Spare a thought….

….as you pass through the area of Exeter known as St Thomas, as this is where the debtor’s prison stood.

Now the site of Cowick Motors, the debtor’s prison once had a fearsome reputation, as the records of the Quarter Sessions show. During the period I’m cataloguing, imprisonment for debt was a common occurence, and bearing in mind that you had to pay your court fees and, generally pay for your upkeep while imprisoned, this created a situation whereby people imprisoned for debt could remain in the debtor’s prison for many years, and even die there.

The failure of logic behind this system is very apparent to modern eyes; by remaining imprisoned a person lacked the means to earn a living, or a profit, from which to extricate themselves from their indebtedness, yet it seems that the logical absurdity of the practice of locking up debtors took a long while to dawn on society at large. That a problem was at least recognised was apparent in the various periodic Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, through which means persons confined for debt (often termed ‘prisoners of the sheriff’s ward) could apply to have their petitions heard, and their creditors could apply to the clerk of the peace for an assignment of their estate to offset their losses. After having followed due procedure a debtor would then, in theory, be eligible to leave the place of confinement. It seems however that there were many Acts passed for this purpose, indicating that they only applied in certain circumstances, to people who had been confined at certain times, so it doesn’t seem as though everybody could apply at once for their (eventual) release. Even for those who did apply, it could still take a considerable period of time for the petition to be heard, for the creditors to make their applications, and for the unfortunate debtor to be released.

The plight of those confined to the sheriff’s ward is ably demonstrated in a document dated 25 May 1744, reference QS/4/1744/Midsummer/NO/4. This document is a petition made by a certain Mr Andrew Pime, formerly of Westleigh, imprisoned in St Thomas’ gaol at the suit of a Mr Charles Cutcliffe of Bideford. In the course of explaining his plight to the court he notes that he has been imprisoned there for over three years, and ends his missive: “pray sir be my frend [sic] in this case or els [sic] I shall never be able to get out of this miserable place.” 

In this day and age, where most people have an overdraft, it seems a very strange idea that being indebted to somebody could lead to a term of indefinite imprisonment, but this was sadly the way of things in the eighteenth century. That’s bad enough on its own, of course, but when you take into account the state of eighteenth century gaols, and the frequent outbreaks of epidemic disease in the unsavoury conditions that prevailed within these terrible buildings, imprisonment for debt could often turn into a death sentence in its own right. So next time you’re wandering about in Exeter and you happen to find yourself in St Thomas, spare a thought for poor Mr Pime and the countless others like him.

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