c.1700: The most deplorable CASE of many Thousand Persons Imprisoned for Debt in the Kings-Bench and Fleet

The most deplorable CASE of many Thousand Persons Imprisoned for

Debt in the Kings-Bench and Fleet, and in near a Thousand other Prisons in this Kingdom;

In all humility submitted to the consideration of

The Knights, Citizens and Burgesses in Parliament Assembled.

THAT there is actually now in the several Prisons aforesaid by computation at least Sixty Thousand PRISONERS for Debt, who with their Wives and Children computed at three times the number, by reason of their Confinement are generally Ruin’d and brought to most extreme Poverty, especially those who have been any time shut up within the Prison Walls, whose case is worse than common Beggars, or those relieved by Parishes who are provided for by Law, and can go and help themselves if any deficiency be, or at the Worst can beg Relief in the Streets, while the poor confined Prisoners are immured and taken no care of, and many of them unregarded have been starved to Death with hunger in this famous Metropolis of England, to the great dishonour of this Protestant Nation.

That beside the actual Prisoners aforesaid and their dependencies, it is computed that there are almost as many more that hide themselves for fear of Arrests, many of them fly the Kingdom, who have also as many depending on them as the confined Prisoners aforementioned, and which computed together will make up near the number of Five hundred Thousand Persons.

That the want of Liberty, which the Beasts of the Field and Fowls of the Air enjoy, is the Bane of all Industry, the Consumption of every Man’s Estate, and renders the Debtor every day less capable to satisfy his Creditor: Prisons are the Nurseries of all those Vices Which arise from Despair, the fountains and original for the most part of all that Poverty which overspreads the Kingdom, and is entailed from generation to generation, and which becomes a heavy burden to the more happy part of Mankind: They are usually the beginnings of most contagious Distempers which so often infests the rest of the Nation, a Dungeon which is but seldom used being preferrable to such noisom places as are constantly inhabited by the most miserable part of Mankind, and Death preferrable to such a Life.

The Persons thus afflicted are oftentimes of as antient and good Families as any in the Kingdom, who have bean born to or by Industry have acquired confidence Estates, which have been lost by inevitable Accidents; true Adorers of their God and Lovers of their King and Country, and who have many of them ventured themselves and their Estates as far as any in the service thereof. They are often the more generous and easie part of Mankind who become a prey to the griping Worldling, who would easily swallow up those of their own Flesh and Blood to add to their own Fortunes; or such as become a Mark to the meagre and invidious Person, or ambitious Emulator, who to gratifie their Envy and would rejoyce to trample Mankind to atoms.

The greatest Cities and Kingdom[s] have had their Fates as well as private Persons; and tho the losses by Wars, Fire, Sea, and other strokes of Providence, as well as by Rapines, Cheats, Thefts, and Over-Reachings of evil Persons, are generally unavoidable, yet the poor and distressed Debtors bear the blame, and ’tis thought fit to punish them without distinction, as persons who ought to have foreseen and prevented the Mischiefs aforesaid, and to have been sensible of their Conditions and that they were incapable of paying their Debts; which is impossible for any person to know that sustains the losses aforesaid; and also those who are in good condition and of ability, are unavoidably Ruin’d by coming into Prisons and the charges which attend the same, and Law-Suits, whereby the said Prisoners Estates are torn to pieces and sold and made away for inconsiderable Values, as is evident by constant Experience, and yet their Persons kept in misery and bondage. And it is humbly conceiv’d, That the Creditor is not without blame, who ought to take care to whom he gives credit, and can more easily bear and be acquainted with the report and opinion of the World concerning the Debtors Ability than himself, by which credit and opinion most persons are supported or crash; and therefore such Creditor ought to be confined to Reason, that they may not destroy those Persons whom for their own and others Benefit they ought to support.

Your humble supplicants have no intent hereby to avoid the Payment of their just Debts, or to justifie any evil Person who by vain Extravagancy have wasted their Estates, or who have borrowed Moneys on purpose to runaway with the same, But do humbly Implore your Majesty, that if some few there are who have been guilty of any such Enormities, which are few or none in respect of the great numbers aforesaid, who are undeservedly miserable as before express’d, and which are easie to be found out, that so much the greater number may not suffer on their account, but may be distinguished suitable to the Justice of their Case and wretched Sufferings aforesaid, according to the Custom of other Neighbouring Countries, who assume a Power of doing Justice between Debtor and Creditor, and letting the Person at Liberty for the advantage of both, the good of the Commonwealth, and the incouragement of Trade and Industry, which many are deterr’d from for fear of falling into the circumstances aforesaid.

Many of the aforesaid Creditors (as is well known) do oftentimes give credit for Moneys and Effects to Persons of known Estates, on purpose to swallow them up by degrees, by the methods aforesaid, and no more effectual way than to Arrest them and destroy their Credit, and shut them up in Prison, and then foreclose or get their Estates from them for want of appearing and paying some small Sums which they cannot do when their Reputation is taken away. Great numbers of the Persons aforesaid are kept in Prison purely to gratifie the malice and Revenge of their Creditors aforesaid, who know they are incapable of ever paying while in Prison, and are threatned by the Creditors, That they will make Dice of their Bones; a common expression. Others have great Sums demanded from them which they never had, and which is not their right to pay, but have been snapt with Judgment and Execution, and the like, for want of Money or Means to defend themselves, or have been drawn into them unwarily and unreasonably. Multitudes are thrown into Prison out of pure malice, where in a short time all their Friends most certainly forsake them; —— and multitudes of other hard Cases are amongst them; for the satisfaction of the Truth whereof, and of other the premisses, Your distressed Petitioners aforesaid, do humbly Implore, That some Inquisition and Examination thereof maybe made by Persons to be appointed for that purpose.

And whereas the Inconveniences of the Prisons aforesaid do not only prove a Decay of Trade and of people, and of the Commonwealth of this Kingdom, but also by such early seizing the Person in the beginning of Suits, their credit is in a moment destroy’d, —— and many Thousands of Your Petitioners substantial Housekeepers who have employ’d greet multitudes of poor Persons, Servants and others under them, have greatly supported the Poor by their parochial contributions, and have paid for the Publick Good many 1000 lb for Taxes are in an instant blown up and ruin’d, who if their Persons had been at Liberty, or their Credit longer supported, might have paid their Debts and continued the Advantages before mentioned.

It is humbly proposed to the Consideration of this Honorable House, whether for preventing the Mischiefs aforesaid, and the insupportable Villanies and Extortions of Bailiffs, & Goalers, That it may not be proper to Revive the Antient Process of England of Summons Pone & Distringas, and not to Arrest or confine Persons for Debt till Execution, according to the method of Scotland and other Places; and then also to appoint Commissioners to compel Justice between Debtor and Creditor, and to deliver the Person with speed, Bayl being of little service for the most part to the Creditor, but occasions many Perjuries, —— —— and by needless Surrenders grounded upon vain fears they ruin more Families than they help, as is evident by common Experience; it being also grown into a Trade, for many Persons by secret Endeavours to become Bayl for Men of Account who have never been under bad Circumstances, and to squeeze unreasonable Sums from them or to hurry them to Prisons as their Manucaptores when they are under no hazard, to the utter Destruction of many hundreds of Families, who if they had been allowed the advantage of Time which the Law favourably gives, could have saved themselves from Ruin. And for as much as the most wretched Condition of Your distressed Suplicants aforesaid, surpass the Imagination of all those that have not experienc’d it, and cannot be sufficiently expressed by words, they do most humbly Implore the pity and assistance of this Honorable Assembly, that in regard there is no effectual Law for their Support or Maintenance, or at least not put in execution, that some speedy Law may be made for compelling the same, and that if it consist with Your Honours Wisdom, their obdurate Creditors may be forced to make some Allowance for that purpose, where the Prisoner cannot help himself, till they will be brought to Reason, that so Your poor Petitioners may not perish with Want; that their Circumstances may be examined into by Persons appointed for that purpose, that they may be inlarg’d from their dismal and profitless Confinement on just and reasonable Conditions, such as they are able to comply with. And your poor and distress’d Prisoners will gratefully acknowledge the same all the days of their lives, and ever pray for your Honours Health and true Happiness both here and hereafter.

Source: Transcribed from the copy in the British Library.

References: British Library; ESTC.

Note: The date is approximate; the ESTC suggests it could be between 1690 and 1710. Given the reference to ‘Your Majesty’ in the singular, it can be dated to after the death of Mary (1694).