Husbands’ Legal Responsibility for Wives’ Debts

face of a prisoner

In England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, husbands were legally subject to imprisonment for debt, but wives weren’t. Given that a large number of men were imprisoned for debt, the risk of a wife contracting debt that the husband could not pay was a significant concern for men. The Citizen’s Law Companion, published in 1794 and intended for practical use of businessmen, contained:

such articles as experience evinces to be the most generally interesting to the man of business, and which have been oftenest decided in our Courts of Law, and on which the Judge and the Bar seem to entertain the least differences of opinion.^

One section of the Citizen’s Law Companion was entitled “debtor and creditor.” About 75% of that section concerned law relating to a husband’s responsibility for a wife’s debt. Husbands’ civil responsibility for wives’ debts was probably more significant in daily life than husbands’ criminal responsibility for wives’ acts.

Some husbands attempted to limit their liability by giving public notice not to grant their wives’ credit. For example, the London Gazette in 1712 contained the following notice:

Whereas Mary Canes, Wife of Abraham Canes of the Parish of St. Andrews Holborn, in the County of Middlesex, Coachman, hath Eloped from her said Husband; these are to give notice to all Persons not to Trust or give Credit to the said Mary with Money or goods upon his Account, for that he will not pay any Debts she shall contract after publication hereof.^

While that notice may have had actual effects, it probably didn’t have legal force.

In reviewing the law governing debtors and creditors, the Citizen’s Law Companion drew relevant distinctions between types of purchases, types of notice, and public knowledge of a wife deserting a husband. A husband was responsible for his wife’s debts for “necessary apparel, diet, &c” purchased without his consent, even if he gave notice of any sort that such credit should not be extended to her. For credit advanced for other goods, personal notice to a merchant, but not general notice in a newspaper, would be sufficient for a husband to avoid responsibility for his wife’s debt. If a wife deserting her husband had become “notorious”, then the husband was not responsible for the wife’s debt.^

Even though wives weren’t legally subject to imprisonment for debt, some wives voluntarily joined their husbands in debtors’ prisons. In 1776, John Howard described the Fleet debtors’ prison in London as “crowded with women and children”; it contained 243 men who were legally prisoners, along with 475 wives and children who had come into the prison to live with their husband or father. In London’s Poultry Compter debtors’ prison, eight men had with them their wives and 19 children. Other male prisoners had 44 wives and 144 children not living with them in prison.^ Prison facilities and prison rules, rather than wives’ preferences, probably were the primary constraints on wives and children moving into prison with imprisoned male debtors. Husbands and wives historically have tended to have close economic and emotional bonds. Those bonds in practice pushed against the legal regime of only imprisoning husbands.

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