In a nutshell: Debtors’ Prisons

The horror of the jails that imprisoned poor debtors inspired bestselling novel The Devil in the Marshalsea. But what were they really like?

In a nutshell: Debtors’ Prisons (public domain)

What were they?

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They were institutions in which people who couldn’t pay their debts were incarcerated. For centuries, these jails formed a key part of the British prison system.

When did they originate?

The system of throwing people into jail if they couldn’t pay money they owed dates from medieval times. By the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of people were incarcerated in this manner in Britain, and the inmates of a number of prisons – including the Fleet and the Marshalsea in London – were exclusively debtors.

What kinds of people served time in these prisons?

Debt was a classless crime. Many people from the more ‘respectable’ sections of society found themselves in debtors’ prisons, having spent more than they could afford just to keep up appearances. Because men were held responsible for households’ financial matters, nearly all imprisoned debtors were male. However, wives and children were sometimes forced to join their husbands and fathers in prison if they didn’t have the means to support themselves. Traders who were unable to pay their creditors could be declared bankrupt, thereby usually avoiding jail, but for those with personal debts there was no such escape.

A number of famous names were recorded as inmates in debtors’ prisons, including Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe. Charles Dickens’ father, John, spent a few months at the Marshalsea in 1824 because he owed a local baker £40. Charles – then aged just 12 – had to work at a shoe-polish factory to help support his father and other members of his family who had joined John in prison. It was a humiliating episode from which the author later drew inspiration for his novel Little Dorrit.

What were conditions like in debtors’ prisons?

In general, debtors were treated differently from regular prisoners, being allowed special privileges such as visiting rights. But conditions varied enormously, depending largely on each debtor’s financial situation.

The prisons were privately run institutions that charged their residents for board and lodgings. Those who had managed to prevent their creditors from taking all of their money, or who had wealthy friends who could support them, might live in reasonable comfort, taking advantage of bars, restaurants and cafés on site. There were even some instances of debtors being allowed – for a fee – to serve their time outside the prisons altogether, provided they remained nearby.

However, for those who were genuinely destitute, conditions could be intolerable. Inmates would resort to begging for coins from passers-by, and some starved to death. A parliamentary inquiry into prison conditions in 1729-30 found such appalling treatment of poor debtors that it resulted in the prosecution of a number of prisonkeepers for murder.

How would people get out of these prisons?

Debtors were not like modern prisoners who serve fixed sentences. In many cases they could secure their release only when they had paid their debts or reached an agreement with their creditors. Because debtors had to pay to be housed within the prisons, their debts could actually increase while incarcerated,
so some would spend years or even decades in jail. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of laws were passed that did enable a proportion of debtors
to be released if they fulfilled certain conditions.

When was this system abolished?

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The 1869 Debtors Act brought an end to debtors’ prisons in the UK. Elsewhere in the world, though, the system persists in various forms. In recent decades, concerns have been raised about the system in the USA by which many people are jailed for failing to pay court fees – with some being charged for their prison stays.