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.
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
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.
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.