On account of the fire of 1834, which destroyed most of the records of the House of Commons, only those petitions from Norwich debtors which were presented to the House of Lords have survived in the Parliamentary Archives. The history detectives investigated ten of these petitions:
15 April 1788
20 December 1796
5 February 1800
11 November 1801
20 July 1803
17 May 1804
14 April 1806
29 June 1807
27 July 1807
All the petitions except that presented in 1801 were from the county gaol or prison at Norwich Castle. The 1801 petition was from debtors in the city gaol as well as from those in the castle.
The petitions all give interesting information about the petitioners’ circumstances and the reasons they give for their release. Similar petitions were being presented to Parliament in this period from gaols across the country, and there must have been some similarity and repetition amongst them. Looking at the Norwich petitions it does look as though there was an attempt to present make the petitions original, and to present novel arguments for the debtors’ release.
One key question is that of who actually drew up the petitions, and how much influence the petitioners had over its composition. It is likely that friends and family of the imprisoned debtors would have paid for a professional to draw up the petition, perhaps after meeting with the petitioners in gaol.
This is the earliest held by the Parliamentary Archives. It emphasises the ‘Liberty’ of the British subject, which is the product of ‘our glorious constitution’, and the misfortune which has befallen the petitioners which prevents them enjoying the same liberty as everyone else. The petitioners identify themselves as ‘unfortunate’ debtors and distinguish themselves from ‘fraudulent’ debtors, and ask to be separately considered.
This petition begins by emphasising the petitioners’ awareness of their obligations to their creditors, and their submission to the letter of the law in meeting these obligations. The petition then goes on to protest about the money-minded attitudes of the creditors, which the petitioners feel ought to be tempered by ‘humanity’. At this time there was a very strong pro-creditor reaction taking place in the public debate during the 1790s about imprisonment for debt. There was also reluctance amongst senior judges to distinguish between ‘the unfortunate and fraudulent debtor’. This petition also makes the point that, as the country is at war with Revolutionary France, and there is a need for everyone to participate in the war effort, imprisonment is hard on those individuals who would much prefer to be doing their patriotic duty. They go on to point out that if all imprisoned debtors were to be released there would be a large body of men willing to serve the government and the public. The petition ends with a request that the Lords assume the role of mediator between debtor and creditor, and pass a new Act for discharging insolvent debtors.
1800 and 1801 petitions
The 1800 petition repeats, almost word for word, the 1796 petition. The only difference is that the paragraph about the manpower potentially available to the government through the release of debtors has been removed.
The 1801 petition is similar to those of 1796 and 1800, but it makes reference to the Peace of Amiens which began to be negotiated on 1 October 1801. The hope of the petitioners is that the ‘honourable Peace with the French Nation’ might be celebrated by releasing imprisoned debtors as an act of clemency. In a peacetime version of the patriotic war effort argument, the debtors hope to be of use to their communities and families. They again hope that the House of Lords will act as a mediator between debtor and creditor.
The two petitions from 1807 are more matter of fact. They do not make any reference to current events but simply outline the readiness of the petitioners to submit to the legal procedures necessary for their release. They therefore humbly request that the Lords pass legislation which will allow their discharge, which would be of benefit to all concerned, including the petitioners, their families, their creditors and the community at large.