At Norfolk Record Office and the Parliamentary Archives the history detectives investigated the rules governing the running of the prisons in Norwich and how they affected debtors.
Rules for prisoners in the county gaol at Norwich
Rules for the governance of the county prison were drawn up by the Magistrates Committee in 1803 and included regulations relating to debtors. It was specified that prisoners should be kept in dry, airy cells but male and female separate, and every denomination of prisoner to kept separate from the other. The gaolers were not to permit any felon to be with or to have any intercourse with the debtors. Debtors seem to have been regarded as a better class of prisoner, not to be corrupted by the influence of the others.
Enforcement of the rules in the county gaol
In 1827 a petition from 10 debtors in the county gaol in Norwich was sent to the Rev. J D Borton, a magistrate, of Blofield. It was probably written by the first signatory, Edward Medley and signatories included debtors who were shopkeepers, shoemakers, farmers and bakers. The petitions readily acknowledged that the rules and regulations in place were fair, saying that while they agreed with them “they only request such protection to our comforts which those rules afford in their present state, and an impartial administration of them, by those who have the power of enforcement”. Under prison rules, the main gates to the prison should be unlocked and entry available to authorised visitors between 9am and 4pm daily. However, the petioners claimed that this rule was not properly implemented which meant business for their relief could not be undertaken.
House of Lords enquiry, 1835
In 1835, a Select Committee of the House of Lords investigated the state of Gaols and Houses of Correction in England and Wales. The history detectives looked at the papers of the Committee when they visited the Parliamentary Archives, and found that they contained information about the gaols in Norfolk. For example, the Bye Laws of the Gaols of Norwich had been submitted. They found significant differences between the rules of gaols in different counties.
In Northamptonshire, debtors who laboured ‘industriously at the work provided by the County’ were entitled to either three quarters of their earnings, or the full ordinary Prison Allowance, at the debtor’s choice. They were ‘at full liberty to procure employment for themselves and take the whole produce of their labour’. In Norwich, according to the evidence submitted, the county does not seem to have provided any work for debtors. Debtors in Norwich could ask the governor to find work for them, and the governor was then entitled to keep two pence in the shilling (one-sixth) of net earnings.