain Winter, but it appears to confuse him with the highwayman Captain Whitney, executed around the same time: “A Letter to Satisfie all Persons that Whitney is not fled from Newgate.” So here is the Captain Winter’s final final farewell. I have modernised the spelling of the text and fixed a typo. Sing along: EBBA have provided a recording putting the words to the tune.

An Excellent New Song, Call’d,
Captain Winters last Farewell
To the WORLD;
Or His Mournful parting with His Wife and Children,
Who was Executed in Fleetstreet, May 17th 1693.
Tune of, All Happy Times:

Good People that do see my End,
Be cautious how your Time you spend
Without a watchful Care each day,
The best that is may go astray.

‘Tis true a shameful Death I die
For which some will me vilify,
But why should I ashamed be
Since my dear Savior died for me.

I beg all mercy from above,
The joyful peace of Heavenly Love,
As for this Life I freely give,
And beg God would my Soul receive,

Adieu my dear and loving Wife,
For now I must depart this Life;
The Fates does call, I can’t withstand,
Grim Death, who once will all Command.

But still my Prayers is for you Dear,
That you would this with Patience bear;
Be not cast down, but be content,
Altho Death is my Punishment.

My next advice to thee my Love,
Is that thou servest thy God above,
And then I doubt not but he will
Preserve thee from all danger still.

My little Lambs I bid adieu,
And leave the Charge of them to you;
Such tender Care I know you’ll take,
That shall be for the Childrens Sake.

I am concern’d the more my dear
Because a Child thee now dost bear,
Therefore thy sorrow is the more
But God I hope will thee Restore.

Farewell, for evermore adieu
This is the last farewell to you,
When thou a Widow once shall be
I hope the Lord will cherish thee.

I hope I shant forget the Prayer
Which God in Mercy did declare,
That all the World would me forgive
As I do them whilst here I live.

I dye with all the World in Peace,
And hope that when my Breath doth cease
My Soul may unto Heaven fly,
And there remain Eternally.

My Spirit Lord I recommend
Unto my Saviour, Man’s best friend
I come O Lord, I come to Thee,
O grant me blest Eternity.

Printed and Sold by T. Moore. 1693.


Ballad source; EBBAs usage policy; intro is CC-BY-SA.