visiting debtors’ prison -- 12/20/22

Today's selection -- from The Day the King Defaulted by Moshe Arye Milevsky. In England in the 1800s, missing even a small debt payment could lead to decades of imprisonment:
"Readers might be familiar with the institution of debtors' prison from Charles Dickens' famous novel Little Dorrit, which started as a collec­tion of articles for a magazine and eventually was published as a complete book in 1857. It became one of his enduring classics and has spawned a number of movies and mini-series over the years. Dickens tells the story of William Dorrit, who is imprisoned for some obscure and complicated debt nobody can understand or explain, in the infamous Marshalsea prison in London, south of the River Thames. The conditions are hor­rid, but the tenants try to maintain pride, dignity and some semblance of family and social life. William Dorrit is held in the Marshalsea for so long that his three children essentially spend their (early) life imprisoned together with him. One of those children is young Amy, nicknamed Little Dorrit, and the rather complicated storyline -- it's Dickens after all -- is built around her evolving life, attempts to help her family and eventual love interests. Ultimately, a lost fortune materializes, her dear father is released from prison and the story goes on in various directions from there.

First Marshalsea Prison, 18th century

"Aficionados of literary history will know that Charles Dickens' father himself was in debtors' prison for many years -- apparently, he owed a few pounds to the local baker -- and the story of Little Dorrit contains thinly veiled criticisms of many aspects of his own young life and family cir­cumstances. The imprisoned patriarch wasn't an isolated or unique setup for a fine Victorian novel. Apparently no less than half of the inhabitants of English prisons in the eighteenth century consisted of indigent debt­ors who simply couldn't pay their creditors. The other half of the prison population was petty or hardened criminals, mutinous sailors, pirates and seditious plotters, all mixed together in large cells.

"The Marshalsea as well as The Fleet, yet another infamous prison, was eventually closed down in the year 1842, perhaps as a result of Dickens' early activism and the social awareness he raised of the conditions inside such places -- although recall that Little Dorrit was published 15 years afterward. Indeed, when the desolate buildings were finally vacated, it turned out that some inhabitants had in fact been there for over 30 years. What was their crime? Owing someone a few pounds and shillings. Not to be outdone by the English, colonial America also had debtors' prison in places like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

"It was only after the passing of the Bankruptcy Act (in 1869, in what was by then Great Britain) that the punishment of imprisonment for debt was eventually terminated in law, much to the dismay of creditors, who really liked the concept for obvious reasons and tried to keep it alive in spirit. Even today, one still hears of isolated cases of imprisonment, when a strong-willed or activist judge decides to take it upon himself to sentence someone to jail for failure to pay a government fine, or more likely for evading child support payments.

"But despite its rarity in the twenty-first century, vivid descriptions and memories of the Marshalsea, Fleet, Clink and King's Bench Prison by Dickens, Defoe and others -- and even by artists like William Hogarth in his series of paintings A Rake's Progress -- have lingered in the public con­sciousness."



Moshe Arye Milevsky


The Day the King Defaulted: Financial Lessons from the Stop of the Exchequer in 1672


Schulich School of Business




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