Mr John Kirby (1727-1804) – A Debtor Turned Gaoler and the Rise of Professional Prison Keeping

In the late spring of 1761, John Kirby tasted freedom for the first time in seven years. He packed his remaining possessions and descended the winding stairs outside his quarters which he shared with up to three other men. He emerged into the London sunshine as he crossed the prison yard, being briefly plunged into the darkness of the clerk’s office as he completed his discharge paperwork and finally passed out the gates of the Wood Street Compter debtors’ prison into the chaotic rush of Cheapside, the commercial hub of the capital.

John was one of the hundreds of thousands of eighteenth-century men and women imprisoned for their debts at some point in their lives – one in every twenty-five adult men in London faced the possibility of arrest every year. Most managed to pay their debts without having to be arrested and, of those that did, the overwhelming majority were back on the streets within a year of their imprisonment making Kirby an unusually unlucky debtor, probably looked upon with pity even by his fellow prisoners. 

As John strode back into the world eager to resume his life, he probably prayed that he would never have to spend another second in Wood Street. However, within two years he was back in the prison, there to remain until 1792 but rather than the gaol’s captive John Kirby was now its keeper.

Those in charge of debtors’ prisons had a mixed reputation at best. Even in the eighteenth century they were frequently viewed as cruel and corrupt, examples of the worst elements of the entrenched system of cronyism that pervaded civic administration. The idea of a “professional” prison keeper in a city like London was unheard of for most of the period in part because debtors’ prisons operated as private businesses rather than institutions of the state. Many of those running jails were tradespeople – butchers, tanners, and carpenters – who purchased the office to provide them with a social status above their birth or with a comfortable retirement income. The keepers (or usually their officers) squeezed prisoners for as much profit as could be raised out of the various fees debtors were required to pay during their confinement such as for processing their commitment or for higher quality accommodation.

William Hogarth, The Gaols Committee of the House of Commons. Thomas Bambridge stands on the far left while a ragged prisoner gives evidence

The stereotype of cruelty which stuck to prison administrators for decades in the public imagination owed much to the activities of William Acton and Thomas Bambridge, the keepers of the Marshalsea and the Fleet in the late 1720s. A series of public inquiries from 1728 led by the MP James Oglethrope uncovered the beating of debtors, their torture, and potentially even their murder all in the name of raising extra profits though the keepers were equally happy to accept a bribe from prisoners in exchange for allowing them to escape. Though few keepers even in 1728 proved as negligent or corrupt as these two men, their behaviour blemished all who followed them. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that this reputation was finally beginning to be shaken off by a new breed of keeper, best encapsulated and partially driven by the debtor turned gaoler in Wood Street.

Eighteenth-Century Hull

John Kirby was born in the small Yorkshire parish of Scruton to John and Ann Kirby in 1727. At fourteen he was living in the city of York probably working as an apprentice, learning to ply a trade that would take him away from his rural origins. He was later made Free of the City, a right which allowed him to buy and sell within York though Kirby instead moved to Hull where he set himself up as a grocer – a trade which in the eighteenth century was not limited to selling vegetables.

Trade Card of a Wood Street Grocer c.1750 detailing typical goods sold by grocers

Like most vendors he sold goods on credit to an array of customers near and far in both small and large amounts suggesting he was operating partially as a shopkeeper and partially as a middleman. In 1755 Kirby drew up a list of outstanding bills owed to him. The accounts ranged from just five shillings to £96 7s and 5d, the equivalent today of a range of debts between £30 and £10,000. Many of his fifty-three debtors were local; sixteen also lived in Hull and six were based in nearby York. However, he also had customers in London, in Riga in the Russian Empire, and at Yorktown in Virginia where the American Revolution would dramatically end in 1781. While this extended trading network had the potential to make Kirby wealthy, as he was himself taking goods on credit over great distances it was probably what ultimately ended his trading life.

Excerpt of John Kirby’s schedule of debts

In September 1754 he was arrested while in London by Thomas Humberton of Mincing Lane, a merchant with a number of Yorkshire connections who probably supplied Kirby with east Indian goods. While John was in debt to Humberton to the value of £60 this was a fraction of his theoretical wealth. Kirby was himself owed £327, 2s, and 7½d by his customers which he could call in as well having around £24 worth of ‘Scales, Weights, Counter, Boxes and other things at the Shop at Hull’ alongside a cask of Rum worth £3 6d 4d. Separately, he was waiting on a share of a joint ‘adventure which was seized at Bourdeau’ worth another £15 10s which he evidently expected to be paid shortly. However, this wealth held at a distance and predominantly in the hands of others proved difficult to turn into sufficient cash to meet his obligations particularly as his other creditors, hearing of his arrest, rushed to bring in their own demands. The years stretched on and Kirby remained trapped as hundreds of new prisoners were committed to Wood Street but released before him every year. He was finally liberated in 1761 through the passage of an Insolvency Act, a general amnesty which forced his creditors to accept whatever estate John had left even if this did not meet their full demands. John would have been allowed to keep £10 in cash but lost claim to the rest of his business and property having already lost much of his youth to the debtors’ prison. 

John Kirby’s entry in the Wood Street Compter Commitment Register 1754, circled and annotated by a later clerk of the prison after Kirby’s death

After his release it seems Kirby chose not to go back to Yorkshire, lacking either the will, the funds, or a reason to leave London. It is not clear how he initially kept himself going. With his reputation as an insolvent, few traders would have felt inclined to lend to Kirby and allow him to start up a new trade in a city where his only contacts were angered creditors or other former prisoners. Nor did he have a craft trade for which he could find ready work as a journeyman. However, what Kirby did have was an almost unrivalled experience of prison and the administration of its daily life.

At some point in 1762 John returned to the compter though he does not reappear in the historical record until 1763 when he was a witness in two cases tried at the Old Bailey, declaring himself to be ‘Deputy Keeper of Wood-Street-Compter’. In this role he probably took on much of the actual running of the gaol on behalf of the Keeper. Many of those officially in charge of debtors’ prisons never stepped inside one, either renting out the responsibility to a Deputy or Under-Keeper or simply delegating responsibilities to salaried turnkeys. It was probably his familiarity with the gaol and his business background that led to Kirby’s hiring, appearing a more trustworthy deputy than the traditionally working-class turnkeys. While it was only his long personal experience of the gaol that initially made him stand out, it was in his ascendancy to the role of Keeper of Wood Street in his own right in 1766 where John began to buck the system. For a start, he somehow managed to succeed to the role without paying the usual bribe to the Sheriffs. The Annual Register noted some years later that ‘although they might, as their predecessors were heretofore accustomed, have sold the same for £1,500’, Kirby was given the compter ‘entirely gratis’, another writer recording that ‘Mr West [keeper of the Poultry Compter] purchased his place at a large expence, Mr Kirby had his given him’. Why the Sheriffs placed their trust in John (against their own financial interest) is unclear though without it he certainly could never have afforded this promotion.

It was not merely the lack of purchase which set John Kirby aside from his compatriots and highlights him as an example of the development of professional prison keeping. Upon taking over in 1766 he chose not to retire and continued to involve himself in the everyday management of the gaol. He also instituted a dramatic policy change, unheard of in London prisons and apparently to his own detriment. While imprisoned debtors were largely left to fend for themselves, they were supplied with bread by the city and received annual donations from a variety of civic charities and bequests. As Kirby told a parliamentary inquiry into debt imprisonment in 1792, when such money came in, they would ‘divide the Money amongst them every Quarter, which they soon spent in Drunkenness, &c. and were afterwards greatly distressed, and perishing through Cold and Hunger’. This had long been the practice at Wood Street and other prisons across the country, nor did most keepers seem to take any interest in preventing it particularly as they were entitled to a share of the profits from the prison alehouse. Kirby, however, in an act that was probably illegal, seized control of the donations and ‘advanced the Prisoners a Weekly Sum according to their Expences’ which was ‘chiefly laid out in Coals, Candles, Provisions for the Sick, paying for fetching in’ food to ‘keep them from Want’. While the prisoners were probably initially annoyed, Kirby was never reprimanded for his action implying nobody formally complained. Indeed, later visitors to the prison would note how the inhabitants ‘esteemed’ Kirby and his practice of distributing the donations was continued by John’s successors until the compter (which moved to Giltspur Street in 1791) closed to debtors in 1815.

The Wood Street Compter of London in its final years (1671-1791)

This behaviour appears to have raised his public profile significantly for the keeper of a small gaol. John was publicly referred to as ‘the benevolent Mr Kirby’ and continued to diligently manage the gaol for the next twenty-six years as he worked to improve the lives of his charges. While much of his behaviour might appear essentially basic from a modern perspective or even from that of the nineteenth century and basic common sense, they were practically revolutionary in the poorly maintained gaols of central London where profit margins were regularly slim. He paid out of his own pocket for apothecaries and other medical men to attend prisoners when they fell sick, only apparently applying for compensation from the City in 1767 when there was a particularly serious bout of fever in the gaol. After this outbreak the City, on Kirby’s recommendation, appointed a permanent doctor to the prison. He also regularly paid for the release of those debtors who only owed a few shillings who were less likely to be able to pay by themselves, helping both his charges and their creditors without asking for redress.

His diligent and fastidious attention to the management of the prison was reflected by his evidence given to a House of Commons Committee investigating debt imprisonment in 1792. While most keepers obfuscated and provided as little detail as possible to protect themselves, Kirby went to great lengths in detailing prison life such as in recording the professions of his debtors, in what part of the room ‘they dress their Victuals’, informing the committee where prisoners walk ‘in wet weather’, and providing specific room dimensions that seem to suggest Kirby measured them by hand. 

Evidence given at the 1792 Inquiry by the Keeper of Newgate
Evidence given at the 1792 Inquiry given by John Kirby

John also took the relatively unusual step of living within the prison. Though all keepers were supposed to do this, even their deputies frequently lived out while at the nearby Fleet prison, despite its population numbering in the hundreds, it was reported no officers remained in the gaol overnight. Kirby’s choice however certainly built a greater rapport between prisoners and their administrators, contributing to a peaceful gaol where ‘there is scarcely an evening passes but the [compter] resounds with mirth’. Kirby, who remained unmarried while keeping Wood Street, even allowed a subset of the better class of debtors (if they paid a higher rent) to live in his quarters alongside him and make use of his kitchen, parlour, and dining room. Those living in other apartments within the gaol were also likely to benefit from Kirby’s geniality, claiming in 1784 that ‘in many instances, prisoners both eat and drink at mine, without ever my demanding of them one penny’.

Outside of the prison, Kirby took on administrative roles at a number of charities such as ‘The Society, for Educating the Children of Debtors’ building on his public reputation as a philanthropist. Separately, he took an unusually keen interest in fishing, being occasionally referred to not as a keeper but as ‘Mr John Kirby, the celebrated Angler’. He even lent his image to and paid for the publication of Thomas Shirley’s The Angler’s Museum (1784) though he apparently did so without much literary discretion, one review of the book describing it as ‘a paltry compilation’ and remarking that ‘Mr Kirby … would have done much better, if he had kept his head within the Compter’. 

‘Had Mr Kirby himself taken the trouble to revise it, there is no doubt but from his skill and experience in angling, he would have made it an excellent Vade Mecum for all lovers of the art. As it is, we cannot but agree with the city magistrate, who, conversing with Mr Kirby on the subject, told him, “he would have done much better, if he had kept his head within the Compter”. To speak more plainly, it is but a paltry compilation from other books on the same subject.’

At the end of 1792 John Kirby finally left the compter having been appointed to the position of Keeper of Newgate Prison, one of (if not the) most important prison governorships in the county. There Kirby continued in his diligent gaol management, transforming this traditionally grim prison for debtor and felon alike. According to the prison reformer James Neild in 1800 ‘Mr Kirby consistent with his wonted humanity, charges none of [the debtors] anything for room rent’ reducing the financial burden of imprisonment though this was surely mitigated for Kirby personally by the £450 annual salary which came with his new role. His attention to the quality of life within the gaol was commended by the city as a number of investigations of the health of prisoners at Newgate found ‘not one of them were the least indisposed’ an achievement for which ‘the Court [of Aldermen] complimented those worthy officers for their great care and attention’ in 1798. In 1800 James Hadfield, arrested while attempting to assassinate King George III, was placed into Kirby’s care and John again demonstrated how seriously he took the responsibility of caring for all those confined under him even if accused of high treason. During the trial in which Hadfield was required to stand for hours – the court hoping to break his “not guilty” plea through exhaustion – Kirby interrupted the Lord Chief Justice and ‘solicited leave for [Hadfield] to sit down, but the Court took no notice of the application’. 

Kirby made prison keeping a family business. He trained his nephew Edward in the trade who eventually took over management of the Poultry Compter in its final years, part of a new generation of professional keepers which Kirby had helped create. It does not appear that John had any children of his own though he may have married a widow with children c.1803 who are alluded to in his will.

On the last day of August in 1804 John, now in his late seventies, was seized with ‘a violent inflammation in his bowels’ while at home and despite the attendance of doctors he died some fifteen hours later bringing an end to his long prison keeping career.

Kirby’s Obituary in Jackson’s Oxford Journal September 1st 1804

John Kirby was subsequently largely forgotten. There are no memorials to him and his grave in St James Piccadilly has long since been lost. He was no philanthropist or prison reformer, in fact he had a habit of writing angry letters to the newspapers about charitable organisations which criticised his administration. Nor was he personally responsible for the societal shift towards a professionalisation of prison keeping. The replacement of the system of rents and fees with salaries for officers came from campaigners and civic councils not from keepers. Wood Street under his care was no paradise and while he took pains to care for his prisoners, visitors still reported that the poorest (unable to afford rented private cells) were kept in a single hall which ‘swarms with bugs’. However, his very public behaviour did much to change what was expected of keepers of his time. In essence, probably based on his own experience of confinement, he raised the bar for what was deemed acceptable, a shift that was appreciated by the imprisoned population of the city. One of his many obituaries – some of which still described in 1804 how he had once ‘been a respectable tradesman but failing in business, applied for and obtained the place of keeper’ – recorded that ‘Judges and Magistrates had highly approved of his conduct’ but more notably that ‘In him the unfortunate, particularly the prisoners who were under his care, lose a good and sincere friend’. 

Cover image via The National Portrait Gallery, John Kirby The Keeper of Newgate by Charles Turner, after John James Masquerier (1796)

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