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Insolvency Law

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16 FEB 2011

Charles Dickens: The Genesis of Debtors' Prison Abolition?

In the introduction to his 1949 text 'The Law Relating to Bankruptcy, Deeds of Arrangement, Receiverships and Trusteeships' (Textbooks Ltd, London), Mr O Griffiths, a barrister, opined, "In many of his novels Dickens has pictured the sufferings of prisoners in the Fleet and the Marshalsea Prisons, and the abandonment of that harsh system was to a great extent due to his work." Is this contention correct? Did the writing of Mr Charles Dickens (1812-1870 - pictured) cause the Legislature to introduce the 1869 Debtors Act, which had the effect of making bankruptcy available to all types of debtor, not just traders, thereby abolishing imprisonment for debt. The statute noted:

"An Act for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt, for the punishment of fraudulent debtors, and for other purposes (Debtors Act 1869), (c. 62), Part 1 - Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt, "4.  With the exceptions herein-after mentioned, no person shall, after the commencement of this Act, be arrested or imprisoned for making default in payment of a sum of money…that no person shall be imprisoned in any case excepted from the operation of this section for a longer period than one year…"

Let us briefly examine the works of Dickens to see where debt and imprisonment is mentioned, before examining Griffiths' contention. First, it is perhaps interesting to note that Dickens’ father was famously a debtor prisoner in the Marshalsea until he managed to obtain his release after obtaining a large inheritance (see further: Easson, A. Dickens and the Marshalsea. University of Oxford Press, Oxford, 1967). This fact may have influenced Dickens' depiction of debtors and debtors’ prisons as he mentions the subject in at least four of his novels. Little Dorrit (published originally between 1855 and 1857) features William Dorrit who is imprisoned as a debtor in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. Dombey & Son (first published in monthly parts between October 1846 and April 1848) features debt discussion. In David Copperfield (first published as a novel in 1850), Wilkins Micawber was sent to the King's Bench Prison and in The Pickwick Papers (the novel was published in 19 issues over 20 months during 1836 and 1837), Mr Pickwick was imprisoned in the Fleet.

The dates of publication and themes could lend strength to Griffiths' contention, but he is probably wrong because of one important fact. The call for the amelioration of the insolvent imprisoned debtor started 250 years earlier during the interregnum. Dickens' work may have influenced the passage of the 1869 statute, but to account Dickens as the first to point out ineffectiveness of debtors' prisons is a mistake. In fairness to Griffiths this is not what he actually suggests. In summary, calls for the abolition of the debtors' prisons were loud and strong whilst Dickens was a mere glint in his debtor father's eye.

So Dickens' work may have influenced the legislature leading up to the 1869 statute, but what of these other 19th century writers who discuss debt in their novels, e.g:

  • Eliot, G. The Mill on the Floss
  • Gaskell, E. North & South.
  • Thackeray, WM. The Newcomers.
  • Trollope, A. The Way We Live Now 
  • Trollope, A Framley Parsonage.

As Weiss explains (Weiss, B. The Hell of the English: Bankruptcy and the Victorian Novel. Bicknell University Press. 1986) their work also acted on the popular consciousness.

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