Imprisonment for Debt and Female Financial Failure in the long Eighteenth Century

Change log

This thesis investigates the economic accountability of women in eighteenth-century England, particularly within the informal credit market. In the past few decades, substantial scholarship has demonstrated women’s regular involvement in active income generation. At all levels of the economy – from servants to investors – and stages of working life – from training to retirement – women have been shown to have engaged in a far more active manner than was previously appreciated. Older narratives of working opportunities being eroded by capitalism or the industrial revolution have been significantly challenged and the continuity of women’s work largely demonstrated, with women whether single or married trading under their name, sometimes with phenomenal success. However, there have been no detailed examinations of how, or even if, women were held accountable when their business was not successful and failed. This thesis examines the extents to which women were held accountable for their own failures, asserting that, to understand female business in this period, it is not merely enough to prove its continued existence. The degree and extent of female business independence must also be determined.

To achieve this it focusses on the often underappreciated role that debtors’ prisons played in the eighteenth-century economy. Bankruptcy, traditionally the mechanism used to examine failure and insolvency, was artificially restricted during the period to those owing over £100 and who were defined as a ‘trader’ by a 1571 statute. Therefore principally only the wealthier merchants went bankrupt. Debtors’ prisons were much less restrictive. Anyone owing over £2 could be imprisoned indefinitely under the common law on a pre-trial basis with little guarantee that trial would ever take place. However, debtors’ prisons have received little scholarly attention due to untested assumptions about their lack of effectiveness. That which exists has focussed upon conditions or reform and has broadly ignored or denied the presence of women as prisoners. Due to the lack of existing knowledge about how prisons functioned, the thesis is split into complementary sections, first exploring the prisons themselves before turning to female prisoners within them.

Part One reconfigures eighteenth-century debt imprisonment from a medieval hangover to a fundamental element of the credit market. It posits that, as contemporary sales credit was substantially based upon individual reputation rather than entirely upon financial reality, it was logical that prisons focussed on the confinement of the body behind reputation to enforce informal contracts. The first chapter illustrates the hypothesis fully, demonstrating the importance of debtors’ prisons over bankruptcy and court process. It also examines the hierarchy of prisons. Superior court prisons like the King’s Bench and the Fleet, catering generally for higher status prisoners, functioned as an obstacle to easy debt recovery by allowing debtors to live outside in relative liberty. Much of the existing scholarship has been skewed by focus on these prisons. The second chapter tests the hypothesis through a quantitative analysis of the surviving commitment registers of the Wood-Street Compter, later the Giltspur-Street Compter (1741-1815). Analysing commitment rates, monthly population estimates, release mechanisms, length of commitment, debt averages, as well as providing indicative data on debtor occupational structure the chapter demonstrates that prisons underlined the credit system by providing the trading classes with a speedy debt recovery mechanism. Chapter Three acts as a caveat to this evidence by demonstrating the fragility of the system of debt imprisonment and that simple reforms, intended to improve the rights of the debtor, undermined the purpose of debtors’ prisons by diluting indefinite confinement. It focusses on the 1761 Compulsive Clause and the schedules of debtor estates produced out of it, as well as the qualitative change to imprisonment by the imposition of term limits on those owing less than £2 from 1786.

Part Two uses the knowledge that debt imprisonment was an effective and normal facet of the credit market which processed both those who had temporarily found themselves unable to meet the demands of creditors and those whose economic ventures had failed absolutely. Chapter Four, acknowledging that the very existence of female prisoners for debt has been readily denied, investigates how the women within came to be confined through prison records along with memoirs and other personal documents relating to prisoners. It questions the absolute nature of coverture, demonstrating that some married women were confined for their debts, contrary to the letter of the law. It also argues that simply because the majority of female prisoners were either spinsters or widows, this did not mean their confinement was the result of anyone other than themselves. We should see female imprisonment as an action of their being held accountable. Finally, Chapter Five examines the quantitative reality of female debt imprisonment to measure accountability over time. It shows that the female experience was not substantially different from that of men within debtors’ prisons, though some degree of separation appeared after 1780 particularly in the size of the debt for which they were committed. Finally, by combining the compter data on female percentages with that of other prisons in London with limited surviving material and with nationwide data drawn from the Insolvency Acts it is able to suggest the female accountability over the long eighteenth century. It posits that female accountability and therefore economic independence, declined across the period as the number of permanent spinsters and the age at first marriage fell. While it does not suggest that the rate of business run by women declined in this period, that more of them were covered by male ownership suggests a significant qualitative change in female business’s societal place.

Erickson, Amy
Debt, Prisons, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, England, Women's History, Financial History, Credit, Accountability, Debtors' Prison
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge