Industrial Revolution Didn’t Increase Debtor-prisoner Prevalence in England

face of a prisoner

Legal institutions and practices predominately determined the extent of imprisonment for debt in England. One might have expected the increased economic activity of the Industrial Revolution to prompt increased imprisonment for debt. That didn’t happen. In 1670, the prevalence of imprisonment for debt in England was roughly 300 debtor-prisoners per 100,000 population. By 1780, that figure had fallen by a factor of ten to 30 debtor prisoners per 100,000 of population. Legal actors apparently exploited less politically controlled legal processes and institutions to make a bigger business in imprisoning debtors in 1670 compared to 1780.

The prevalence of debtor-prisoners in England’s overall population did not increase after 1780. The number of debtor-prisoners increased from 1780 to 1820. However, the overall population of England increased similarly. Hence the debtor-prisoner prevalence in England was 30 per 100,000 population both in 1780 and in 1820. A recent scholarly claim of an explosion in the debtor-prisoner population in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is mistaken.^

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