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Home > Crime and Punishment in Durham > Crime and Criminals > Was being in a debt a crime?

 Was being in debt a crime?

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  • Until 1845 being in debt was not a crime, even though debtors were imprisoned in prisons across the country. Technically, debtors were put into prison for their own protection and could, in theory, demand maintenance from the creditors who had imprisoned them.
  • Debtors remained in prison until their debts were paid or their creditors released them from their debt. In theory, they could work whilst in prison so that they could continue to pay off what they owed. However, removed from their trade, their tools and customers, debtors found it almost impossible to earn enough to secure their release.
  • In prison, debtors were supposed to be treated differently from felons. They were meant to be kept in separate quarters and could pay for food, bedding, clothes etc. Although debtors from wealthy families were able to achieve a comparatively decent standard of living, poor debtors found it very difficult, having to rely on what their already over-stretched families could afford.
  • Perhaps one of the most famous debtors was John Dickens, father of Charles Dickens, the author. He was imprisoned in Marshalsea prison in 1824 for being in debt. Charles was forced to leave school and work in a factory to help pay off his father's debts. In the end, the family was rescued by a small inheritance.
  • Imprisonment for debt was common. In 18th century London alone there were five prisons devoted to debtors - Queen's Bench, the Fleet, Marshalsea, Whitecross Street and Horsemonger Lane.
  • A person could avoid being imprisoned for debt if they declared themselves bankrupt. However, until 1841 you could only claim bankruptcy if you were classed as a 'trader' owing more than £100. Anyone else was classed as an 'insolvent debtor'.
  • If you were imprisoned for debt and could not pay off your debts, you were reliant on the goodwill of others. Your creditor could release you from your debt or a charity might offer help. One such charity was the Thatched House Society which was established in 1772. In twenty years they paid off the debts of 12,590 debtors thus securing their release.
  • The situation changed in 1845 when being in debt became a criminal offence. After 1845, if you were in debt and could not pay you were classed as being in contempt of court and this was a criminal offence.
  • The situation changed again in the late 1860s. After that you were only imprisoned for fraudulent debt or for having the means to pay your creditors but refusing to do so.


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