Regency Debtors’ Prison

PatbookmarkThe flies trouble you don’t they my dear?” said Mrs Bangham. “But p’raps they’ll take your mind off of it and do you good. What between the buryin’ ground, the grocer's, the waggon stables, and the paunch trade, the Marshalsea flies gets very large….” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

As romance writers, we write about the fantasy of lords and ladies in Regency England. We write fairy tales with much better endings than anything the Grimm Brothers produced. And if we write about lords losing their estates over gambling or fathers being threatened with debtors’ prison, it’s only as a catalyst for the real action, the romance, and not the historical reality..

We apparently want to believe the fantasy of lovely gowns, and housefuls of servants, and elegant ballrooms at the disposal of every heroine without the restraint of budgets. It’s very possible many Regency women had little knowledge of their family’s financial affairs since men believed women were little more than pets to be coddled. But when it comes to money, ignorance is bliss for only a little while—until reality checks in.

Of course, reality for aristocrats was entirely different from the reality for everyone else. The people to whom aristocrats owed money could not have a lord arrested and thrown into an overcrowded debtors’ prison. Merchants might refuse to fill the orders of patrons who didn’t pay, if they dared risk the wrath of an earl or duke. But a not-so-wealthy noble could live on debt for years. He could order tailored coats, buy mighty steeds, and throw extravagant balls and not pay a shilling if he was protected by the House of Lords and could find merchants or banks willing to wait Regency era fashion decades for payment. The flies of Marshalsea would never trouble him, but eventually, if his ship didn’t come in, his inheritance didn’t cover his debts, or his gambling habits became too reckless, he’d end up on his entailed estate growing his own vegetables. Or starving. Or sailing for foreign shores in hopes of living off his title or relatives.

Not so for the likes of Beau Brummel or Lady Emma Hamilton, who clung to the outskirts of that high-flying crowd, nor for all those people well below them. An unpaid debt of a few shillings and a mean merchant could easily land a commoner in a noxious prison cell—at least until the Insolvent Debtors’ Act of 1813. In that year, Parliament decided prisons were too crowded and generously declared debts must be greater than 40 shillings (very roughly the equivalent of $1000 today) before merchants could hire bailiffs to haul off debtors, and if Debtors_prison_england_small the prisoner swore he had only twenty pounds in assets, he could request release after two weeks. Of course, if his creditors objected, then he could cool his heels in prison forever or until his family rescued him, whichever came first. With lawyer and court fees, or usurious interest, a 20 shilling debt could become 40 very quickly.

Worse yet, prisons like the Marshalsea were privately operated, leased out by the royals to profiteers, and the prisoners lived at the mercy of their gaolers. The prison charged for rent, food, clothing, and if a prisoner’s family ended up with him, each family member cost more money. If a man wasn’t bankrupt before he went into prison, he certainly could be after a few weeks stay. Such a situation often forced wives to prostitute themselves and children into workhouses in hopes of paying off the debt instead of increasing it. Unless a debtor had the wherewithal to pay for apartments outside the prison, they were likely to end up in a common cell with dozens of others, living with disease, rodents, and insects until they were so ill they died there, since paying for a doctor’s visit only added to their debt. In any case, it behooved a bankrupt to escape to foreign shores before their creditors closed in, which is what both Brummel and Lady Hamilton did.

And this was just in Regency England. Prior to that time, prisoners could be chained to the floor with Prison hulk spiked collars around their necks and heavy irons over their legs unless they somehow coughed up the “easement of irons” fee. Or were transported to the colonies or kept on the hulks in the Thames until the government could figure out where to send them. I suspect the expense of housing and transporting all those prisoners caused the debt relief acts in the next century, (image: not any generosity of spirit.

But readers don’t want to read the misery of Little Dorrit in their romances, so we threaten our heroes with prison but seldom actually show them in such a hopeless situation. Aren’t you glad? Or do you think we ought to show a little more reality and a little less fantasy in our historical romances?