Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Debtor's Prison

Gambling and debt were quite rampant in the 18th century. But no one really cared. That is, until they ended up in debtor's prison. Debtor's prison was like banking overdraw fees: you don't have any money left so we will charge you for it. One of the biggest debtor's prisons was Fleet Prison, and it was a money-making machine.

Prisons such as Fleet, worked differently than our contemporary prison. First of all, whole families would live there with their imprisoned head-of-the-household. They could also come and go as they long as they paid the turnkey. In fact, the prisoners had to pay for everything: food and lodging, to get out of shackles, etc. If you were lucky enough to be given living quarters with window-access to the street you could beg money from passers-by. Fleet even had a grille built in to a wall so it was easier for prisoners to beg. I'm sure Londoners knew to avoid going down Farrigdon Street to escape the pleas for alms. Like our modern-prisons, Fleet had an exercise yard called the racquet ground, so prisoners and their families could get some fresh air.

Although, more freedoms were allowed in these prisons compared to what we have today, debtor's prison was no holiday in the sun. The living conditions were sub par at best, the company was not always good, and staying there did not necessarily get you out of debt. As soon as prisoners were able to get released, their first stop was the gaming table. Stays in prison just taught debtors not to get caught next time!


  1. That overdrawn bank fee is SO spot on. I guess that's why debtor's prison always interested me. These folks had to pay for their linens and everything and could be there for years. It makes so little sense to me. I can't recall if the guards were paid or if they relied on the fees they charged. (Heather will know!)

    Plus they were on public display for the slummers, weren't they? Like being in a zoo. (Though I'm sure the insane or celebrated inmates got more of the gawking. But still....what a way to live.)

    Thanks for an extra fine post.

  2. Great post. I'm always learning something new & interesting when I visit. =)

  3. Oh My Gosh. The whole family was in prison! How horrible!

  4. i can only imagine the kinds of people that you could find in there...

  5. Usually whole families accompanied the guilty party because they had no other choice. They didn't have to be there, but the alternative may have been worse!
    I think the guards were paid but now I'm second guessing myself, so don't quote me! :)

    Glad you all liked the post! It was inspired by a comment on Harlot's Progress, so keep 'em coming!

  6. Apparently the practise of begging from the Fleet was known as 'angling for farthings' because you'd attach a piece of string to the cap or box you were using to collect alms and thrust it out of the window. A lovely post - thanks!