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Insolvency Law

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16 MAR 2010

HOBS: Provincial Debtors' Prisons: Bury St Edmunds

The debtors’ prison at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk,[1] receives particularly close treatment in Pitt’s treatise[2] and Neild also reserves eight pages to its elucidation. Neild’s depiction of the gaol relates, however, to that of a new structure situated at the end of the South Gate, being nearly a mile from the town’s centre. Debtors in the prison had an allowance in 1805 providing a daily ration of a pound and a half of bread and a weekly ration of one pound of cheese and Neild suggests that their living conditions were relatively comfortable,[3] certainly compared with the seventeenth century exposition given by Pitt of conditions in the gaol around 1691. Indeed, Neild concludes his exposition of the Bury St. Edmunds gaol in 1805 by stating, “This Goal (sic) does honour to the County, and is superior to most in this Kingdom.” This is in stark contrast to the picture painted by Pitt in the late seventeenth century. There we find a prison where criminals lodged together with debtors[4], where the turnkeys ravished the debtors’ wives and daughters[5] and where thumbs screws and iron pothooks were frequently visited upon the hapless insolvent[6]. As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, some of this treatment by contemporary standards was not judged to be abnormal for the period.
However, Bury St. Edmunds, accordingly to Pitt, did stand out as being a prison where inequities were prevalent. The first regional debtor correspondent to respond to Pitt’s request for accounts of conditions in regional debtors’ prisons was from John Suckerman in a letter dated 24 of October 1690. When recounting the Keeper’s cruelty to debtors in Bury St’Edmunds gaol Suckerman could not do so, ‘without tears in my Eyes.’[7] On 4 October 1690, Pitt received a letter Robin Gutter and Samuel Welles, both inmates in Debtor’s-Hall in the Toll Booth in Cambridge[8]. There were four other inmates in Debtors’ Hall at the time the letter was written.

[1] See: Hervey, F. Suffolk in the XVIIth Century – The Breviary of Suffolk by Rober Reyce, 1618 now published for the first time from the MS in the British Museum. John Murray, London, 1902. See also: Steward, AV (Ed). Suffolk Bibliography. Suffolk Records Society, Volume XX. 1979, page 88 for a list of penal administration references.
[2] Three of the 12 copper plates in the text depict debtor treatment in Bury St’ Edmunds alone and Pitt received five letters from the imprisoned debtors at Bury St’ Edmunds.
[3] Neild, J, Account of Persons confined for Debt, in the various prisons of England and Wales, ... with their provisionary allowance during confinement; as reported to the Society for the discharge and relief of small Debtors. London, 1800, at pages 114 to120. Neild notes that, “all poor debtors have the County allowance; and from the 5th of November to Lady-day, the debtors receive four bushels of coals per week, and forty shillings every Christmas from the feoffment.” (page 117).
[4] See the picture to the right of this blog entry.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Pitt, M. The Crye of the Oppressed being a true and tragical account of the unparrallel’d Sufferings of Multitudes of poor Imprisoned Debtors, in most of the Goa’s in England, under the Tyranny of the Goalers, and other Oppressors, lately discovered upon the occasion of this present Act of Grace For the Relief of poor Prisoners fr Debt, or Damages; some of them being not only Iron’d and lodg’d with Hogs, Felons , and Condemn’d Persons, but have had their bones broken; others poisoned and starved to death; others denied the common blessings of nature, as Water to drink, or straw to lodge on; others their Wives and Daughters attempted to by ravish’d; with other Barborous cruelties, not to be parallel’d in any History or Nation: All which is made out by undeniable evidence. Together with the case of the publisher. London, Printed for Moses Pitt and sold by Booksellers of London and Westminster, 1691, at page 56.
[8] Pitt page 20.

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