The Business Troubles of a Georgian Merchant


The British packet “Antelope” captures the French privateer “L’Atalante”, 1793
(National Maritime Museum)

Robert Plumsted was a merchant and we are fortunate to have his Letter-book, covering the period from November 1756 to April 1758. Although it includes only copies of the letters he wrote, not those he received, it still gives us a unique insight into the business issues and problems of an English merchant in the first part of The Seven Years War.

He seems to have been trading a good deal with the American colonies and the West Indies, especially Antigua. Not surprisingly, since he was himself a Quaker, a good deal of the American business was with Pennsylvania, but he also traded with merchants in Maryland and New York. He exported many manufactured items, from agricultural tools, blankets, textiles, thread and hat-pins to garden seeds, pepper mills and pewter utensils. In return, he imported iron ore, sugar, wheat and similar commodities.

The Seven Years War

Many of his problems arose directly from the outbreak of war and the fighting that erupted in America with the French and their Indian allies.

In May, 1756 he wrote to one correspondent:

On the 18th instant war was declar’d here against France, they have laid siege to Port Mahon and fear may have taken it. This oblig’d the government to declare [war] — which I am sorry for, being in great hopes an accomodation [sic] would have been brought…

He also notes when Pitt the Elder became prime minister in December of that year:

Wee have an intire change in the ministry, publick affairs are put into new hands and great reformations upon the carpet. Wee hope for more promising events than last year-which have been verry unfavourable…

That ministry didn’t last long though and he was soon sounding a note of deep gloom:

Wee have had no sea engagements lately. All Europe seems in a ferment and wn the sword will be sheath’d is only known to him who permits such a heavy scourge to fall upon the nations; to humain view things look very gloomy, and how soon our temporal affairs may be involv’d in the general confusion we know not. Certain it is, that wee are in a very precarious situation and those who have the least concerns in trade seem the most secure…

Stranded or Captured

The war brought him more specific worries as well. Crews may be taken by Press-gangs, leaving vessels stranded or too ill crewed to commence a voyage. Delays became endemic, with severe effects on cash flows. French privateers were also active throughout the Atlantic and especially where valuable cargoes like sugar might be expected. It wasn’t only cargoes that might be lost. Business letters, orders and bills of exchange could easily go missing, so merchants were forced to resort to sending duplicates and triplicates by different routes.

The only way of dealing with the privateers was to travel in convoy, guarded by suitable naval vessels. This added further delays, since ships had to wait until a suitable number had assembled before setting sail. There were no set or regular times for convoys to leave. Bad weather could separate the vessels en route, leaving stragglers vulnerable to lurking privateers. Nonetheless, Plumsted acknowledged the navy was doing all it could and recorded occasions when all went well, such as this from 1757:

The Leward Island fleet came verry unexpectedly, tho verry agreably upon us and by the great care of the men’a’war, I think all the ships got safe in to their different ports. I wish the next may have as good success…

The Worries of a Quaker

The fighting in America and Canada meant a demand for weapons and ammunition to be sent from England to sustain the troops and their Indian allies. This brought particular concerns for a pious Quaker like Plumsted. Was it permissible under the Quakers’ pacifist principles to carry such goods, let alone trade in them? There were business issues as well, since shipping arms required an expensive licence.

On a few occasions, he did send limited numbers of sword-blades and guns, taking no profit on them, but the clash with his beliefs soon grew too much for him and he declined further business of that kind:

You know, wee as a people, are in principle against everything that tends to war and bloodshed, and consistent with this belief can neither be active therein or pertake of the profit arising from the sale of goods the use whereof is for destructive purposes. This lays me under a difficulty, which there seems but one expedient for. The demand for these things are but temporary they cease in time of peace and now are but a verry small part of your busyness, would it be any great ill convenience to you to let them drop. It would ease me from a scruple that at present I cannot divest myself of…

Payment and Credit

Plumsted seems to have been strongly opposed to what he termed “the pernicious practice of giving such long credit”, adding that “it will never answer in a large trade and small capital”. He even tried to avoid “bad payers”, even if that meant his own business would be limited as a result. Unfortunately, his best efforts seem often to have failed, even when doing business with fellow Quakers on the other side of the Atlantic.

He took one to task most severely for his delays. The use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ shows he is writing to a fellow member of the Society of Friends:

I have thine of 25th 10 mo: [25th October] and continue to admire at the excuses thou makes. I expected the rum would be pleaded, though to my certain knowledge not one farthing of the proceeds was directed to be paid to me … Thy invention no doubt will furnish thee with materials for another letter when thou art ashamed of being silent any longer and as thou know how to improve calamitys to thy own advantage, thy next if thou please may turn upon provincial affairs.

To another he wrote:

… thou has deceiv’d both me and my attourney so often, that wee can give verry little credit to anything thou says. If thou hast either honour or honesty, my forbearance with thee should produce some better effects. I am ashamed of thy shuffling tricks, they render thee very contemptable and are a most ungratefull return for my long patience.

The picture these letters show is that of an honest, hardworking man trying hard to survive in a world suddenly become even more hostile than usual. Whether he succeeded after 1758, I don’t know. He deserved to. It’s easy to view the warfare of the time purely from the military or political points of view, neglecting issues which must have been far more pressing to most people. The scarcity of wheat for bread-making and the need to import it from America. The temporary stopping of exports to continental distilleries and the fall in the price of barley this produced. The constant ups and downs in the costs of basic foodstuffs as merchants sought to sell to the highest bidders. If a prosperous merchant like Robert Plumsted found the times difficult to negotiate, imagine how hard they must have been for the poor, with no security of food or employment.

Posted in Commerce | 2 Comments

Don’t Mess with Eighteenth-Century Doctors!

Le_Duel_Marion,_Eugène_de_BeaumontHere’s a delightful story from The Norfolk Chronicle of 26th March, 1796, concerning a quarrel between a doctor and an army officer over the officer’s demand that the doctor should play his flute when he didn’t want to. Since it’s rather a lengthy story, I’ll summarise most of it.

The doctor concerned, one Dr Young, was said by the paper to be “remarkable for the urbanity of his manners and the cheerfulness of his temper”. Perhaps not on this occasion, when he was “on a party of pleasure with a few ladies” going up the Thames to Vauxhall Gardens and entertaining the party by playing his flute.

It seems the doctor stopped playing when a rowing boat, containing several army officers, came up alongside. One of the officers at once demanded to know why he had put his flute away. The doctor replied, “For the same reason that I took it out; to please myself.” This seemed to infuriate the officer, who demanded that he continue playing or he would throw him into the river. At the time, the doctor — the writer claimed it was to prevent further upset to the ladies in the party — did as the officer demanded. However, when he saw the same man later in the evening on his own, the doctor went up to him and challenged him to a duel to take place the following morning. The officer accepted and they chose swords as the weapons.

From this point onwards, I’ll let the paper tell the story in its own words.

The duellists met the next morning at the hour and place appointed; but the moment the officer took his ground, the Doctor presented to his head a large horse pistol. “What! (said the officer) do you intend to assassinate me?” — “No, (said the doctor) but you shall instantly put up your sword and dance a minuet, otherwise you are a dead man.” Some short altercation ensued, but the Doctor appeared so serious and determined, that the officer could not help complying. “Now, Sir, (said the Doctor) you forced me to play yesterday against my will, and I have obliged you to dance this day against yours; we are again on an equal footing, and whatever other satisfaction you demand, I am ready.” – The officer forthwith embraced the Doctor, acknowledged his impertinence, and begged that for the future they might live on terms of the sincerest friendship, which they ever did after.

There you have it; and if the story wasn’t true, it ought to have been. I wonder whether Dr Adam Bascom would have behaved in the same way?

Posted in Tid-bits | 2 Comments

Pamphleteering: Welcome to the Georgian Internet

The Anti-Jacobin

It’s amazing how similar the world of the late-eighteenth century pamphlet wars is to today’s social media. Both provide a more or less open space for people to express their views on any topic, join in controversies and try to influence and form that elusive power known as ‘Public Opinion’. Neither demand any literary skill — or even much in the way of literacy. Both display more or less total disregard of the truth, often resorting to the crudest lampoons and distortions to hammer home their message. If the pamphlets of the eighteenth century seem laughable now, that’s mostly because of changes in the use of language, not modern sophistication. Spend five minutes with Twitter, Facebook or even the television and you’ll witness a good deal that would put even the crudest Georgian pamphleteers to shame.

Radicals and Revolutionaries

Perhaps the period when government propaganda was most common and most successful was from 1792 onwards, when the target included attacks on the ideas and beliefs associated with the French Revolution.

Part 2 of Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was deliberately made cheap to buy so that it could obtain the widest possible circulation. That was why, according to the Attorney General of the time, he had not brought a prosecution for seditious libel against Part 1, which sold for three shillings (maybe £30 today). “Reprehensible as that book was,” he explained, “it was ushered into the world under circumstances that led me to believe that it would be confined to the judicious reader.” Part 2 was sold as a sixpenny pamphlet. Paine’s style of writing was also graphic and easy to understand. When the Attorney General “found that even children’s sweetmeats were wrapped up with parts of this, and delivered into their hands, in the hope that they would read it,” he felt he had to prosecute.

The Government’s Response

The Post Office was supposed to carry any newspaper, pro or anti-government, so long as the price was paid. In the welter of pamphlets that were now being produced, the government too resorted to establishing (and subsidising) ever more pro-government newspapers and broadsheets to fight fire with fire. Naturally the opposition and the radical groups fought back, so the government, unable to forbid circulation outright, encouraged the Post Office to ‘lose’ issues sent to distant subscribers by post. Trying to use the law relating to ‘seditious libel’ as a means of suppression produced mixed results, mostly because the grounds for determining if a publication fell under that definition were unclear. Under the Libel Act of 1792, juries in libel trials were charged with deciding if material was libellous. Lengthy battles followed in the courts, juries were reluctant to convict and the government learned to tread warily.

That left matters more or less in limbo, so the government shifted their focus instead to suppressing radical groups directly, rather than concentrating on what they published. It took a while, and several failures on the government side, but eventually nearly all radical opposition was driven underground — at least for the duration of hostilities with France.

A New Concept: Public Opinion

The 1790s were the first time when the governing class in Britain thought it necessary even to consider the views of the common people. They had seen what had happened in France when ordinary folk — the sans culottes — were mobilised by the radicals to assault and overthrow an entrenched regime. What could happen there could happen in Britain.

In 1797, The Anti-Jacobin; or Weekly Examiner, perhaps the most successful pro-government publication, claimed a circulation of 50,000. For comparison, the most popular newspaper of the time, The Times, printed some 3,000 copies per day. Hannah More’s series of “Cheap Repository Tracts” reached a collective circulation of a million copies. Later she collected and republished them in book form, subdivided into sections called “Tales for the Common People” and “Stories for Persons of Middle Rank.” Others wrote Anti-Jacobin novels. Most had identical ‘plots’ in which a naïve person is mislead into following a radical philosopher. This produces various calamities until the ‘victim’ of the deception either sees the light and returns to sensible ways, or falls in destitution and often ends on the gallows.

It’s fair to say that many of the authors of these pamphlets were no more sophisticated — and no more eager to abide by the truth — than many whose words fill social media today. Propagandists on both sides were far more interested in making a point than avoiding misrepresentation or outright fiction. Even educated writers who put pen to paper to produce a pamphlet or article, often anonymously, churned out crude, often farcical rubbish. Still, as we know to our cost today, it’s sometimes the crudest caricatures that produce the most effects. The Internet trolls, purveyors of fake news and the hacks who write for scandal-sheets are part of a thoroughly dishonourable tradition that goes back 250 years or more.

Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Georgian Attitudes Revealed


A street in Norwich
© AW Savage, 2017

There are times when I’m looking through some primary document and find myself brought up short by a comment that reveals an outlook or attitude that would never be acceptable today. A time when the only possible response is “What!?” It helps to remind me that social attitudes in the past were sometimes very different from those that prevail nowadays; and that judging past situations by present standards is both futile and pointless. Indeed, much of the worth of an interest in history is the constant reminder that context changes meaning; and that maintaining perspective is an essential part of reaching a sound understanding of any subject.

This happens most often when I glance through eighteenth-century newspapers. Take these examples. All come from a single page in The Norfolk Chronicle for August 26th, 1797.

Devotion (Not) Rewarded

This first story is rather a long one, so I will summarise the earlier part. It concerns a young man who formed a “tender connection” with a young lady by whom he had a child. His rich father however said that he would disinherit him if he did not “break off the connection”. All this happened while he was still at school. When he came to go to university, he promised to do as his father had asked. Secretly, the young woman dressed as a man and went to university with him, where she joined him in the study of the Ancient Classics. This she did so well that she won several prizes.

At the end of their university studies, the two next entered the Middle Temple to study the law. Once again, the young lady dressed as a man, applied herself diligently to her work and shone in the law as she had at the University.

After all this, the young man dumped her.

You can easily imagine the response there would be today. Unstinting praise for the devotion, hard work and cleverness of the young woman. Universal condemnation of the heartlessness of her lover. Not in 1797! Here’s what the newspaper wrote at the conclusion of the article:

After such constancy, few minds, we hope, are prepared to imagine the fate of the fair unfortunate; for she is now abandoned by her lover, a prey to grief, and with acquirements [sic] that, in her sex, are rendered almost useless in her progress through life by the custom of the world. The mother of the Gentleman has settled an annuity on her, but the philosophy of the schools does not prevent her from being inconsolable.

Barely a word of praise for her devotion. Nothing about her ability and hard work. No words of condemnation for her lover. Nothing really but an acknowledgement that all her learning would now be useless to her — even for bringing her consolation.

A Scientific Experiment

I will quote the next article verbatim.

Madame Blunet brought 21 children into the world in seven births. The French Academy, desirous, like Juno in Ovid, to know which contributed most to the success of this extraordinary fertility, whether the man or the woman, in order to ascertain the facts, proposed that Mons. Blunet, should make an experiment with his maid. He did so, and she presented him with three male infants at the end of nine months.

That’s it.

I love the euphemism “make an experiment with his maid”. Presumably, both wife and maid were expected to go along with this in the cause of scientific curiosity.

Damned Foreigners!

My final excerpt comes from a piece describing a visit to China by Sir George Staunton in which, according to the article, “they had an opportunity of seeing and examining almost everything that the country offers most curious, being continually accompanied by several persons of the highest dignity and authority in the Empire, who had it in charge every degree of attention and respect should be shown to them.”

After commenting on China’s vast population and the ingenuity shown in producing sufficient food for them, the writer turns to what he clearly sees as that nation’s greatest strength.

The most wonderful thing in China is the uniting so many millions of people under the influence of regular government. This is facilitated by the authority of age and experience over youth and ignorance, which is established by the laws, and confirmed by the immoral [sic!] usages of China.

Even so, the writer cannot leave the subject without a burst of British disdain for these damned foreigners; one that manages to draw in the French as well!

The Chinese are far inferior to the Europeans in scientific knowledge; but they greatly resemble the French, de la veille Cour, in vivacity and urbanity, in an overweening conceit of themselves, and in manifest airs of conscious superiority over strangers with whom they converse. They value and cultivate arts only in proportion to their utility.

Maybe the newspapers haven’t changed that much in 250 years.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The ‘Bluestockings’ and Society

Bluestockings as Muses

Leading Bluestockings as Muses
(Richard Samuel, died 1787, National Portrait Gallery)
L to R: Elizabeth Carter, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Angelica Kauffmann (seated), Elizabeth Ann Linley

Today the term ‘bluestocking’ is applied to women who do not conform to the supposed feminine stereotype. In the eighteenth century, it had not yet gained that automatic sneer and referred to any woman distinguished by learning and intelligence. So who were the Bluestockings? Were they the prototypes of today’s feminists? Or is that also a simplistic view that doesn’t do justice to their impact on Georgian England?

For a start, the Bluestocking circles often included men. What distinguished their gatherings was the emphasis on learning and rational discussion, not gender. They were not all wealthy, society ladies either. Many amongst the Bluestocking groupings were neither aristocratic, prominent socially nor wealthy. Their common characteristic was that they were learned. They could hold their own, even shine, amongst some of the most intellectually gifted men of the time.

Many were women of letters or authors. Elizabeth Montagu wrote a book on Shakespeare in 1769 that achieved wide acclaim. Others wrote poetry, plays, works of philosophy and produced translations of the Classics. Nearly all engaged in serious correspondence with one another and leading male thinkers. Some achieved fame by then publishing these letters. Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773) became a standard handbook for young ladies learning to become respectable middle-class women.

Escaping from Politics

The salons headed by the Bluestockings differed from those led by other Society hostesses of the day by avoiding political controversy. There were some amongst them, like Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft, who took prominent roles in political discourse, but a good many of their number were as socially and politically conservative as most people at the time. They were more interested in studying the world around them than in changing it.

In the middle of the 18th century, particularly in the turbulent period between the end of the Seven Years War and the French Revolution, opportunities to take part in conversations free from political factionalism were rare. Many of the men invited to join Bluestocking ladies would have been leading figures in the government or opposition. A chance to enjoy an evening of serious discourse without political arguments must have been highly valued.

Intellectual Gatherings

Study was central to Bluestocking groupings. The subjects discussed ranged widely, but many of them focused on topics long thought “suitable” for well-brought-up ladies, such as the study of nature or the new natural sciences.

The explanation usually given for the term “Bluestocking” involves an otherworldly Norfolk clergyman called Benjamin Stillingfleet. Born in Wood Norton in that county, Stillingfleet spent a good part of his life at Felbrigg Hall near Cromer as tutor to the young William Windham. He also achieved prominence as a botanist. His book, Flora Anglica of 1761, was the first application in England of Linnean principles of classification to botany. He was certainly not a wealthy man, so the tale that he was unable to afford proper formal dress with black silk stockings is entirely believable. When a group of intellectual ladies invited him to share his knowledge of botany with them, he had to attend wearing his everyday blue, worsted stockings. This gave him a nickname, which was transferred to the group itself.

Women as Umpires of Politeness

Men valued spending time amongst the Bluestockings for other reasons. Formal standards of politeness in Georgian times required good manners and restraint in the presence of women. Instead of resorting to trivia, the Bluestockings discussed serious but non-political matters. Many leading Bluestockings were also well-known for their skills as hostesses. They knew how to provide stimulating conversation in a civilised atmosphere, however much some of those present might disagree in other circumstances. Elizabeth Montagu, in 1772, wrote admiringly of Elizabeth Vesey’s skills in bringing together “all the heterogeneous natures in the World” in her Tuesday assemblies.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the Bluestocking circles in English society of the time. Their salons and gatherings cut across political and social boundaries, as well as those of gender. They helped important people make contacts outside circumstances likely to generate strife and dissension. People bitterly opposed at other times could see their antagonists as human beings again.

In our polarised world of today, I can’t help thinking how useful it would be if the rancour and ill temper could be replaced by something of the atmosphere these 18th-century ladies drew around them.

Posted in Georgian Society, Medicine & Science

Ducks to the Rescue!


Norfolk in the eighteenth century was a prime agricultural county, as it is today. It’s not surprising therefore that the local papers sometimes included advice to farmers. One area that must have been of concern to most of those who grew crops was pest control. We’re so used to insecticide sprays that it’s something of a surprise to recall that in the 18th century, such things were more or less unknown. It would also be totally impossible, given the primitive tools of the time, to apply any kind of insecticide to a small field, let alone a large one. The only viable methods of controlling insect pests would have to be based on methods of husbandry or use of the pests’ natural enemies.

Here’s a piece of exactly that type which I found especially amusing, not just for the use of ducks as ‘pest controllers’, but for the description of caterpillars as ‘reptiles’.

The Norfolk Chronicle, 17th Aug 1782

On reading in this paper of last week an account of the destruction of the turnips by the black caterpillar, another correspondent writes to remark, that their devastation is nearly ended, in consequence of their going into the ground, where they change into a middle state (the crysolis [sic]) betwixt the worm and the flying insect in which latter state, if not destroyed by a severe winter, they fly abroad in the ensuing spring, and the female fly fixes her eggs on the early turnips, from whence are hatched these black destroyers. To destroy these an effectual mode is to drive on as early as they are discovered three or four broods of ducks (to be attended by a boy); these will disperse themselves about, and in the course of a few days (drove to water at noon, and home in the evening,) will clear a large extent of turnips of this voracious pest.
It is presumed this recommendation will be remembered in a future year, if there is occasion, and generally pursued, as it has been particularly adopted this season by an ingenious farmer, to the almost complete riddance of his land of these innumerable reptiles.

Posted in Agriculture | 1 Comment

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