The Reality of Debtor's Prisons in Britain and North America

A debtor begging through the window at Fleet Prison, London. Wikimedia

2. The terms for indebtedness varied as widely as the conditions in the prison in 18th century London

In London, during the year 1779, a person could be sentenced to debtor’s prison for an unpaid obligation of as little as five pounds. Depending on the judge, the length of the sentence for such a debt could be as little as three weeks, or as long as twenty. Recidivism built itself into the system. A person completing a three week sentence left the prison with no ability to pay, unless it came in the form of support from family or friends. Those not so fortunate soon found themselves once again before the judge as a repeat offender, liable to a longer sentence. Protection against double jeopardy did not factor in with cases of indebtedness.

Obviously, for many flight offered the only option to avoid lengthy imprisonment and the social stigma it carried. Throughout the 18th century, more and more fled Great Britain to the colonies, where they temporarily enjoyed safety from the sheriffs tasked with arresting debtors. Others sought safe havens in the Low Countries and France. In the late 17th century, Daniel Foe spent time in debtor’s prison. Upon his release he left England for several years, traveling in Europe and at sea. When he returned it was under an assumed surname, Defoe, under which he published his many works, including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.