Tag Archives: parliament

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 Parliament.uk. For the eighteenth century, a complete run can be found on Google, and for the early nineteenth, most volumes (7 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: – not found.
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.

Indexes:

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

The Minters petition Parliament

So far, most of the texts I have found concerning the debtor sanctuaries of London have been written by their opponents: laws and indictments, and also the last dying words transmitted via the Ordinary of Newgate. There has also been some street literature and popular and historical accounts, written by third parties. So far, the only item that can be said to have come directly from a debtor and a minter is the pamphlet by Thomas Baston.

Here I present a petition sent from Southwark Mint to Parliament, debated on February 11 1723 (new style), as recorded in the eighth volume of Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England. Presented as coming from “several thousands of his Majesty’s subjects” – but without transcribing the names – this can be considered as a sort of collective voice, probably dictated by a handful of people but echoed by many. (I don’t know if the original still exists, with the names intact. Nothing has turned up through searching the archives’ catalogues; my guess is that it was consumed in the Burning of Parliament in 1834.)

But it is not an unproblematic, unmediated or ‘authentic’ voice. As a petition it conforms to the standard language of the genre: respectful, pleading, supplicating. Protest is not the tone of this text: it is begging the authorities to intercede for them. The Minters describe themselves as “poor unfortunate gentlemen, merchants, and tradesmen, &c”, respectable and miserable rather than criminal, dissolute or lazy. Their ills are blamed upon “the late calamitous times” and the contractual severity of their creditors; their rents  are “thrice the real value”, and their homes are overcrowded gaols; they have no possibility of paying their debts due to the depredations of their landlords. In short, their situation is due to no fault of their own, and they beg Parliament grant them a remedy.

But there is an undercurrent of antagonism here. There is a reference to industry fleeing abroad, “to the improving of their manufactures abroad, and impoverishing our own, which is the life and treasure of this nation.” Perhaps this is just patriotic rhetoric; it certainly posits a threat to national wealth. The landlords of the Mint are singled out as a cause for distress, charging high rents and seizing the goods of their tenants, suggesting conflict within the sanctuary. (How debtors could pay rent, and what resources they took with them into the Mint is a central question, to which I shall return.) Finally, in obliquely referring to earlier debtor legislation – I think, to the Bankrupts Act of 1720 – the law is censured as being too narrow and too expensive.

Cobbett also records the debate on the Southwark Mint act, a few months after this petition, in which he reproduces two anonymous letters. Those are far more assertive in their language, yet also have some similarities with this petition. They’ll be the subject of my next post.

Note that although the petition was rejected, the final law was far less draconian than either the 1697 act or the act the following year against Wapping Mint. An amnesty was offered and debts were written off; much more than the “limitation of time for the payment of their just debts” asked for here.

 

A Petition of the Minters rejected
Feb 11 [1722 old style; 1723 new style]
A Petition of several thousands of his Majesty’s subjects under Insolvency in Suffolk-place, in the borough of Southwark, was presented to the House, and read; setting forth,

“That the Petitioners, who, by great losses sustained in merchandize, trade, and unavoidable misfortunes which fell upon us, through decay of trade, by the late calamitous times; by which we are rendered uncapable to make payment according to our dealings; having offered, according to our powers, divers sums in part; praying time for payment for the rest; yet, by refusal and severity of some of our creditors, we are deprived, and cast out of, the world, without any law to help, having nothing left but a natural right to the liberty of our persons, and are even deprived of that: by which severity our effects are wasted, and we rendered insufficient to pay our whole debts, according to our former proposals; as also to defray the great expences of a statute of bankruptcy; and, many thousands of us not coming within the description of the statute, &c. others of us have submitted to a statute, finished our examination, and delivered up our all, upon oath several years since: and our distresses having forced us either to make our houses our gaols, or defraud our creditors by carrying away our effects, with our arts and sciences, into foreign countries, to the improving of their manufactures abroad, and impoverishing our own, which is the life and treasure of this nation; and are drove to take refuge in Suffolk-place, Southwark, commonly called the Mint, a place of great poverty and want; and, though not prisoners in the King’s-bench, are, by being debarred of our liberty, as if we were actually confined; and the vast numbers crouding in houses, &c. hath advanced the rents to thrice the real value; and the landlords are daily distraining upon the goods of poor unfortunate gentlemen, merchants, and tradesmen, &c. And praying, That the House will grant the petitioners such a limitation of time for the payment of their just debts, in proportion to their extreme poverty.”

And a motion being made, and the question being put, That the Petition be referred to a Committee; it passed in the negative. Resolved, That the Petition be rejected.

Source: Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, volume 8, col. 88. Google books. Oxford digital library.

The Commons debates Whitefriars, 1697

The following account of the Commons debate on the 1697 act abolishing the sanctuaries is taken from William Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, vol 5., London 1809, column 1161. From where he got his source material I don’t know. This piece is certainly written after the passing of the act, as it ends with the Alsatians fleeing the sanctuary (quite possible, but that is for another post).

Despite the brevity, there’s several notable points. It specifically makes a link to ‘Romish superstition’, implying a Catholic element to the mores and morals of the sanctuary dwellers. This may be an example of protestant paranoia of those heady times, but religious dissent is part of the history of Montague Close.

It also makes it clear that Whitefriars was the most notorious of the sanctuaries; that its inhabitants were debtors, under civil, rather than criminal, law; and that they were organized and actively resisting the law – truly, they were outlaws.

After Sir J. Fenwick’s business was over, the parliament, to the great satisfaction of the people, took care to remedy a Public Grievance of long standing. Several places in and about the city of London, which in the times of the Romish superstition, were allowed as sanctuaries to criminals and debtors, had ever since the Reformation, pretended a privilege to protect the latter; and one of these, called White Fryers, was become a notorious receptacle of broken and desperate men, in the very heart of the metropolis, whither they resorted in great numbers, and, to the dishonour of the government, and great prejudice of the people, defended themselves with force and violence against the law and public authority. This intolerable mischief the parliament redressed by an ‘Act for the more effectual relief of creditors in cases of escapes, and for preventing abuses in prisons and pretended privileged places’; wherein such effectual provision was made to reduce those outlaws, that, immediately after the act was published, they abandoned their posts to better inhabitants.