Estimates of Imprisoned Debtor Population in England Before 1775

face of a prisoner

The magnitude of imprisonment for debt in England before 1775 was higher that the leading recent work on the subject has estimated. In his 1986 Ph.D. thesis on imprisonment for debt in England and Wales, Paul Haagen stated, “It is likely that at its height about 1729, the imprisoned debtor population {of England and Wales} numbered approximately six thousand.”^ Haagen rejected the analysis of J.R. Hertzler, who regarded as credible contemporary estimates of 40,000 or 60,000 prisoners for debt.

Haagen, however, didn’t adequately recognized the range of institutions for imprisonment for debt. Haagen’s estimate apparently excluded “sanctuary men” (person living in prison rules and debtor havens). Moreover, in comparing early figures to John Howard’s enumeration of debtor-prisoners, Haagen didn’t recognize that Howard largely omitted prisoners held in sponging houses, officials’ houses, and other institutionally marginal places of confinement. That omission is particularly important to comparisons over time, because relatively informal institutions of confinement were probably much more important in the late seventeenth century than in the late eighteenth century. Looking at institutionally prominent prisons, Haagen observed that annual commitment rates were flat from 1701 to 1791, but the median term of imprisonment decreased from almost two years in 1730 to less than six months in 1800.^ That decrease is consistent with institutionally prominent prisons holding an increasing share of total debtors by drawing in more short-term prisoners previously held in relatively informal institutions of confinement.

Haagen’s analysis did not consider court case trends. Study of court caseloads in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries makes clear that debt cases peaked about 1670. Hence that time is the best estimate of the peak in the population of imprisoned debtors. Quantitative evidence on caseload trends supports a debtor-prisoner population roughly eight times higher in 1670 than in 1800.^

The variance in seventeenth and eighteenth century estimates is most reasonably attributed to differences in the meaning of prisoners, not exaggeration. While the merits of imprisoning debtors was vigorously contested in contemporary public writing, estimates of 40,000 to 60,000 imprisoned debtors were not challenged.^ Defoe’s analysis of categories of debtors indicates that debtor-prisoners could mean persons in a wide variety of circumstances. The term “close prisoners” was used for debtors held in well-defined public institutions of incarceration.

The number of debtors held in specific buildings (including informal incarceration facilities) and specific geographic areas, e.g. prison rules, plausibly amounted to roughly 15,000 in England in 1670. That’s more than twice as many as Haagen estimated.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *