Early prisons and imprisonment

In the 18th century more than 200 offences were regarded as serious enough to be punishable by death. Serious offenders who were not hanged were transported to the colonies, an alternative form of punishment introduced by an Act of Parliament in 1718.

Debtors

There was nevertheless a large prison population. There were those awaiting trial or non-custodial punishment, those actually sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and those who had not discharged their debts.

Debtors were by far the largest element in the 18th century prison population, often innocent tradespeople who had fallen on hard times. Legal action taken against them by creditors kept them in prison until they paid their debts.

Overcrowding

The overcrowding of local prisons with debtors was dealt with every few years by Parliament which would pass an insolvency Act to discharge them on certain conditions. There were 32 such Acts between 1700 and 1800.

Types of prison

Places of confinement ranged from small village lock-ups in rural areas to the cellars of castle-keeps in towns. The largest prisons were in London, the most important being Newgate with around 300 prisoners.

The loss of the American colonies resulted in a crisis in finding places of confinement for prisoners. Old, decommissioned ships moored at London docks - known as prison hulks - were used to house prisoners who would normally have been transported to the colonies.

Hard labour

What began as a temporary measure became a permanent arrangement as prisoners were put to hard labour on the docks and dredging the Thames.

Did you know?

Charles Dickens father was imprisoned with his family for debt at the Marshalsea Prison in 1824. Dickens experiences later appeared in the novel Little Dorrit (1855-1857).

External link

Records of debtors prisons are held by the National Archives