- Debtors, Prisons, and Petitions in Eighteenth-Century England
Drawing on manuscript sources including the petitions of prisoners, mainly in the county of Yorkshire, this article sets out to suggest a darker view than is customary of what prison life was like for eighteenth-century debtors. An important recent book by Margot Finn, by contrast, may leave the unwary reader with an overly sanguine view of prison conditions.1 Finn skillfully highlights the cultural richness of prison life, the loose, custodial forms of management, and even a kind of autonomy enjoyed by some debtors, extending as far as their own choice to enter or remain in prison (109–51). This exploration of the agency available to prisoners draws attention to features of eighteenth-century imprisonment that distinguished it from the penal systems that followed. Finn's very success in recreating the vitality of debtors' lives and outlook, though, may lead her readers to downplay the harshness of the prisoners' lot. A corrective is called for. We need to give due weight to some basic facts about the prisons in which debtors were confined, and the regimes that they encountered there. A simple model of the mental and physical hardships of prison life may lack sophistication, and seem all too familiar, but if this was indeed the actual experience of a great many people, then we need to be conscious of it. Prison reformer John Howard spoke as an advocate, but he also had unrivaled [End Page 1] firsthand knowledge of the nation's jails. We should not lightly dismiss his summary: "How full of emphatical meaning is the curse of a severe creditor, who pronounces his debtor's doom to rot in jail."2 Debtors were imprisoned in jails where they could, at worst, die, and at best live lives significantly less pleasant and significantly more expensive than they would have enjoyed at liberty in civic society.
Considerable numbers in the English population were involved in the legal system as prosecutors, jurors, witnesses, or merely as consumers of news and stories about crime and punishment.3 Imprisonment for debt undoubtedly touched the lives of a great many. But despite the voluminous recent writings on crime, the criminal law, and the justice system in eighteenth-century England, the balance of treatment has been amiss.4 There has been a concentration upon felons, rather than upon the possibly more numerous and certainly longer-term inhabitants of the nation's jails, those imprisoned for debt. When historians have turned their eyes to debtors' prisons, they have usually depicted them as operating a custodial system that allowed debtors great freedoms. Joanna Innes, in an influential essay, studied the King's Bench Prison in the later eighteenth century, not as an example of medieval squalor and cruelty, but as "a functioning social environment."5 Two corporate bodies gave prisoners the means of organization and representation: an older body, the Commonside Corporation, shared charity funds among the poorer prisoners, while the newer Master's Side Corporation, set up only in the late seventeenth century, promoted welfare and harmony more generally. Headed by prisoners of higher social rank, this "college" imposed order, mediated disputes between prisoners, and organized complaints and petitions to higher authority (280–89). Innes depicts the inmates as a semiautonomous group, though not without its own internal divisions. Through institutions reminiscent of the petty local courts of outside life, the leading groups inside the jail brought representative government and group discussion into the day-to-day running of the prison (250–98). It would be useful to know if such bodies existed also in provincial jails, and how widely this empowering idea of a two-way interaction between prisoners and jailers might be valid. King's Bench Prison may not have been representative of the whole country, and conditions may have changed significantly over the course of the century. We need a wider base of evidence, and this article is meant as a modest contribution towards forming one.6
Petitions from prisoners in the first half of the eighteenth century show us, it will be argued, not the self-regulation of an inmate community, [End Page 2] but the constraints and ill-usage...