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.
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.