Well, Tis the Season when many of you are in a Dickens of a mood so let’s talk about 18th Century debtors in England.  Prior to the Bankruptcy Act (1869), missing even a small debt payment could lead to decades of imprisonment. 

If you are familiar with Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit, originally published as a collection of newspaper articles for a Gentleman’s’ Magazine, you know the story of William Dorrit who is imprisoned for some obscure and complicated debt nobody can understand or explain in the infamous Marshalsea prison in London, south of the Thames. Even though the conditions were horrid, the tenants tried to maintain pride, dignity and some semblance of family and social life. William Dorrit was held in Marshalsea for so long that his three children essentially grew up imprisoned together with their father. In the story, one of those children, nicknamed Little Dorrit, attempts to help her family and eventual love interests. Ultimately, a lost fortune materializes, her dear father is released from prison and the story goes on in various directions from there.  It’s a rather complicated storyline — it’s Dickens after all.

If you know your Dickens, you know that Charles Dickens’ father was in debtors’ prison for many years for a debt of a few pounds to the local baker.  The imprisoned patriarch wasn’t an isolated or unique setup for a fine Victorian novel. Apparently no less than half of the inhabitants of English prisons in the eighteenth century consisted of indigent debtors who simply couldn’t pay their creditors. The other half of the prison population was petty or hardened criminals, mutinous sailors, pirates and seditious plotters, all mixed together in large cells.

Dickens’ articles eventually resulted in the closure of the Marshalsea as well as the Fleet, another debtors’ prison, in 1842.  The articles raised social awareness of the conditions inside such places and the disproportionate punishment of such imprisonment.  In a few cases, when these prisons were finally vacated, it was revealed that some inhabitants had in fact been there for over 30 years for debts far smaller than the Crown’s cost to imprison them. 

Before you say that was just another abuse by the Monarchy, we should point out that Colonial America also had debtors’ prison in places like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.  And, although imprisonment for debt was eventually terminated in law, we still see remnants of the practice in places like Riker’s Island when inmates are held until they can post bond (sometimes for years).  Creditors and moneyed interests really liked the concept for obvious reasons and tried to keep it alive in spirit. Even today, one still hears of isolated cases of imprisonment, when a strong-willed or activist judge decides to take it upon himself to sentence someone to jail for failure to pay a government fine.  So, when you whip out that Visa Card to pay for a gift you might not otherwise buy, or you fall victim to the vigilante tactics of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, be thankful we don’t live in 18th Century England for one missed payment and off to the Klink you go. 

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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