The Regency population viewed crime differently than we do today. London newspapers didn’t report robberies or burglaries, just the occasional “lost” item. There was no public police force, although you could hire someone to recover said lost items. People did occasionally go to prison for a variety of reasons. However, most people in prison were there for debt—around 10,000 people per year. Those who committed more serious crimes would have been punished in other ways, such as being executed, sent to Australia, or forced into military service.
Studying the history of debtor’s prison has helped me sympathize more with some of Jane Austen’s characters. I understand better why Willoughby would abandon Marianne to marry a wealthy heiress, and I also have a new appreciation for Mrs. Bennet’s anxieties about money. On the other hand, I’m all the more disgusted with Sir Walter Elliott’s excesses. He really is putting his family in extreme danger. After all, women and children often went to debtor’s prison too.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prisons were a for-profit enterprise. The warden would run them as a type of investment, almost the way entrepreneurs lease office-space now. Unlike modern entrepreneurs, however, many wardens were cruel in their treatment of the prisoners and liable to extortion. Prisoners had to pay fees or garnishes to have a room in the prison, to receive food, and to be unlocked from their rooms. At some prisons, debtors could pay a fee to live outside the prison as long as they stayed within a restricted area.
The Marshalsea prison, one of the largest in London, was divided into two parts—the master’s side for the wealthier prisoners, who were able to pay, and the common side for the poorer prisoners. While the richer debtors could access shops and were allowed out to work during the day, the poorer half were crammed into rooms so crowded there wasn’t room to lie down.
Poorer prisoners frequently died of typhus or starvation. Since they could not get outside to work, their only hope of release was from charitable donations. In 1827, 414 out of the Marshalsea’s 630 debtors were there for debts under £20, so I think it’s fair to say that the majority of debtors in the prison were not wealthy. At the Fleet Prison, the poorer prisoners would often extend their hands through a grate near the street, begging for alms to pay both their fees and their debts.
In order to keep prisoners in line, jailers used torture devices that included the treadmill (yes, its original purpose was torture), skullcaps, and thumbscrews. In one prison, jailers often punished prisoners by putting them in a room filled with human waste and cadavers.
Prisoners often brought their wives and children to live with them, and other family members frequently came to visit—usually for a fee. Charles Dickens was one of the most famous visitors to a debtor’s prison. During his youth, his father went to prison for a debt of £40 and 10 shillings to a baker. His mother and younger siblings also lived in the prison. Charles would often join them for breakfast and dinner. Though the imprisonment lasted only three months, the family remained destitute for years afterward.
Parliamentary officials discussed prison reform off-and-on through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1860’s that debtor’s prisons were closed permanently.
Now to introduce you to my latest story, which has something to do with crime. A couple years ago, my seven-year-old son asked for a story for Christmas. I wrote him a short story called, “The Christmas Thief”. This year, I have published it for my readers to enjoy. Here is the back cover copy:
Though Jackson would never steal on purpose, his dad tricks him into taking packages from doorsteps. People leave the boxes out all the time, and it’s easy enough for his dad to sell what’s inside. They bring in enough money from the sales that Jackson can get fast food whenever he wants. Then one day, Jackson discovers something inside a package that he doesn’t want to sell. His efforts to understand his new treasure will forever change his life.
Meant to be enjoyed by all ages, this short Christmas story will steal your heart and remind you of the reason behind the season.
You can find it at Amazon.com.