Regency Debt and Prisons

First, let me wish all those of you in American a Happy Thanksgiving Day, though it is well nigh over.

I decided to continue on with this item because it caught my interest. The issue of imprisonment for debt seems so archaic, but it was long after the Regency era that it ceased. And debtors were considered just as much criminals as thieves who were also imprisoned in these places. In other words, owing someone money was like stealing. Remembering back to my parents attitude, debt was much feared, and it probably stemmed back to those times which after all were not so very long ago.

I talked about the Fleet in the last blog. In addition there were two other prisons primarily used for debt in London. One of these was the King's Bench in Borough High Street, Southwark. King's Bench was a much hated prison and had a reputation for being filthy and overcrowded that often resulted in outbreaks of typhus fever. As far as I can tell, all the prisons were the same. This first picture is of the main entrance. This picture of the inside looks little different to the picture of the inside of the Fleet, a mix of people wandering around, some games being played. I believe that the wall was noticeable high, however. Again, treatment very much depended on how much you could pay the jailor. Debtors had to provide their own bedding, food and drink. Those who could afford it purchased 'Liberty of the Rules' allowing them to live within three square miles of the prison. In these times the position of Prison Warder was purchased and the warders then earned their livings by charging their prisoners and therefore the less you paid the worse your lot.

This prison rebuilt after 1758 occupied a site of about 4 acres and contained at least 300 rooms, but was still very crowded in Regency times.There was a long range of four stories with a central chapel. The front rooms facing the yard were better those those around the back and there were also 8 superior rooms. Decent accommodations were much more expensive here than they were in Fleet Prison. Besides the rooms there was a kitchen, coffee house, stalls and public houses. The yard provided 3 pumps and racket grounds & fives courts. Women and children were excluded after ten o'clock.
Here is a description written by an inmate to his lawyer in 1817, one William Hone:
I have met with very little accomodation too at this place -- so that, though I am in general pretty adaptable to circumstances, no great comfort has been my portion.The prison is full and decent rooms not to be had but at an enormous price. I think I shall have one tomorrow which though dark & not very airy will be better than wandering in the area or idling in the coffee room without the power of writing in it. Like the Seer of old I shall get a table & a chair & a stool (& a few books withal)
While Mr. Hone was in trouble for popular liturgical parodies in this time of unrest, a time at which the Home Office was very concerned about public unrest, he also ended up a bankrupt. But I thought a personal if brief description of this prison brought it to life.

Well, I delved into the Kings Bench Prison in far greater depth than I intended so will leave the last Prison until next time, as I have found an interesting story about that one too.

Until next time, Happy Rambles.

Prisons in the Regency

I know this sounds like a bit of a gloomy topic, but it is rather fascinating, especially if one of our characters gets into a bit of trouble.

Law, Crime, Punishment and Policing were very different in the Regency than they are today. Often in our books our not so bad characters can end up in the hoosegow for debt. In other words if you could not pay your debts the merchant to whom you owed money could request the court to throw you in prison until you paid them. To us that seems a little bit of an oxymoron, since it would be difficult to earn money while in prison. The idea was, I think, that your family and friends would raise money to get you out, however often a man's whole family would be incarcerated with him, as per the next picture, because they would have no money and nowhere else to live.

There were several debtors prisons in and around London and of course many others across the country.

The Fleet was one of the oldest, a debtors' prison as early as 1290, situated on the east side of Farringdon Street, on the east side of Fleet market and derives its name from the Fleet stream, which flowed into the River Thames. The prison was burnt by the rioters in 1780, but was immediately rebuilt on the old plan.

One visitor describes it this way: "The court into which you enter is the whole length of the building which is about 90 feet. Passing through the lobby, you enter the inner court, where the prisoners entertain themselves with tennis fives, and other amusements, as represented in the print. The keeper is called the warden of the Fleet, and his fees from the prisoners for turning the key, for chamber rent, etc. and this amounts to a considerable sum."

Apparently an additional fee was charged not to put the prisoner in chains; the most unfortunate souls were put in the cellars, called sarcastically by the prisoners, "Bartholomew Fair", subterranean dungeons where perishing from illness was almost guaranteed. The conditions were deplorable; when ill-treated prisoners died, their deaths were chalked up to "jail-fever.". While there were improvements to this prison early in the nineteenth century, it was really horrible.

So, make sure you pay your credit cards.

We look at another prison next time. Until then, happy rambles.