The Georgian Way with Debt


Imprisonment for debt has become a commonplace in historical novels set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How common was it and why were debtors thrown into gaol? Debtors were probably the largest element in the eighteenth-century prison population. Some were profligates and gamblers, who had brought the problem on themselves, but many were simply tradespeople who had fallen on hard times.

Legal action taken against a debtor by his or her creditors was designed to make them repay what they owed. But if they could not do so — for example, in the case of an individual who had exhausted all their money — the law deprived them of their liberty until they discharged their debts, or someone paid them on their behalf. In fact, even debtors who owed less than £100, and were not traders, could be imprisoned indefinitely until the debt was discharged! Only tradespeople could escape prison by declaring bankruptcy, though the costs of doing so were prohibitive in most cases.

This approach to debt seems to be nonsense. A person in prison could not work to obtain the money to pay off what they owed. In part, it was assumed the debtors’ families and friends would repay their debts. In part, it was hoped the threat of such terrible ‘punishment’ would deter people from getting into debt in the first place. The huge number of people imprisoned for debt proved both notions wrong. By the late eighteenth century, about 10,000 men each year (they were nearly all men) were being imprisoned for debt.

Charitable Relief

What was to be done? Were people genuinely without means or family to be kept in prison for life, as a result of what might be quite a small debt? What of the small trader who fell into debt only because some customers wouldn’t pay him?

Of course, it was always open to creditors to abandon legal action to recover their money — perhaps after they judged a sufficient period had passed to exhaust their appetite for revenge and provide a suitable warning to others. However, that would be a chancy business at best. Out of sight could easily become out of mind.

People of the time were sufficiently uneasy about the whole business to set up organised charities for the express purpose of discharging small debts and freeing the debtors from prison to rebuild their lives. One of the most widespread was The Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts. They placed advertisements in newspapers to solicit donations, which would be applied to the society’s objectives.

Here are some excerpts from such an advertisement, which was placed in The Norfolk Chronicle for 5th August, 1780, by the Norwich and Norfolk branch of the society.

It opens with a rousing statement of the society’s success:

Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts in the Gaols of Norfolk and Norwich. JOHNSON’s Coffee­house, July 31, 1780. The Acting Committee of this Society think it their Duty to lay before the Public the General State of their Proceedings, and their Accounts, and with great Pleasure inform the Contributors to this excellent Charity, that their Donations have released from Confinement, and restored to their Relations, and to the Public, Three Hundred and Forty­Two Prisoners.

Next comes a statement of aims:

However necessary it may be that the Person of a Debtor should be liable to Imprisonment, when his Effects are not sufficient to discharge his Debts; it is Injustice and Cruelty to render his Confinement perpetual; and yet without some benevolent Interposition this must frequently happen. The Design of this Society is to remedy, as far as may be, this Evil, and to make equitable Distinctions between the profligate Debtor, whom a vicious Extravagance has justly deprived of that Liberty which he abused, and the unfortunate and oppressed, from whom the Necessities of Sickness, or the Wants of a numerous Family, or perhaps an indiscrete Confidence, have with his Freedom taken away even the Means of his Support.

It’s interesting that, as in the case of parallel provisions for the poor of the time, a careful distinction is made been ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ cases; in this case between “…the profligate Debtor, whom a vicious Extravagance has justly deprived of that Liberty which he abused, and the unfortunate and oppressed,…”

In case the reader thinks that giving help in this way will only encourage those released to go down the same path again, assuming they will be helped each time, the advertisement knocks that idea firmly on the head: “…out of the whole Number released, one Person only has found it necessary to request a Second Time, that Assistance from the Society, which however, it is an invariable Rule with them never to grant.”

Finally, after this long build-up, we reach the crux of the matter:

The subscriptions, as appears by the Accounts, are exhausted; it is necessary therefore again to solicit fresh Contributions from those who wish to support a Charity which confers so valuable a Blessing on the Object of it, is of such extensive Utility to the Public, so pleasing an Office of Humanity, and so important a Duty of Religion.

There you have it. A group of concerned persons seeking to alleviate the worst effects of a harsh law, yet without removing its supposed deterrent effect on “ …the profligate Debtor, whom a vicious Extravagance has justly deprived of that Liberty which he abused…” Help given, as an act of charity, to ‘deserving cases’ and withheld from ‘undeserving’ ones. A textbook example of Georgian attitudes to assisting those members of society who proved to be unable to cope by themselves.

The Justification for Charity

The attitude of the prosperous part of Georgian society can be summarised like this. Generosity to ‘unfortunates’ is the duty of every person of means. Any guilt associated with the possession of wealth can thus be taken away by helping to relieve the hardships of those less favoured by Providence. However, there are conditions set to qualify for charity. The price of help is gratitude, expressed by reforming your ways to ensure the need for assistance never arises again. If a gift is going to be ill-used, it is better not given and will certainly not be offered a second time.

The common view of the time was that poverty was an affliction caused by the individual him or herself. It must therefore be overcome by the efforts of that same individual. Help may — should, in some cases — be offered, but never to the extent that personal responsibility is obscured. To return to poverty after once being helped out of it was seen as a sign of moral degeneracy, which would attract its own punishment. Only in cases of physical impairment or extreme age would it be justifiable to continue assistance indefinitely.

Imprisoning people for debt might make the discharge of that debt virtually impossible, but the ‘moral’ imperative to make the debtor aware of their responsibility for not living beyond their means was judged more important. In the Georgian mind, no one had a ‘right’ to prosperity — or even freedom from the worst effects of poverty. What you had, you must either work for or maintain through living a life of prudence and thrift. Even charity needed to adhere to society’s norms by enforcing this ‘rule’ of personal responsibility. Poverty could — and should — best be alleviated by work and misfortune by resilience and effort.

Making Sense of this Approach

To understand the mind-set of the time, it’s important to remember two things: taking on more debt than you could pay was seen as a form of theft; and, in a time when religion was taken very seriously, the Old Testament was still a major guide to moral teaching.

Theft broke the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”. The causes of becoming too indebted to pay also pointed to the presence of other sins: idleness, covetousness, greed, deceitfulness. The eighteenth-century mind saw cause and effect everywhere. Becoming mired in debt must have a cause. Only rarely would pure misfortune be accepted as a reason. In most cases, the cause was seen as sin. Sin demanded punishment and repentance, not support. You might, if you were lucky, be given a second chance. You would not be granted a third.

It was a hard, hard, righteous world.

Posted in Crime, Georgian Society | Leave a comment

The Eighteenth-century Agricultural Revolution

Salthouse Heath (CC Evelyn Simak )

Salthouse Heath
CC Evelyn Simak

It’s tempting to focus entirely on the industrial revolution of the late-eighteenth century and miss the other revolution going on at the same time. Just as manufacturing and transport were changed for ever by the replacing of horse and human power by machinery and steam, so the same process was taking place in agriculture. Yet, in the world of animals and crops, there was an added element: the application of scientific study to the methods used to produce food from the land.

From better breeds of animals and improved approaches to husbandry and feeding to the basics of soil cultivation and improving fertility, the whole business of agriculture was transformed. What is even more interesting to me is both a local and a family connection. Many of the furthest-reaching changes in land management were first tested and proved here in Norfolk.

The Norfolk Foldcourse System

This system of crop rotation was no sudden introduction. Parts of it had been in use during the seventeenth century, if not earlier. It seems to have come about at the same time as the owners of estates moved away from farming their own land to leasing it out and living from the income generated.

On the poor soils and heathlands that covered much of Norfolk, especially in the north, it had long been known you could not grow cereals without intensive manuring by flocks of sheep. Instead of being allowed to roam free over wide areas, the sheep were penned in, ‘folded’, in specific areas, so that the amount of manure laid on the ground could be maximised. At other times, specific crops would be grown, either plants like clover to improve soil fertility still further, or cereals to produce profits or turnips to serve as extra feed for the sheep.

William Windham at Felbrigg Hall was doing this in the 1670s, though in bad times he sometimes reverted to farming some lands on his own account — perhaps because it was hard to find suitable tenants. He was also issuing leases which specified how the land was to be farmed, what crops were to be grown and in what rotation. This became known as the ‘foldcourse’ system.

Later historians tended to attribute these changes to the sources where they found them described most fully: people like “Turnip” Townsend at Raynham Hall, “Coke of Norfolk” at Holkham Hall and Jethro Tull. In fact, the changes were introduced both more widely and earlier, though many of these pioneers lacked the literary flair and taste for self-aggrandisement displayed by the later writers.

A Market/Rental Style of Agriculture

The other major change that came about at roughly the same period was the tendency, already mentioned, for landowners no longer to be farmers as well. By enclosing common land and improving what had been enclosed, the major landowners could turn their acres into mere financial investments. The most productive and successful tenants would be rewarded by being given larger, more compact holdings. Those who fell behind would find that their leases would not be renewed.

These large holdings sold their produce on the open market, often sending it to London, other growing cities or even overseas. Much of the unrest that came about in agricultural areas in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was caused by local people finding themselves unable to match the prices being paid by merchants in the big cities.

Drawbacks of the Norfolk System

Not all the changes brought about by the Norfolk System were suited to conditions in other parts of the country. Norfolk is mostly arable land, often flat with sandy, well-drained, light soils. In such areas, the manure produced by livestock might well be worth more than their meat. This wasn’t always the case, of course. Large numbers of small cattle from the poor grazing areas of Scotland were driven south to Norfolk every year. These “Scotch runts” fattened up rapidly on the rich grasses of the Broads and surrounding areas. Once they had reached a good weight, they would be driven down to Smithfield for sale and the whole process begun again.

“Improved, scientific” agriculture needed capital. The landlord’s capital was applied to better buildings, fencing and other major investments like drainage. The tenant’s capital was to be used for the actual stocking and working of the land. Someone wanting to rent a holding would be required by the terms of the lease to use “best practices” and invest in specific areas over specific periods. In the place of landowners and tenants agreeing terms with a handshake, there grew up a profession of estate managers and land agents, backed up by solicitors to draw up the legal agreements needed. Agriculture was on its way to becoming an industry.

The benefits of “scientific” agriculture were not thought to be applicable only to arable crops. The late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also a time when farmers in good grass growing areas, mostly in the west of the country, turned their minds to increasing meat and milk yields by improving the breeds of cattle in use. Societies grew up to encourage the changes, awarding prizes that could greatly increase the selling price of the best livestock, whether for eating or further breeding. Once again, capital became a sine qua non for successful farmers.

The End of the Peasantry

Until the seventeenth century, Britain had been primarily an agricultural economy sustained by a rural peasantry, many of whom still practised versions of subsistence agriculture. Within a hundred years, large parts of the country were not only dependent on industrial towns for employment, they were themselves well on the way to industrial forms of agriculture. When another hundred years had passed, the process was largely complete.

This new style of agriculture was so capital-intensive for landowner and tenant that landowners were forced to see their estates as sources of investment income from whatever capital they had. Owning land still conferred status though. If it had not, the increasingly meagre and uncertain returns would have driven them away.  As it was, the richest families often drew most of their incomes from mining, manufacturing or property speculation. Even so, the remaining small-scale farmers could not afford to increase their own productivity to compete. Today’s “factory farming” is only a logical extension of the same process, supported by further improvements in the application of science and engineering to the production of food.

While historians may disagree over the approximate date when Britain changed from being an agricultural economy to an industrial one, the fact that it did is not in question; nor that we made that move well in advance of any other country in the world at the time. We have also been primarily a trading nation for longer than any of our neighbours, save perhaps the Dutch. I leave it to you to decide what effect that has had on our national culture and outlook.

Posted in Agriculture | 2 Comments

Eighteenth-century Prosecution Associations CC_-_Richard_Croft

A Georgian Courtroom
photo: Richard Croft, CC

All my Georgian-era mystery stories share one element: the fact that England at the time had no system of public prosecution for crimes. Not only were there no police to investigate criminal acts, there were no official prosecutors to bring any subsequent case to court. Prosecution was much like a civil case today: it was entirely up to the victim, his or her friends or family, or some other interested party to collect evidence, find witnesses and file charges with the local magistrate. If that official decided there was a case to be answered, one that needed to be handled by a higher court than his own, the same private person or persons would be expected to present the case to the grand jury, and, if the grand jury found a true bill, provide evidence and witnesses for the trial. At every stage, there were fees to be paid, expensive lawyers to be hired and a host of other expenses as well.

Not surprisingly, many people were reluctant to take on this financial and organisational burden with the only reward being the possible sight of justice done. In a civil case, success usually means an award of damages. In a criminal case, the outcome is punishment for the criminal and nothing much else. Witnesses might be offered a reward if a conviction was obtained, but this usually made juries less willing to accept what they said as the unvarnished truth, so the practice gradually fell out of favour.

Covering the Costs

In 1752, provision was made to reimburse poor prosecutors for the costs of a prosecution, but it only applied to successful cases. Even then, the costs of prosecution were not always reimbursed in full. The system might lessen the obvious disincentives to bringing a prosecution, but it did not take them away. Only in 1778 was it made possible to offer reimbursement for an unsuccessful prosecution.

Tradesmen and shopkeepers in particular had every reason to want thieves apprehended and punished. Though a single prosecution might cost the injured party far more than the value of goods stolen, the deterrent effect on others could prove worth it.[1]

Banding Together

One solution to the cost issue for prosecutions was to join one of the local prosecution associations. These associations brought together a varying number of members, living in the same area, with a shared interest in seeing prosecutions brought. Some were even targeted on specific crimes, such as horse theft or arson.

The 1799 deed of association for a Birmingham association for the prosecution of felons stated that association’s raison d’être clearly:

‘…many Felonies are committed by persons who escape punishment, by reason of the great expences [sic] attending the apprehending and prosecuting them to conviction, and others are thereby encouraged to commit felonies.’

Rather like taking out an insurance policy, the association collected a set fee from each member on joining, and sometimes thereafter to top up available monies. The money went into a common fund, which was generally used to pay the cost of prosecuting crimes committed against members, but might also serve to offer rewards to informers or pay for guards on especially vulnerable properties. It could even serve to encourage prosecutions by non-members too poor to pay the association’s dues. This was more likely an attempt to maximise the effect of deterrence than philanthropy.

However, there seems also to have been a policy of “no payment, no coverage” and a ban on paying only after a crime had been committed:

‘That no person can receive the Benefit of this Association, unless he or she shall be (bonafide) a subscriber, at the time any Burglary, Felony, or Fraud, may be committed on him, or his effects; excepting he or she being a Labouring person, or not in a situation to pay the expense of a prosecution; this is to be decided upon by the Committee’ (The Association of the Parish of Bolton Percy for the Prosecution of Felons, Cheats and for the defraying of all expenses of Advertisement, Handbills etc., 1825–1890,).


The actions of the association would also be publicised where possible. By listing the names of members in the local newspaper, criminals were put on warning that thefts from those persons would always be subject to investigation and, wherever possible, rigorous prosecution.

This notice appeared in The Norfolk Chronicle for 30th November, 1776:

Norfolk, Nov. 14, 1776.
At the Annual Meeting held this Day at the Crown in Watton, in the said County, by the Association for the apprehending and convicting of HORSE- STEALERS, &c. in the Hundred of Weyland, and adjacent Hundreds, Mr. W. Dack of Carbrooke, in the said County, was appointed Treasurer for the Year ensuing; and all former Rules and Orders were confirmed, and the Reward of Ten Guineas ordered to be paid upon Conviction of any Person, who should hereafter steal any Horse, Mare or Gelding, belonging to any of the said Society; and that such Reward should be offered as to the Treasurer should seem meet, for the apprehending and convicting of any Person or Persons, who should hereafter commit any Robbery upon the Persons or Properties of any of the Subscribers to the said Association, to be paid with the Expense of such Prosecutions, upon Conviction of such Offender.

There then follows a list of no fewer than 147 subscribers to the association, listed by the hundreds in which they lived.[2] The notice ends as follows:

N. B. Such of the Subscribers as were absent at this Meeting are, according to a former Order of the Society, to pay their 2s. 6d. each[3] to the new Treasurer, within two Months from the Date hereof, towards augmenting the Fund of the said Society, or they will be excluded all benefit of the same’
W. DACK, of Carbrooke, Treasurer
Thousands of these prosecution associations were established in the 18th and early 19th century throughout the country. This was more than a simple insurance policy against the risk of unexpected losses. By joining such an association, each potential victim committed himself to prosecute, free from the obvious financial worries that might otherwise intervene. The prosecution costs were now shared by all, as were the hoped-for benefits of deterrence against future crimes.

  1. This was the period of the laws nicknamed ‘The Bloody Code’, under which a criminal could be executed or transported for a single theft of very modest value. People of the time believed deterrence was the only way to keep crime at a bearable level. It would not work unless the majority of cases where the culprit could be identified led to prosecution and punishment.  ↩
  2. A hundred was an administrative area within a county.  ↩
  3. Clearly an annual subscription, amounting to perhaps £25 today.  ↩
Posted in Crime, Keeping the Peace | 1 Comment

Pirates of the … North Sea?


Drawing for an 18th-century British Sloop-of-War

Many of us were brought up on romantic tales of pirates sailing in various exotic parts of the world, whether through “Treasure Island” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Yet the business of being a pirate could be just as profitable, and just as violent, in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Here, from the pages of the Norfolk Chronicle, is part of the tale of one notorious pirate in 1782–3. The piece gets confusing as it keeps referring to “the captain”, but rarely says which one is meant, but I think the overall sense is clear enough. Note that the ‘good guy’ — Captain Steward — is himself described as commanding a privateer. “Set a thief to catch a thief”, perhaps? Or “our ships are privateers, yours are pirates.”

Yarmouth, Feb 1.

On Thursday, about twelve o’clock, the DREADNOUGHT, Privateer, Captain Timothy STEWARD, Commander, of 14 carriage guns, and 50 men, went to sea, and after being at sea about an hour, she saw a large brigantine from Shields, laden with coals, bound to London, who mounted four carriage guns, which was taken[1] this morning about six o’clock, after an engagement of two hours, off Cromer, and ransomed for four hundred guineas; the master was wounded, the mate killed, and all the remainder of the crew wounded, except two little boys. Within half an hour after another large vessel, laden with coals, passed our roads, which was also taken this morning, soon after the above, and ransomed for five hundred guineas. The Captains of the above vessels say, they were taken by that notorious villain FALL, who had on board his ship at that time thirteen Ransomers; they supposed that FALL has taken near thirty sail of ships from the North [2]. It is surprizing that this villain had not one Frenchman on board.

Captain STEWARD, his Officers and friends, who were on board, directly sailed down to a Scotch privateer in the Roads, and would have had the Captain [presumably this means the captain of the Scotch privateer] gone in quest with him directly after this audacious pirate, but the Captain refused; he [now we seem to be talking about Capt. Steward] then directly sailed down to the RANGER privateer, but the crew refused, as their Captain was not on board, and the ship not in proper order for action. Captain STEWARD had 20 Gentlemen on board, friends, who sailed out of the port with him, and who offered as volunteers to go in pursuit of FALL immediately, if any of the ships in view would join the chase; but all refused. The FLY sloop of war was in the roads, but had fifteen ships under her convoy for Portsmouth.

(February 1781)

Pirate or Privateer?

It depended very much from which side you were looking. Generally speaking, the British ships which preyed on French and Dutch vessels in the area are described as privateers. The enemy’s ships, or those who attacked British vessels, regardless of their own origin, tend to be described as pirates. It made little difference to the treatment given to their victims.

Properly speaking, a privateer had a government commission to carry out commerce raiding against the enemy — a kind of privatised naval warfare — where a pirate was simply in it for the money and would attack anyone. However, sometimes even Captain Fall was given the dignity of being termed a privateer. Note the huge profits likely to come to him from the value of his ‘catch’.

The Sans Pear [sic], a French privateer, Capt. FALL, is arrived at Helvoetfluys, with 100 English prisoners, and 14 ransomers, valued at 5,400 guineas. The same privateer has also taken the Ranger privateer, Captain Magnus BRIGHTWELL, of Wells, (formerly the Lady Washington) of 12 guns and 45 men; and on the third inst. she fell in with the Eagle privateer of 16 guns and 160 men, which she sunk, after an obstinate engagement, that lasted with great fury on both sides for three hours and an half.

(February 1781).

What’s most striking is that English sailors were apparently happy to act as French privateers. I guess a pirate was a pirate, regardless of the flag under which they happened to be sailing.

Another account says, Monday last, 11 fellows, armed with pistols etc landed out of a large boat at Runton, near Cromer, and greatly terrified the inhabitants; but assistance being called from Cromer, they were all secured. The account they give of themselves is, that they belong to a large smuggling vessel, which they were obliged to quit in order to save their lives; but it is supposed they belong to the noted Daniel FALL, two of them being lately wounded, one of whom is shot through the knee, and the boat they landed from being thirty feet long, is thought they either came to plunder, or surprize [sic] some unarmed vessel. William WINDHAM, Esq., of Felbrigg, sent for Captain BRACEY, on the impress service in this city, who accompanied by his gang, safely conducted them to town, when they were examined before Roger KERRISON, Esq., who committed them to Norwich Castle. They all prove to be Englishmen.

(February 1781)

Captain Fall was active for quite a long time, it seems.

It is reported that FALL has again made his appearance in the North Sea, in a big privateer of 18 guns, from Dunkirk, and has already captured six prizes; his cruize [sic] is to continue six weeks, should not our cruizers [privateers] be so fortunate as to fall in with his.

(January 1783)

  1. i.e. They were captured and then ransomed by the pirates.  ↩
  2. This indicates the huge number of ships sailing up and down the east coast of England at the time. Most were small, of course, but there were a good many of them, mostly carrying coal and other goods to the Port of London.  ↩
Posted in Crime

Georgian Theatre Criticism


A Scene from “The Farmer’s Return” by David Garrick. c 1766
Johan Zoffany (1733 – 1810)

The theatre critic is a fixture in today’s newspapers and it turns out that such people have a long history behind them. Even in Georgian times, people turned to their newspapers to discover what was on at the local theatre, and whether it was worth attending — at least in terms of the play and the acting.

Here are several examples, all taken from the pages of The Norfolk Chronicle and referring to performances at the various theatres in Norwich itself.

5th May 1781

For the benefit of Mr and Mrs BANNISTER.

At the Theatre-Royal, by his Majesty’s Servants, on Wednesday May 9, will be reviv’d a Comedy called A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

Note: This Comedy, which has lately been revived at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and repeated since with distinguished Applause, is the Production of that ingenious Gentleman Mr Philip MASSINGER, and is thus spoken of by the Critics: — “The Plot is good and well conducted; the Language dramatic and nervous, and the Characters, particularly that of Sir Giles Overreach, highly and judiciously drawn.”

11th Jan 1783

Theatrical Intelligence

We hear Mrs COWLEY’s much admired comedy of “Which is the Man?” will be performed at our theatre this evening, with that most excellent and laughable farce of “The Agreeable Surprise,” which was acted here for the first time on Monday last, and received with the greatest marks of approbation.

Mrs SHARPE, who made her first appearance on this stage in the character of Euphrasia, the Grecian daughter, is a very pleasing performer. Though she has not the advantages of a fine person, she is sufficiently graceful in manner and address, and is pointedly correct in the emphasis. Without an approach to the strut and rant of the stage, she has feeling and dignity to express the most violent exclamation, and, to fill the most complicated situation. At the same time she is capable of the tender pathos. Her Juliet is chaste and pathetic.[1]

Mr WEST’s comic ballet of the Drunken Swiss is a species of figure- dancing never exhibited on this stage till Monday last. Miss VALOIS has equal merit in the piece. They were received with very great applause.
The Agreeable Surprise is one of the most Agreeable farces we were ever Surprised with. The Son-in-law, by the same author, is getting up. [2]

Sometimes, however, the ‘criticism’ could get a little too rough.

On Monday last was committed to the above gaol, Thomas SAUNDERS, a private soldier in the 9th regiment of foot, for throwing a glass bottle on the stage at the Theatre on Saturday night last.

Theatrical comment might also prove a useful way to attack a rival publication. However, in this case, it does look as if something had gone awry. Not just a rude comment in a rival newspaper, but also an “illiberal, malicious and Ill-judged” handbill.

Theatre Royal, Norwich, March 21, 1783.

The Performers of the Theatre-Royal, fired with an honest Indignation against the illiberal and ill-founded Attack in last Saturday’s Norwich Mercury, upon the Proprietors of the above Theatre, hold it their indispensible [sic] Duty, in the most unequivocal and public Manner to declare, they, so far from having experienced the least Injustice, Inconvenience, or Discontent by the Interference of those Gentlemen, in the getting up, or casting of any Piece, or in the other internal Regulations of the Theatre, they have, on the contrary, in every Instance, received Proofs of their Judgment, Attentions, Liberality, and Respect.

22nd March 1783

Fired with an honest indignation at the Hand-bill impudently and officiously obtruded [3] on the Public Notice by those Ladies and Gentlemen of the Green Room whose Names are on it; and conceiving ourselves as much interested in the Censure Miss LAURA[4] has thrown on the Mode of conducting this Theatre; We the Scene-Shifters, Lamp-Lighters, Bill- Stickers, Trumpeter, Hair Dressers, Stage-Sweepers, Door-Keepers, Fidlers [sic] and Carpenters, in our own Right, and for the Scenery, Machinery, Trap-Doors, and Orchestre [sic], do Protest against the illiberal, malicious, and ill-judged Paper and its Contents; it having been irreverently issued without our Advice or Privity [sic].
For Us All,
Jeffery DUNSTAN X His Mark

The theatre wasn’t the only entertainment in Norwich by any means; nor was it always the most popular, to judge by this plaintive appeal. I wonder if the “correspondent” was genuine or a pseudonym for the theatre manager?

4th Jan 1783

A correspondent, who is an admirer of the Drama and a constant attendant on the Theatre, recommends it to the principal inhabitants of this city “not to give or receive public visits on a play-night,” as is the case in most other towns in the kingdom: for, how can the proprietors afford to give new scenery, dresses, etc, unless the receipts of the house are adequate; or, can a performer play with so much spirit to empty benches ? — Do not give entertainments, card-parties, routs, balls, etc, on play-nights, and you’ll find more satisfaction in the Theatre.

  1. I would count this as “damned with faint praise!”  ↩
  2. Being rehearsed prior to some future performance.  ↩
  3. Why don’t journalists write like this any more? I’m always being deluged with marketing material, which is definitely “impudently and officiously obtruded” on me.  ↩
  4. Either the journalist or the writer of the handbill — or both.  ↩
Posted in Uncategorized

Dealing with Habitual Offenders in Georgian Times

William Petyt, Barrister

One of the benefits of reading through eighteenth-century newspapers is the way they reveal what actually happened, as opposed to what ought to have happened, according to the letter of the law or the grand overviews of later historians.

No one can go very far in reading about Georgian England without coming up against the so-called “Bloody Code”: the set of draconian laws by which you could be hung or transported for stealing a few shillings’ worth of goods. I’m not denying that happened. Yet contemporary newspapers suggest that local courts were capable of taking a far more nuanced and thoughtful approach, at least in certain circumstances.

Take this item in The Norfolk Chronicle for 11th January, 1783. Elizabeth Pulley’s haul on this occasion would have been more than enough to attract a sentence of death or transportation. Yet she is said to have been imprisoned four times before, and to have served a year’s hard labour in a local gaol.

Monday last was committed to the Castle by Thomas BEEVOR, Esq., Elizabeth PULLEY, an old offender, charged with breaking into the shop of Mrs Elizabeth MINNS, of Hethersett, in the night of the 24th of December last, stealing from thence two cheese, four pieces of Bacon, several half pints of butter, a quarter of a stone of raisons [sic], half a stone of flour, and two rolls of worstead, the property of the said Mrs MINNS, which she has confessed. – The above offender has been in the Castle four times, and convicted of a burglary at the assizes in 1781 in the same town, and sentenced to hard labour one year in the Aylsham bridewell.

Then there’s this item from the same newspaper for 18th January, 1783.

Thursday last ended the Sessions for the county of Norfolk at the castle, when Thomas WHITEMAN, for stealing four ducks, was sentenced to be imprisoned a fortnight. – John HOUSEHAM, for stealing corn, etc to remain till the assizes. – James WRIGHT, for fowl stealing, to be kept four months in Wymondham bridewell, and to be whipped publicly every month. – Edward REYNOLDS, a notorious poacher, who had been several times in the castle before, was fined 50 pounds, and to be kept to hard labour twelve months in Aylsham bridewell, if not able to pay the fine, or whipped. – A publican was fined 20 pounds for encouraging horse-racing. – John GOODERHAM, for fowl stealing, to be publicly whipped in Wymondham market. – Several others for divers misdemeanours were dealt with according to law.

If I read this aright, most of these thieves were to suffer no more than imprisonment or whipping, despite one being described as “a notorious poacher”. In the same issue, there is another reference to an “old offender”.

Thursday night was committed to the city gaol by Starling DAY, Esq., Mayor, Sarah ALDEN, an old offender, charged with stealing from Robert HOWLETT, of Ditchingham, five guineas in gold.

Five guineas was a very substantial amount of money, so it’s hardly surprising the woman was put in gaol, presumably to wait for a suitable court to try her offence. However, even being “an old offender” didn’t seem to get in the way of a fair trial, since we read the following in the issue for 23rd August of the same year.

The two following were acquitted:– Sarah ALDEN, for picking the pockets of Robert HOWLETT, of Ditchingham, husbandman, of five guineas; and Mary STRETCH, for robbing Isaac CANNEL.

I’ll end with a sad little piece that shows crime really didn’t pay sometimes.

Last week James HOWES, of Wymondham, worstead weaver, and an old offender, chopping off the bough of a tree in order to add to a bundle of wood which he had stolen, missed his stroke and cut his thigh in so terrible a manner that he immediately died.

(The Norfolk Chronicle, 18th January, 1783.)

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The Medical Free-for-All that was Georgian Britain


It’s easy to assume that the treatment options open to people in Georgian times were prescribed by income and social class. This is incorrect. Naturally, in such a laissez faire era, the richer you were, the more choices were open to you at any given time. But that didn’t mean the wealthy always got the best treatment, while the poor made do with folk nostrums and self-help. It was much more complex than that. There were situations in which the poor were treated by some of the most famous doctors of the day, either pro bono, paid for by charities or under the Poor Law. Equally, some of the highest in the land resorted to folk remedies and local horse doctors.

Let’s be clear. None of the options, from the best scientific ideas of the time to the grossest ‘snake oil’, had any clear advantage in terms of efficacy. In broad terms, nothing worked all of the time. Everything failed as often as it succeeded. ‘Scientific’ medicine had no obvious advantage in terms of effecting cures until the second half of the nineteenth century. Many people in the eighteenth century held the rational belief that all doctors would kill you, but some charged more for the privilege than others!

It was foolish to surrender yourself entirely to the ideas and ministrations of any practitioner, orthodox or not. Since any treatment might well prove ineffective, the wisest course was to keep your options open; to ‘shop around’ in a search for something that could prove better. Even the wealthiest people sometimes rejected expensive physicians in favour of folk-healers, and orthodox treatments for nostrums peddled by fashionable quacks.

A Medical Free-for-All

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain, there were virtually no legal or formal controls on medical practice. The professionals of the Royal Colleges had mostly failed in their attempts to enforce a ‘closed shop’ in favour of their members, even in the capital itself. Since their main motivation was financial, not medical, that was hardly surprising. On paper, the hierarchy of university-trained physician, apprenticeship-trained surgeon and practically-trained apothecary looked neat. It rarely worked like that, especially outside London.

In rural areas, who counted as a doctor, even amongst the wealthy, depended on who happened to be available, qualified or not. Country physicians might earn less than a tenth of the fees of their city colleagues, especially the London ones. Even to achieve that would involve taking on every case that was offered, including treating the very poorest at the charge of local charities or the Overseers of the Poor. Apothecaries increasingly left their shops and set out on horseback to take their medicines and advice to people in their own homes. It was far from unknown for people in need to turn to the local ‘horse doctor’. One traveller needing medical help was told:

…that there was no one who could do it, but a Man that lived three miles off, who was a good Physician, bled every Man, and Calf, in the neighbourhood, and was a pretty good Surgeon, for he had been originally a Sowgelder.

Quacks of all kinds abounded, many offering the most outrageous claims for their expertise and success — most often involving royalty safely located in foreign parts!

DR. BRODUM, Physician and Oculist, from No. 9, Albion-street, Black-friars-bridge, London where he has practiced the Art of Physic for many years with the greatest success, which can be testitied by letters in his possession from the first nobility belonging to the Royal Family; and is sufficiently proved by the extraordinary cures that appear in the London and country papers; far greater demonstration of his professional ability than can produced by any parade of language. … The Doctor to be consulted every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Mr. Bracey’s Looking Glass Warehouse, near Gurney’s Bank, Norwich; and every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, at Mrs. Hunn’s, No. 18, King-street, Yarmouth.
Advice (Gratis) to the Poor, to the number of Thirty. (Norfolk Chronicle, November, 1793)

Even ‘wise women’ and local rituals might be tried, along with various magical chants and incantations. What mattered was not where the cure originated, but whether it worked.

Personal Recommendation

Often the most trusted source for medical advice was simple personal recommendation. Georgian letters are full of helpful tips for dealing with illness, as well as reports on the progress of cures the writer has been trying. One correspondent, faced with his whole family sick with some disease he could not recognise, turned to an unconventional source on the basis of local reports.

Hee being by profession a Horse-Smithe and keeps a shop in our Town. Butt hee having practised upon many others about us, before we made use of him, the success his Phisicke hath had in our Family, hath much encreased his fame, and really I think nott without desart; for he gives you as rationall an Accompte for what hee doth, as any Phisitian that I ever yett mette withall.

Amongst recipes for nostrums, there could well be little notice taken of the species of the sufferer:

The following receipt is said to have produced the happiest consequences in curing the bite of a mad dog, without using the salt water. Take of rue, garlick, Venice treacle[1], and the scrapings of pewter, each four ounces; put them into seven pints of spring water, and simmer all over a slow fire, till it comes to one pint. Strain it, and give three spoonfuls every three hours to a man or woman, keeping them warm in bed. What remains after the straining is to be applied to the wound as a salve. – For a horse or cow, use double the quantity of ingredients, and give fifteen spoonfuls as above. – For a hog, sheep, or dog, give five spoonfuls. (Norfolk Chronicle, February, 1782)

Caroline Powys, an Oxfordshire lady in the mid–1700s, was careful to turn only to medical men she knew socially. This included both physicians and apothecaries. On one occasion, when her son-in-law was ill, she made sure the apothecary best known to her undertook the treatment, even though that meant him travelling from Oxfordshire to Southampton. “We thought,” she wrote, “Mr Powys taking the apothecary who he had a high opinion of was the best thing we could do.”

Patent Medicines, Nostrums and Quacks

A wide range of shopkeepers, from booksellers to grocers, sold patent medicines, including many containing powerful narcotics and opiates. The newspapers of the day were full of advertisements for them, most claiming to cure a bewildering range of unrelated conditions.

Here are just two from one edition of the Norfolk Chronicle (Saturday, April 5, 1783):

Another very extraordinary CURE, Perfected with the GUTTA SALUTARIS, or ROYAL ANTI VENEREAL, DIURETIC, VEGETABLE DROPS, A Safe and speedy Cure for all Scorbutic and Venereal Complaints, Ulcerated and Swelled Legs, Bilious Disorders, in the Urinary Passages, &ce. … Likewise Dr. FREEMAN’S GRAND RESTORER or HUMAN NATURE, for Nervous and Debilitated Cases, commonly called FOTHERGEL’S CHYMICAL NERVOUS CORDIAL DROPS, in bottles 10s. 6d., 7s. and 3s. 6d. each. Of the above J. Croufe may also had the following Medicines of the late Sir JOHN HILL :

I. Essence of Water Dock, for the cure of the scurvy, leprosy, and all other disorders. This excellent medicine has at all times been allowed be the most certain, perfect; and lifting cure, for all scorbutic cases, notwithstanding they be ever so inveterate, price 3s. a bottle.

II. Tincture of Centaury. Being fine stomachic cordial and enlivening medicine; it gives a healthy appetite and sound digestion, it strengthens weak stomachs, and never fails to cure loathings, reachings [retchings], and sickness after meals, price 3s. a bottle.

III. Pectoral Honey, for coughs, colds, and consumptions, price 3s. a bottle.

Self Medication

Everyone did it. Eighteenth-century diaries and household books were full of various ‘receipts’ for treating common illnesses. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a staunch believer in self-medication. Indeed, he was so sure of his ability that he often acted as physician to various members of his flock. Horace Walpole similarly saw physicians as useless. “I would not see a physician at the worst,” he wrote, “but have quacked myself as boldly, as Quacks treat others.”

Here’s Mrs Powys again, describing what she calls Mrs Floyd’s remedy for a cold or hoarseness:

two oz of Kidney suet of a weather Sheep shred very fine, put it into a pint of Cold Milk, let it boil a good while, then strain it thr’o a Lawn Sieve, take a few large spoonfulls now & then stirring it, always take some going to Bed.

Newspapers were a constant source of medical advice for whatever illnesses were the most prevalent at the time. In 1757, Thomas Turner, a grocer from Sussex, noted:

Read part of The Universal Magazine for June, wherein I find the following receipt recommended (in an extract from Dr Lind’s Essay on the most effectual means of preserving health of the seamen in the Royal Navy) as a specific against all epidemical and bilious fevers and also against endemic disorders.

He then goes on to copy the receipt carefully into his diary for the day.

Those who could might also keep a copy of a suitable ‘home doctoring’ book to hand, such as William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1772). Buchan’s book also contained stern warnings against certain folk remedies:

Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.

I’ve known people who are still trying that ‘cure’ today!

A Free Market Attitude

The Georgian attitude to medicine was much like their attitude to life in general. Given that the most common outcome of all medical treatments available at the time was failure, it was up to the person suffering the sickness, or their family and friends, to stay in control. To keep trying alternatives until one worked or the patient died. In medicine, as in the world generally, all that mattered was success. To hand yourself over fully to one particular course of treatment, or one practitioner, was to ensure that, if that failed, disaster must follow. Self-help meant more than trying different treatments, or none. It meant you still had options, right up to the last. It was as much a duty to yourself or your loved ones as anything else. You paid, so you retained the power to dismiss, refuse or accept what you were paying for.

Doctors were typically treated with respect, but their authority was not accepted in every case. The doctor and patient relationship was at least as dynamic and fluid as it is today — maybe more so, given that our Georgian forebears were as yet free of the modern belief in the power of science to produce miracle cures.

  1. Theriac, a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD and widely adopted in the ancient world as an alexipharmic, or antidote, to all kinds of poisons.  ↩
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