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A heavy price; Chris Upton examines the cruel punishment meted out to debtors 200 years ago.

Byline: Chris Upton

If you're a fan of costume dramas, you will doubtless remember Little Dorrit a couple of years ago. In it Charles Dickens tells the ultimately heart-warming story of Little Dorrit herself and her stubbornly proud father holed up in the Marshalsea.

The Marshalsea was a debtors' prison, where the insolvent debtor paid the price for his pecuniary embarrassment with his liberty. It was a milder regime than the average Victorian prison - there was no hard labour, no restrictions on visitors and no close confinement - but was it the right way, asks Dickens, to punish debtors? The writer's own father was confined there.

Money worries were not limited to London, of course. In 1752 an Act of Parliament was passed "to establish an easy and expeditious method of ending disputes and securing property" in Birmingham.

The idea was to solve, quickly and cheaply, arguments over who owed what to whom. Today we would call it the small claims court; in the 18th Century it was known as the Court of Requests.

The Court of Requests did not require the full (and costly) weight of county justice. A team of amateur commissioners - typically men of business - could do the adjudicating, without the need for a vast army of clerks behind them. William Hutton, the Birmingham historian and bookseller, was one such commissioner, and wrote a little book on his time there, detailing some of the odder cases that came before him.

Hutton did not have far to walk to take up his seat. In Hutton's day the Court of Requests occupied a house in a little courtyard behind High Street, where the Pavilions shopping centre stands today. Formerly it had been Benjamin Mansell's house and tea warehouse.

The one engraving we have of the place shows a neat Georgian house, pleasantly tucked away in its own court. But, as was often the case with the Georgians, outward elegance hid inward squalor. Below the court there lay a prison.

Although the Court of Requests was authorised to act in the case of relatively small claims - initially a maximum of pounds 2, later increased to pounds 5 - it still had the power to incarcerate debtors who were unable or unwilling to pay. At the conclusion of each case, according to one account in 1838, the creditor had the option of obtaining satisfaction either from the debtor's goods or his person. "Body or goods," cried out the officer, "and to this disgraceful hole are the poor, and often friendless debtors, consigned, as the brutal phrase is, 'that it may be had out of their bones.''" The phrase "taken down" has entered the English language to describe a prison beginning his sentence. In many cases this was because courtrooms were upstairs and prisons on the ground floor. The term was applicable at the Court of Requests too, but in this case "down" meant below ground. The debtors' prison occupied the former cellars and kitchen of Mr Mansell's old home.

By the 1820s the conditions below the Court of Requests were causing a scandal, and a report on the place, made after a visit in August 1827, makes less than pleasant reading.

There were two classes of prisoner down in these cellars. One group paid two shillings a week (10p) for an "apartment" to sit in and a yard to walk in (18 feet square), and a further two shillings for a bed he had to share with two others.

On the day of the visit 19 men were sleeping in a room only four paces square. There was a window, but (as is usual in the 19th century) no one wanted it open. The cracks in the glazing were ventilation enough.

The "common side" prisoners paid nothing, but were obliged to sleep on straw with no covering. The straw was changed infrequently and was said to be infested with vermin. There were no chamber-pots, other than the "necessary" (as it was euphemistically called) in the yard. The only chance the common prisoners had of seeing their families was through the grated windows of the cell door.

All the rooms were lit by candles, but the lack of candlesticks meant that the prisoners were obliged to stick their candles to the wall by melting the wax. Given the presence of the straw it's a wonder they survived the night.

Faced with criticism as vehement as this, the authorities squirmed and looked for excuses.

Firstly, they blamed the recent Insolvent Debtors Act which had introduced many more prisoners than the court traditionally handled. Then they said they had been looking for new premises for some time, but had not yet found any. They also pointed out that a number of the inmates were perfectly able to pay their debts, but had chosen to serve time instead. Lastly, it was not as if the debtors were locked away forever as the maximum sentence was only 100 days.

What made the system all the more absurd was that the debtors were not allowed to work in the prison in order to pay off their debts. As a result, the common prisoners could only pay for their food and water by means of poor relief, and therefore added to the rates.

At one point in the 1830s the overseers of the poor (during one of their economy drives) attempted to stop payments altogether, and for a time the debtors literally starved, until the magistrates intervened to force the parish to maintain them.

Only in 1860, partly due to Charles Dickens' novels, was imprisonment for debt abolished and Birmingham's modest little Marshalsea finally consigned to history.

CAPTION(S):

A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth depicts Tom Rakewell locked up in Fleet debtor's prison in London
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 13, 2010
Words:956
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