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.


Institutional choice in the governance of the early Atlantic sugar trade: diasporas, markets and courts

by Daniel Strum (University of São Paulo)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available for EHS members here.


Strum Pic
Figure 1. Cartographic chart of the Atlantic Ocean (c. 1600). Source: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Florence, Italy. Port. 27.  By kind permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivitá Culturali della Repubblica Italiana.
Reproduction of this image by any means is strictly prohibited.

In the age of sailboats, how could traders be confident that the parties with whom they were considering working on the other side of the ocean would not act opportunistically? Commercial agents overseas spared merchants time and the hazards of travel and allowed them to diversify their investments; but agents might also cheat or renege on or neglect their commitments.

My research about the merchants of Jewish origin plying the sugar trade linking Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands demonstrates that the same merchants chose different feasible mechanisms (institutions) to curb opportunism in different types of transactions. Its main contribution is to establish a clear pattern linking the attributes of these transactions to those of the mechanisms chosen to enforce them. It also shows how these mechanisms interrelated.

Around 1600, Europe experienced rapidly growing urban populations and dependence on trade for supplies of basic products, while overseas possessions contributed to a surging output of marketable commodities, including sugar. Brazil was turned into the first large-scale plantation economy and became the world’s main sugar producer, with Amsterdam emerging as its main distribution and refining centre. Most of the Brazilian sugar trade was intermediated by merchants in Portugal, and traders of Jewish origin scattered along this trade route played a prominent role in the sugar trade.  The Brazilian sugar trade required institutions with low costs in agency services and contract enforcement because it was a significantly competitive market. Its political, legal, and administrative framework raised relatively few obstacles to market entrants, and trade in a semi-luxury commodity necessitated low start-up costs.

Sources reveal that merchants of Jewish origin engaged mostly individuals of other backgrounds in transactions in which agents had little latitude, performed simple tasks over short periods, and managed small sums (see table 1). Insiders were not left out in these transactions, but the background of agents was not determinant.The research shows that these transactions were primarily enforced by an informal mechanism that linked one’s expected income to one’s professional reputation. Bad conduct led to marginalization while good behaviour vouched for more opportunities by the same and other principals. This mechanism functioned among all traders, despite their differing backgrounds, who were active in these interconnected marketplaces. This professional reputation mechanism worked because a standardization of basic mercantile practices produced a shared understanding of how trade should be conducted. At the same time, the marketplaces’ structure together with patterns of transportation and correspondence increased the speed, frequency, volume, and diversity of the information flow within and between these marketplaces. This information system facilitated both the detection of good and bad conduct and relatively rapid response to news about it.


Strum Pic 2
Figure 2. Sugar crate being weighted at the Palace Square in Lisbon. Source: Dirk Stoop – Terreiro do Paço no século XVII, 1662. Painting. Museu da Cidade, Lisboa, Portugal. MC.PIN.261.© Museu da Cidade – Câmara Municipal de Lisboa.

The professional reputation mechanism worked better on transactions involving small sums and fewer, simpler, and shorter tasks. Misconduct in these tasks were easier to detect and expose amid an extensive and heterogeneous network; and if the agent cheated, the small sums assigned were not enough to live on while forsaking trade.


Table 1. Backgrounds of agents in complex and simple arrangements

Type of transaction Outsiders Probable outsiders Insiders Probable insiders Relatives
Complex 2.6% 4.9% 69.9% 2.1% 20.6%
Simple 20.0% 70.0% 0% 10.0% 0%

Source: original article in the Economic History Review.


On the other hand, merchants of Jewish origin preferred to engage members of their diaspora in complex, larger, and longer transactions (see table 1). A reputation mechanism within diaspora was more effective in governing transactions that were difficult to follow. Although enforcement within the diaspora benefitted from the general information system, the diaspora’s social structure generated more information more rapidly about the conduct of its members. In each centre, insiders knew each other and marriages and socialization within the group prevailed. Insiders usually had personal acquaintances and often relatives in other centres as well. They were conscious of their common history and fragile status. Such social structure also provided greater economic and social incentives for honesty and diligence than the professional mechanism, making the internal mechanism preferable in transactions involving larger sums and wider latitude.

Finally, the research shows that the legal system was able to impose sanctions across wide distances and political units. Yet owing to courts’ slowness and costliness, merchants resorted to litigation only after nonjudicial mechanisms failed. Furthermore, courts could not punish inattention that did not breach legal, customary, or contractual specifications, nor could courts reward accomplishment.

Litigation had to supplemented the professional mechanism because its incentives were not homogeneous across all marketplaces and diasporas. Courts also reinforced the diaspora mechanism by limiting the future income an agent expected to gain from misappropriating large sums from one or many principals. Finally, the professional mechanism supplemented the diaspora mechanism by limiting alternative agency relations with outsiders for insiders who had engaged in misconduct.

Because merchants were capable of matching transactions with the most appropriate governing mechanisms, they were able to diversify their transactions, expand the market for agents, better allocate agents to tasks, and stimulate competition among them. The resulting decrease in agency costs was critical in a significantly competitive market as the sugar trade. Institutional choice thus supported and reinforced—rather than caused—expansion of exchange.

Anthropometric history and the measurement of wellbeing

Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Variations in human stature, 1887. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Interest in the history of human height, and other anthropometric indicators, has increased dramatically over the last four decades. Most of the earliest studies were based on measurements obtained from living subjects but increasing use has also been made of skeletal evidence (see for example, Steckel et al, 2019).

The development of the field reflects James Tanner’s conception of height as a ‘mirror of the condition of society’. The growth of children, he wrote, ‘is a wonderfully good gauge of living conditions and the relative prosperity of different groups in a population’ as well as an effective form of health screening (Tanner, 1987).

The use of height as a measure of human welfare can be traced back at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1829, the French physician, Louis-René Villermé, argued that ‘human height becomes greater and growth more rapid… as a country is richer…. The circumstances which accompany poverty delay the age at which complete stature is reached and stunt adult height’ (Tanner, 1981).

During the 1980s and 1990s, Roderick Floud (1984), John Komlos (1987) and Richard Steckel (1992) all highlighted the value of height as a measure of human ‘wellbeing’. For Steckel, ‘average height is also conceptually consistent with [Amartya] Sen’s framework of functionings and capabilities though, of course, height registers primarily conditions of health during the growing years as opposed to one’s status with regard to commodities more generally’.

My paper at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference revisits some of these arguments to ask whether studies of height still provide a general guide to the wellbeing of past societies. It starts by looking at the background to the development of the field before considering some possible challenges.

These include debates over the reliability of historical height data, the nature of human growth and the proximate determinants of variations in human stature. The paper also explores the extent to which these variations can also be associated with indicators of future wellbeing.



Floud, R (1984) ‘Measuring the transformation of the European economies: income, health and welfare’, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 33.

Komlos, J (1987) ‘The height and weight of West Point cadets: dietary change in antebellum America’, Journal of Economic History 47: 897-927.

Steckel, RH (1992) ‘Stature and living standards in the United States’, in R Gallman and J Wallis (eds) American economic growth before the Civil War, University of Chicago Press.

Steckel, RH, CS Larsen, CA Roberts and J Baten (eds) (2019) The backbone of Europe: health, diet, work and violence over two millennia, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1981) A history of the study of human growth, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1987), ‘Growth as a mirror of the condition of society: secular trends and class distinctions’, Pediatrics International 29: 96-103.

‘A collection of unruly gentlemen?’: explaining the English Parliament’s functioning, 1660-1702

by Kara Dimitruk (Stellenbosch University)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


Houses of Parliament, St. Stephen’s Hall (Interior), London, England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

How organised are legislatures in their work and policy-making? Does the organisation change and does it matter for economic activity? These questions may make you think of finding out more about the US congress or Westminster Parliament today. My work asks similar questions but looks to the past for answers.

The research, presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, studies members of the English parliament and their committee work before and after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which altered fundamental rules influencing parliament’s organisation. This is important because, prior to the Industrial Revolution, countries in Europe with functioning parliaments saw greater economic growth than those without.

Using an interdisciplinary approach and set of tools, my study helps to reconcile different views on parliament’s functioning. It reveals that Members of Parliament were not ‘a collection of unruly gentlemen’ during the period, but MPs with local interests, experience and expertise, and interests in high politics came together on private bill committees. The evidence supports the idea that the Glorious Revolution made, as previous historians have characterised, ‘parliament useful to the nation’.

From 1660 to 1702, constituents introduced projects to Parliament to reorganise their property rights. Each project had to be approved by a committee and then by the entire House of Commons and Lords. Parliament saw about 900 such projects during this period.

The projects, formally called private bills or estate bills, presented a problem for parliament because each one cost the legislature time. The committee stage was crucial to ensure that projects were approved. It gathered information about the quality of the project to present to the rest of the House. The specialisation could allow parliament’s time to be used to discuss a variety of other issues.

My study collects data on MPs and their committee work for these projects. The data collection was made possible because of improvements in the accessibility in historical data made available by the British History Online, the Institute for Historical Research and the History of Parliament Trust.

Figure 1 shows the MP-committee network in two sample legislative sessions. Squares are bills; circles are MPs. The size of the squares represents the size of committees; the size of the circles represents how important MPs are to the network based on their committee connections.


I find that MPs with constituent interests were significantly more likely to work on committees, but were not central in the network for the entire period. A ‘quiet source of stability’ for parliament’s functioning, these MPs were the more likely to be the small circles or spokes in the network.

The Glorious Revolution changed institutional rules relating to government finance and parliamentary meetings, which in turn altered the value of experience and interests in high politics for committees. Committee experience became more valuable to parliament. MPs with previous committee experience were 11% more likely to work on projects and were more central.

MPs with interests in high politics, such as chairs of government finance bills, with connections the monarch, and affiliated with political coalitions or parties, were more likely to work or hold central positions in the committee network from 1660 to 1689. MPs with these interests were no more or less likely to work on committees or be central in the network after the Revolution.

The evidence suggests that the Glorious Revolution may have made parliamentary organisation relatively more efficient than in the previous era. Studying organisational changes to parliaments in the past not only provides insights into the links between functioning parliaments and historical growth, but can also provide important lessons for our understanding of the operation and organisation of modern legislatures.

Stealing for the market: the illegitimacy of enslavement in the early modern Atlantic world

by Judith Spicksley (Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull)

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.



Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)
The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa), by Auguste-François Biard, 1840. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

Slavery was understood to be illegitimate long before anti-slavery activists called for the abolition of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Slavery is now prohibited in international law, but it was a legal institution in the vast bulk of societies at some point in the past.

A range of legal methods were used to enslave people, of which the most common were birth, capture in war, judicial punishment, debt, and poverty. But there was another method of enslavement that historians include in their list: the kidnap and theft of persons for sale on the market.

These practices were never considered acceptable forms of enslavement. In among the earliest law codes that survive from Old Babylonia in the second millennium BCE, to Israel in the first, are punishments for the theft of a person, which attracted the death penalty.

But demand for slaves created opportunities for traders to sell those they had stolen as if they were slaves proper, and increase their wealth in the process. These cases of illegal enslavement ran alongside bona fide sales throughout the period in which slavery was legitimate.

Examples include the activities of Cilician-based pirates in the eastern Mediterranean in the late Roman Republic and early Empire, and the violent sourcing of labour in Africa for the American plantations in the early modern Atlantic world. But it was the raiding bands that scoured the Slav lands of Eastern Europe for captives in the high medieval period that encouraged an understanding of the meaning of slavery as illegal in the west.

The term ‘slave’ appeared in English, and in the languages of Western Europe more generally, from the late medieval period via the ethonym Slav. This was the name given to members of the Slavic peoples living in Eastern Europe whose communities were frequently raided for persons who could be sold as slaves.

But the term ‘slavery’ does not enter the English language until the mid-sixteenth century. At that point, it was applied as a metaphor for the tyranny of Catholicism, as the development of Protestantism created a major religious schism.

The term ‘slavery’ was also applied to the activities of the earliest English slave traders. During his first voyage in 1562, John Hawkins is reputed to have violently captured around 400 Africans in Guinea, whom he later sold in the West Indies. He repeated these activities over the next five years with the support of Queen Elizabeth.

Hawkins was following in the footsteps of other Europeans, most notably Lançarote de Freitas, the Portuguese explorer, who is recognised as having set the transatlantic slave trade in motion. De Freitas returned from North Africa to Lagos in 1444 with a cargo of 235 Berber captives seized in a series of raids, who were subsequently sold into slavery.

From the mid-seventeenth century, with the challenge to the divine right of kings, ‘slavery’ became a metaphor for, and a weapon of, political tyranny in England. It also became a reality for travellers.

The seventeenth century saw an increased level of activity by the so-called Barbary pirates, operating out of North Africa, who seized European sailors and travellers and held them as ‘slaves’ for ransom. Englishmen and women were captured and enslaved in the Americas too, as the Atlantic economy underwent expansion.

As a result, the meaning of ‘slavery’ as a system of illegal subjection, linked to tyranny, violence and theft, had become deeply embedded in English thought before the abolitionists were established as an organised force from the late eighteenth century.