Number of Imprisoned Debtors in England Before 1775

face of a prisoner

Public discussion in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth century agreed that a large number of men were in prison for failure to pay debts. Knowledgeable figures such as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, William Leach, and Samuel Johnson wrote about the large number of imprisoned debtors. Estimates of the number of debtors in prison varied widely. A reasonable estimate for the total number of debtors in prison about 1670 is 15,000.

Limited acts to release imprisoned debtors freed 6,000 debtors in a year. In an article published in 1709, Daniel Defoe estimated that 5,000 or 6,000 debtors had been released through the Insolvent Debtors Relief Act of 1703 (2&3 Ann., c. 16) and the Insolvent Debtors Relief Act of 1705 (4 Ann., c. 19).^ These acts granted release to debtors held for not more than 100 pounds and who agreed to serve in the navy or army (or who agreed to procure a substitute). Defoe observed that this Act “locked the prison doors upon the main body of insolvents and left them as miserable and as hopeless as it found them.”^ Based on returns from gaols nationwide, the Select Committee on the State of Gaols of 1729 reported that nearly 6,000 debtors had been released via the Insolvent Debtors Relief Act of 1728 (2. Geo. 2, c. 20, c. 22).^ That act limited relief to debtors with debts of less than 100 pounds and who had been imprisoned since the Act. The Select Committee’s figure suggests Defoe’s estimates were not exaggerations, but more likely an under-estimate.

Other data on prisoner populations in England before 1775 provides only weak evidence on prisoner population trends. Prisoners in the King’s Bench in 1728 totaled about 40% more than about 1780. The number of prisoners in the Fleet seems to have been about twice as great in 1728 compared to in 1780. Whitechapel Debtors’ Prison held a hundred debtors at a time before Lord Beauchamp’s act for the relief of insolvent debtors (c. 1777), but from 1785 to 1792, it never held more than three.^ Fragmentary data for a few county prisons in 1691 do not show much higher numbers than in 1779. Compared to the situation in 1780, a much larger share of debtor-prisoners in 1670 apparently were held in relatively informal institutions of imprisonment such as sponging houses and officials’ houses.

The fall in the debtor-prisoner population from 1670 to 1780 occurred despite the increasing total population of England. The number of debtor-prisoners fell from 15,000 to 2,100 from 1670 to 1780. The population of England, in contrast, rose from 5 million to 7 million across those years. The fall in debtor-prisoners and the rise in the overall population combined to decrease the prevalence of debtor imprisonment from 300 per 100,000 population in 1670 to 30 per 100,000 in 1780.

yearimprisoned debtors in Englandadditional description from source-text statementsource link
1622~ 10000"in London alone (by miserable example) is found, three or four thousand prisoners, the greatest part for debt"^
164110000prisoners for debt "in the several prisons in the Kingdom of England, and the Dominion of Wales, being about ten thousand in number"; "against the practice of all other Countries"; "in London alone (by miserable example) is found three or four thousand prisoners for debt"^
165020000"the number of prisoners yearly in England and Wales, and as have been in Ireland, as divers conceive above 20000"^
165012000"and as all, or most who have taken observation of such things, do esteem there be above 12000"^
167350000"If it be true, that we find upward of 50000 persons constantly in prison for debt and damages, besides comers and goers, and such as death delivereth from the cruelty and imprudence of their adversaries"^
1691many thousands"many thousands released"; "many thousands more" still in prisons^
169960000"the prisoners in England being computed as 60,000 souls"^
17095000"close prisoners or sundry sorts for debt, in all the several gaols of this Kingdom"^
170980000"bankrupt tradesmen and insolvent debtors, as well prisoners at large as close prisoners; shelterers in privileged places, and such as abscond from their creditors"^
1711many thousandsimprisoned debtors number "many thousands": "more men in the prisons of this city along for debt, than in all the gaols of the whole German Empire"^
171560000"That by a modest computation there are no less than sixty thousand persons, now actually prisoners for debt, in the several prisons of England and Wales"^
171660000"'Tis reckoned there is about sixty thousand miserable debtors persishing in the prisons of England and Wales"; in the Marshalsea .."seldom less than five or six hundred being there pent up together at a time, besides what is in Baliffs Houses as private prisons"^
172660000"There is, by computation, above sixty thousand persons now confined, and hundreds of them weekly perishing in the jails of England and Wales."^
1729100000"we lock up, perhaps, a hundred and twenty thousand men in prison, ejected out of the care of the government, like banished and outlawed people?"; "supposing there are a hundred thousand persons prevented from labour by debts, or being in gaol, then the loss to the Kindom from this hundred thousand people, amounts,..."^
1739more debtors in prison in England and Wales "more, I believe, than are to be found on the same occasion in all the prisons in Europe"^
175720000"about 25000 of the most useful subjects in the Kingdom, are by law, at present, actually disabled from being of the least service to themselves, their families, or the public, by being locked up in jails, or forced to abscond; "for supposing the number of prisoners and fugitives throughout England, to be no more than 20,000, and that the real debts of those prisoners prisoners, at an average, amount to 25£ a man"^
175825000"By a list procured from the goals of this kingdom, in order to be presented to parliament, it appears, that the number of debtors exceeds 25,000"^
175920000"more than 20,000 are, at this time, prisoners for debt" (estimates inhabitants of England at 6 million, and calculates share; estimates 5,000 prisoners died every year)^
175920000"an inquiry is said to have been made, by which it appears that more than twenty thousand * are at this time prisoners debt. * This number was at that time confidently published; but the author has since found reason to question the calculation.^
176530000"That it appears uncontradicted in print, that not less than thirty thousand prisoners for debt, are confined in the several gaols of this kindom;"^

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