Mass Debt Imprisonment in England about 1670

face of a prisoner

Imprisonment for debt was extraordinarily high in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Writers, including knowledgeable public figures, variously claimed the total number of prisoners for debt to be between 5,000 and 100,000. Much of this spread in estimates plausibly resulted from differences in definitions of prisoners. Writing in 1709, Daniel Defoe estimated England to have more than 65,000 “prisoners at large, under the expensive license, and precarious, dear-bought liberty of gaolers and keepers of prisons,” “shelterers, and such as lurk in the rules, verges, and allowed privileges of prisons, palaces, houses of nobility, or under protections and listing of soldiers, etc. and such new fashioned shifts, as place them a little out of reach of the law,” and “close prisoners or sundry sorts for debt, in all the several gaols of this Kingdom.” The last category of “close prisoners” he estimated at “above 5000.”^ As these prisoner categories indicate, institutions of imprisonment varied greatly.

Estimates of the total number of prisoners in seventeenth and eighteenth century England must consider quasi-legal forms of imprisonment. Sheriffs and bailiffs preferred to keep prisoners in lock-ups that they controlled, known evocatively as “sponging houses.” In sponging houses prison-keepers could extract as much money as possible from debtors. Defoe in 1725 counted 119 sponging houses in London, as well as five different types of court officials’ “officers houses.”^ Three sponging houses belonged to the King’s Bench.^ The proprietor of the King’s Bench was paid one shilling per person per night for prisoners lodged in its sponging houses. The Fleet also had three adjoining sponging houses. One of those held 26 prisoners.^ In 1692, ten sponging houses surrounded London’s Wood Street Compter.^

Adjoining the King’s Bench and the Fleet prisons were areas known as the rules. Prisoners could purchase license to live within the rules rather than within the prison building itself. In 1716, a writer estimated the total number of prisoners for debt at 60,000. He observed that the King’s Bench and the Fleet have:

“rule{s} appointed each of them, our courts well knowing, that the bare prison houses could not at some times contain the tenth part of the prisoners, except they would stow them like faggots upon one another.”^

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prisoners in the rules amounted to about 20% of prisoners within the King’s Bench and Fleet prison buildings themselves. The number of prisoners in the rules, and subject to similar licenses, probably were difficult to count. Prisoners of that sort may been much more numerous before the late eighteenth century.

The number of court cases concerning debt was roughly eight times higher in 1670 than in 1800. Measures of court activity indicate that court activity rose sharply from 1550 to 1670. Court activity then declined sharply from 1670 to 1750. It rose slightly from 1750 to 1800. Cases in advanced stages in the courts of Common Pleas and King’s Bench fell from about 40,000 in 1670 to about 10,000 in 1800. In conjunction with these aggregate case trends, the share of actions at common law for debt in the courts of Common Pleas and King’s Bench fell from about 85% in 1640 to about 32% in 1750.^ These trends broadly suggest that the number of debt proceedings was roughly eight time greater in 1670 than in 1800.

A reasonable estimate for prisoners for debt in England in 1670 is 15,000. This estimate includes all debtor-prisoners held in specific buildings, including sponging houses and facilities associated with court officials. It also includes debtor-prisoners who bought a license to geographically limited freedom without clearing their legal status as prisoners. Debtors held within public facilities of imprisonment (not including sponging houses, officers’ houses, etc.) numbered about 2,500 around the year 1800. If the number of debtor-prisoners was eight times greater in 1670, they would total 20,000 in 1670. A well-informed barrister noted in 1650 that some estimated the number of debtor-prisoners at over 20,000, but he preferred the estimate of 12,000.^ In 1622, a knowledgeable pamphlet writer on imprisonment for debt estimated prisoners in London to number 3,000 to 4000, “with the greatest part for debt.”^ Debtors in England other than in London plausibly numbered somewhat more than twice as many as in London. Such an estimate (10, 000 debtor-prisoners in England) was added to a similar pamphlet in 1641.^ Aggregate debt case trends suggest that the total number debtor-prisoners increased from 1622 to 1670.^ A wide variety of evidence attests to concern about the large number of prisoners for debt. Overall, 15,000 debtor-prisoners in 1670 is a reasonable estimate given the available evidence. The number of debtors in prison on average in any year from 1620 to 1720 was probably above 10,000.

The prevalence of imprisonment for debt in England about 1670 was roughly double the prevalence of imprisonment for any reason in 2009 in England and worldwide. The population of England in 1670 was about 5 million. With an estimated 15,000 debtor-prisoners in 1670, England had 300 imprisoned debtors per 100,000 of population. The imprisonment prevalence figure for all types of imprisonment in England and Wales in 2009 was about 150. The prevalence of imprisonment worldwide in 2009 was also about 150 prisoners per 100,000 of population. About three-fifths of countries currently have an imprisonment prevalence below that level.

In England in the seventh and eighteenth centuries, married men with children were highly disproportionately represented among imprisoned debtors. Imprisonment for debt probably was a common aspect of ordinary life for married men with children. Today the same is true for imprisonment generally for black men in the U.S.^

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