Everybody has money on their minds right now. We are in the depths of a cost of living crisis. However bad things may seem, they are arguably better now than they were in Britain during the 1800s… when you could be thrown in prison on an indefinite charge if you owed money to someone, or many people. That is the topic of today’s Well I Didn’t Know That! post.
To quickly recap the premise of this feature, the aim is to encourage reading in all ways. Whilst I talk about books a lot, there are plenty of other ways to learn. So far, I’ve featured news articles, websites, periodicals and a podcast. Here is a link back to this introductory post for more information.
Today’s Well I Didn’t Know That! feature post covers an article I read in April 2023’s edition of BBC History magazine. Whilst the topic of the post is about the misery many people suffered as a result of the debtor’s prison, the article also highlights that the British economy could not have thrived without it. If you want to read the article for yourself, it starts on page 36.
The British economy in the 1800’s
Much like today, the British economy relied heavily on credit in the 1800s. Rather than big institutions as is more familiar today, it was common to owe money to individual traders. How you were assessed for credit depended on your reputation and standing in society. Bizarrely, factors including attending church went a long way to bolstering your reputation, meaning you are more likely to be given credit. There were no such thing as credit scores based on your actual finances in those days!
However, if you fell afoul of your creditors, they could pay a small fee to arrange your arrest and incarceration in a debtor’s prison.
What Was a Debtor’s Prison?
There were many debtor’s prisons throughout Britain during the 18th and 19th century. They were places where individuals were held until such time as their financial matters are resolved (either by family or friends, or by working off the debt themselves).
The kicker in this arrangement is that being committed to the debtor’s prison wasn’t free. It was the responsibility of the imprisoned to pay for their commitment costs, as well as for their eventual release. It was also common for there to be better sides of prison than others. For an additional fee, you could upgrade to the better side, and have access to what we would consider basic items now, such as private space and bedding, in exchange for rent.
Depending on your situation, this could be beneficial or not. If you found yourself in the circumstance of having to work your way out of the debtor’s prison, then your profession may warrant the need for private space to work. If your family also joined you in debtor’s prison (because that was a thing – married women were not responsible for finances and could therefore not be legally imprisoned, yet frequently followed their husbands to stay together).
A shift in the way British people worked changed the system irrevocably. Whereas individuals were frequently tradesmen in their own right in the 18th century, there was a shift towards what is called wage labour by the 19th century. To you and me, that’s working for another and being paid as wage to do so… much as many of us do today. This increase in wage labour enabled people to pay cash for their goods rather than depend on credit. As a result, the need for credit dwindled; fewer individuals defaulted and debtor’s prisons fell out of use. In 1869, the law allowing indefinite imprisonment for owing money to another, without trial, was overturned.
Debtor’s prisons shattered the lives of many families. Even famous authors such as Charles Dickens had their lives overturned by this scenario. As many as 1 in 25 men were at risk of being thrown in debtor’s prison at some point. The impact of this practice can be seen in works of Charles Dickens literature; in his novel, Little Dorrit, a character is waiting for release from debtor’s prison. In David Copperfield, a character mirrors Charles’s own life in having to leave school to support his family. His father was imprisoned for three months in 1824.
So, that is all for today’s Well I Didn’t Know That! feature post.
Did you know about the existence of debtor’s prisons?