‘It is most certainly true, that a prison pays no debts. … The debtor squanders, when in confinement, what ought to satisfy the creditor’ – Anon. An Inquiry into the Practice of Imprisonment for Debt (1773)
Debtors’ prisons were one of the most important methods of financial recovery for much of post-Norman English History. Civic authorities were first empowered to imprison merchants who failed (or were unwilling) to pay their debts in 1283. In 1352 this right was extended to private creditors. Particularly as the pace of commercial life exploded after the late sixteenth century, the prisons thrived with hundreds being built all over England and Wales as well as in Britain’s overseas colonies. The right of creditors to arrest those who had yet to pay them was maintained until 1869 though the court ordered imprisonment continued at least into the 1920s.
While many have pointed out the apparent foolishness of imprisoning those who cannot pay debts it was not technically the inability to pay which led to an arrest. As the decision and reason for imprisoning a debtor lay almost entirely with the creditor it was the failure of yet having paid a debt which led them to choose confinement. In the eighteenth century almost all goods were bought on credit (from daily bread to luxury goods) but these exchanges rarely involved a contract more formal than a handshake and a promise “to pay” eventually. Additionally, only on rare occasions was any form of collateral offered to support the bargain except for the debtor’s reputation (and by implication their personhood). As such, encouraging a customer to actually pay for what they had bought – particularly when they might prefer to use that money to support their business, clothe and feed their family, or simply blow it all in the local tavern – frequently proved problematic. Traders in this system viewed the coercive power of debt imprisonment without trial as an essential way of convincing customers and business contacts that yes, it was indeed time to pay up.
What is perhaps most interesting about the use of eighteenth century debtors’ prisons is that in most cases it appears to have led to repayment, reinforcing the suggestion that those arrested had failed to pay rather than being unable to. Payment wasn’t immediate but the majority were released by their creditors within six months having raised the money either through selling goods, calling in their own debts, taking new contracts, or working from within prison. Additionally, the majority of prisoners came from middle class backgrounds like the creditors who arrested them. While there were occasional day labourers and working people, few were lent enough money for their creditors to feel it worth their while arresting them. Delinquent watchmakers, alehousekeepers, and lawyers were much more likely to be haunting the country’s many jails.
More on the use of debt imprisonment in England can be read in my book Credit and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England: An Economic History of Debtors’ Prisons (2020) and I continue to blog on the topic on this site and elsewhere such as below: