Squeezing blood from a stone: eighteenth century debtors’ prisons worked

by Alex Wakelam (University of Cambridge)


Woodstreet Compter.jpg
Wood Street Compter, 1793. Image extracted from page 384 of volume 1 of Old and New London, Illustrated, by Walter Thornbury. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

While it is often assumed that debtors’ prisons were illogical and ineffective, my research demonstrates that they were extremely economically effective for creditors though they could ruin the lives of debtors.

The debtors’ prison is a frequent historical bogeyman, a Dickensian symptom of the illogical cruelty of the past that disappeared with enlightened capitalism. As imprisoning someone who could not afford to pay their debts, keeping them away from work and family, seems futile it is assumed creditors were doing so to satisfy petty revenge.

But they were a feature of most of English history from 1283, and though their power was curbed in 1869, there were still debtors imprisoned in the 1920s. The reason they persisted, as my research shows, is because, for creditors, they worked well.

The majority of imprisoned debtors in the eighteenth century were released relatively quickly having paid their creditors. This revelation is timely when events in America demonstrate how easily these prisons can return.

As today, most eighteenth century purchases were done on credit due to the delay in wages, limited supply of coinage, and cultural preferences for buying goods on credit. But credit was based on a range of factors including personal reputation, social rank and moral status. Informal oral contracts could frequently be made with little sense of an individual’s actual financial status, particularly if they were a gentleman or aristocrat. As contracts were not based on goods and court processes were slow, it was difficult to seize property to recover debts when creditors required money.

Creditors were able to imprison debtors without trial in this period until they paid what they owed or died. The registers of a London Debtors’ Prison, the Woodstreet Compter (1741-1815), reveal that creditors had good reasons to do so. Most of the 10,156 debtors contained in the registers left prison relatively quickly – 91% were released in under a year while almost a third were released in less than 100 days.

In addition, 84% were ‘discharged’ by their creditors, indicating that either the prisoner had paid their debts or a new contract had been agreed. Imprisonment forced debtors to find a way to pay or at least to renegotiate with creditors.

Prisoners were not the poor, but usually middle class people in small amounts of debt. One of the largest groups was made up of shopkeepers (about 20% of prisoners) though male and female prisoners came from across society with gentlemen, cheesemongers, lawyers, wigmakers and professors rubbing shoulders.

Most used their time to coordinate the selling of goods to raise money, or borrowed yet more from family and friends. Many others called in their own debts by having their debtors imprisoned as well.

As prisons were relatively open, some debtors worked off their debts. John Grano, a trumpeter who worked for Handel, imprisoned in the 1720s, taught music lessons from his cell. Others sold liquor or food to fellow prisoners or continued as best they could at their trade in the prison yard. Those with a literary mind, such as Daniel Defoe, wrote their way out.

Though credit works on different terms today, that coercive imprisonment is effective at securing repayment remains true. There have been a number of US states operating what amount to debtors’ prisons in recent years where the poor, fined by the state usually for traffic violations, are held until they pay what they owe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions even retracted an Obama era memo in December aimed at abolishing the practice. While eighteenth century prisons worked effectively for creditors, they could ruin the lives of debtors who were forced to sell anything they could to pay their dues and escape the unsanitary hole in which they were being kept without trial. Assuming that they did not work and therefore won’t return is shown by my research to be false.


Sources of market disintegration in eighteenth century China

by Markus Eberhardt (School of Economics, University of Nottingham)


Altar Frontal (China (for European market)), 18th century. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

One of the seminal questions in world and Chinese economic history is why China, in contrast to Western Europe, failed to industrialise during the nineteenth century, leading to differential development paths commonly referred to as the Great Divergence.

Social and economic historians have tried to tackle this issue by identifying potential sufficient conditions for industrialisation. One candidate condition has been the degree of national or sub-national market integration within Asia and Western Europe on the eve of industrialisation. A long-held view maintained that Western Europe was characterised by integrated markets, which had taken root because of state-supported property rights institutions. China, in contrast, despite her unified political system, was said to have failed in creating a unified national market.

This hypothesis of differential levels of market integration has been seriously challenged more recently, most notably in the work of Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), who concluded that factor and product markets in late eighteenth century Western Europe were ‘probably further from perfect competition… than those in most of China.’

Shiue and Keller (2007) carried out a formal cross-continental comparison of rice markets in Southern China during 1742-95 with wheat markets in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, providing the first econometric evidence for Pomeranz’s conjecture of equivalent goods market integration in both regions.

Much of the subsequent research has adopted the conclusion that ‘in the late eighteenth century… long-distance [grain] trade in China operated more efficiently than in [continental] Europe’ (von Glahn, 2016).

In related work (Bernhofen et al, 2016) we use a number of alternative empirical methods (including the cointegration analysis employed by Shiue and Keller, 2007) along with higher frequency grain price data for China and Western Europe to provide consistent evidence for a substantial decline in Chinese market integration over time: by 1800, China’s grain markets were fragmented, including in the economically most advanced regions (Jiangnan).

Our empirical implementations account for general equilibrium effects widely acknowledged to have distorted earlier investigations of market integration using price data.

In our new study, to be to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, I and my co-authors (Daniel Bernhofen, Jianan Li and Stephen Morgan) bring together arguments for such an early decline in Qing grain market integration from the rich economic and social history literatures.

We use our estimates for market integration to test empirically one prominent factor: we investigate the role played by the unprecedented population growth and internal migration during the eighteenth century and its economic, social, political and environmental implications.

In studies of early modern Europe, population growth was found to go hand in hand with market expansion and increased integration. In China, population growth and its uneven regional distribution not merely limited the surplus grain available for trade, but exerted severe pressure on an inherently instable water control system pitting farming against flood prevention and the waterway transportation of goods, creating increasingly insurmountable challenges for water engineering.

In combination with rigid fiscal rules, population growth constrained the ability of the Qing state to govern this vast empire effectively. Local officials reacted to rising population pressure with ‘grain protectionism’, leading to temporary political borders, which further hampered the functioning of the market.

The narrative we develop is not that of a standard ‘Malthusian trap’, where an acceleration in pre-modern agricultural growth is followed by population growth that dilutes per capita resources and thus keeps the economy in a ‘low level equilibrium trap’. Instead, we describe an escalating ‘span of control’ problem, increasing the pressure on a small bureaucracy in the periphery as well as the core of the empire, caused by a rigid and underfunded state apparatus.


Figure: Population density growth and internal migration

Conf China Map



We plot the annualised population density growth rates (in percent) between 1776 and 1820 for 211 prefectures. Black solid lines indicate provincial borders. The dashed line marks the early eighteenth century ‘frontier’ between developed and developing areas of Qing China (Myers and Wang, 2002). Arrows indicate major internal migration flows (stylised representation) during the eighteenth century. The two Northern migration strands actually extend beyond Qing China proper into Xinjiang and Manchuria.



Population density data are taken from Cao (2000), information on eighteenth century migration flows from Eliott (2009: 147), Entenmann (1980: 41f), Ho (1959: 139ff), Lee and Feng (1999: 118), Mann-Jones and Kuhn (1978: 109f, 132), Myers and Wang (2002: Map 9), shapefiles from CHGIS version 6 (2016).

Censuses and the work women really did: case studies 1720-1920

by Amy Erickson (University of Cambridge)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Women workers Woolwich Arsenal 1917 London. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Museums and popular histories typically repeat the idea that women only entered the labour market in large numbers in the twentieth century. In fact, in the first British census that can be analysed for paid employment in 1851, more than 40% of all women reported regular paid employment. They contributed nearly one third of all hours in the paid economy. Participation rates were probably even higher before mechanisation.

The occupational structure of men in the past has recently been explored as a key to understanding economic development. But national data on women’s work are not available until the advent of censuses in the nineteenth century.

A set of studies to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference makes uses of censuses and alternative sources – focusing on eighteenth century Europe, nineteenth century textiles, the 1881 British census and twentieth century Canada – to demonstrate the formative role of women’s labour contribution to economic development.

Professor Carmen Sarasua (Autonomous University of Barcelona) points out that the most important feature of the European economy in this period was the rapid spread of manufacturing, organised on a domestic basis in the eighteenth century and in mechanised factories in the nineteenth century. Domestic industry did not always evolve into industrialisation in the same places, but long before the advent of factories, manufacturing relied on the labour of women and children.

Most analyses of occupational change as an indicator of economic development consider only male occupations, which show heavily agricultural societies, but when women’s occupations from tax registers are included, manufacturing is roughly equivalent to agriculture by the later eighteenth century. This means that manufacturing was important long before we currently think it was, and long before the application of new technology.

For centuries, textiles were the largest manufacturing industry in most European countries, and women dominated that labour force. Professor Manuela Martini (University of Lyon) focuses on Lyon, which was the most important silk-producing city in Europe in the nineteenth century.

She compares population censuses, which often omitted details of women’s occupations, with trade union and administrative sources on silk workers’ wages, to understand the occupational distinctions at the level of tasks performed by men and women, establishing a vocabulary with which to compare textile trades internationally.

Dr Xuesheng You (Cambridge University) presents the first detailed evidence from British censuses showing there were wide geographical variations in female labour force participation rates and in the sectoral distribution of female employment between agriculture, manufacturing and services. Factors such as age, marital status and number of children were relatively insignificant compared with the demands of the local economy. In other words, if work was available, women took it, regardless of their household situation.

Dr Keith Sugden (Cambridge University) and Professor Roger Sugden (University of British Columbia) find that in a fast-growing agricultural area of Western Canada, early twentieth century censuses recorded almost no married women’s employment, while for men and single women, they provided the occupation, wage, and number of weeks worked in the previous year.

But in an area dominated by small family farms many if not all married women would have been employed in market-oriented production on the farm even if they did not receive a wage. Sugden and Sugden propose ways to quantify the value of married women’s ‘hidden’ economic contribution.

So censuses may or may not record women’s work consistently. But other sources show high levels of labour force participation and demand-led employment, placing women’s labour at the centre of the growth of manufacturing and services that characterises economic development.

Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England

by Shelley Tickell (University of Hertfordshire)

Shoplifting in Eighteenth Century England is published by Boydell and Brewer Press. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 5th March 2019. See below for details.



What would you choose to buy from a store if money was no object? This was a decision eighteenth-century shoplifters made in practice on a daily basis. We might assume them to be attracted to the novel range of silk and cotton textiles, foodstuffs, ornaments and silver toys that swelled the consumer market in this period. Demand for these home-manufactured and imported goods was instrumental in a trebling of the number of English shops in the first half of the century, escalating the scale of the crime. However, as my book Shoplifting in Eighteenth-Century England shows, this was not the case. Consumer desire was by no means shoplifters’ major imperative.


Shoplifting occurred nationwide, but it was disproportionately a problem in the capital. A study of a sample of the many thousand prosecutions at the Old Bailey reveals that linen drapers, shoemakers, hosiers and haberdashers were the retailers most at risk. Over 70% of goods stolen, particularly by women, were fabrics, clothing and trimmings. Though thefts were highly gendered, men also stole these items far more frequently than the food, jewellery and household goods which were largely their preserve. Yet items stolen were not predominantly the most fashionable. Traditional linens, wool stockings and leather shoes were stolen as often as silk handkerchiefs and cotton prints. A prolific shoplifter who confessed to her crime found it profitable over the course of a year to steal printed linen at four times the quantity of the more stylish cotton, lawns, muslins and silk handkerchiefs she also took.

The shoplifters prosecuted were overwhelmingly from plebeian backgrounds. Professional gangs did exist but for most the crime was a source of occasional subsistence. Shop thieves came from the most economically vulnerable sections of society, seeking to weather an urban economy of low-paid and insecure work; many were older women or children. As the stolen goods needed to be convertible to income they were very commonly sold. So thieves sought the items which were most negotiable, those in greatest demand and least conspicuous in the working neighbourhoods in which they lived. A parcel of handkerchiefs stolen unopened was found to be ‘too fine’ for a market seller to whom it was offered. While there was undoubtedly an eagerness for popular fashion, the call for neat and appropriate daily dress in working communities was as insistent. We find the frequency with which shoplifters stole different types of clothing is consistent with a market demand governed in great part by the customary turnover of clothing items in labouring families. Handkerchiefs, shoes and stockings which were replaced regularly, were stolen frequently, jackets and stays more rarely.

There were also some practical reasons why shoplifters avoided the high-fashion goods that elite shops sold. To enter the emporiums in which the rich shopped added a heightened degree of risk. Testimony confirms shopkeepers’ deep reluctance to suspect any customer who appeared genteel, but in elite areas such as London’s West End retailers had an established clientele and a new face was likely to draw attention. A few shoplifters did try their luck by making an effort to dress the part and their polite fashioning and acting skill, witnesses recall, was often masterly. But an accidental slip into plebeian manners was easily done. Three customers dressed in silk drew the suspicion of a Covent Garden shopwoman as, she explained, ‘they called me my dear in a very sociable way’.

In general, shoplifters restricted themselves to plundering smaller local shops that were convenient to reconnoitre and with fewer staff to mount surveillance. A mapping of incidents in London shows this bias towards poorer and less fashionable districts, particularly to the north and east of the capital. The research found that within these working neighbourhoods shoplifted goods played an instrumental role in the intricate social and economic relations that underpinned community survival. Local associates earned money selling or pawning goods for the thief, their reputation serving to give the transaction an added credibility. Neighbours were informally sold stolen items on favourable terms, often including an element of exchange and credit, which acted to secure their complicity and future loyalty. We also come across shoplifted goods that were pawned to fund the shoplifter’s ongoing business or even recommodified as stock for their small retail concerns. Need rather than consumption fever motivated these shoplifters. Shoplifting was a capital crime throughout the century but this seems to have been of very little moment when the dictate was economic survival. As a shoplifter bluntly testified of her friend in 1747, ‘The prisoner came to me to go with her to the prosecutor’s shop, she wanted money, and she should go to the gallows’.


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB500 online at https://boydellandbrewer.com/shoplifting-in-eighteenth-century-england-pb.htmlOffer ends 5th March 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk


To contact Shelly Tickell: s.g.tickell@herts.ac.uk