How to do your own research
If you have been inspired to carry out your own research into debtors and prisons in your area, here is some guidance on what to do next.
To find out whether the Parliamentary Archives holds debtors petitions from a particular prison you can search Portcullis, the Parliamentary Archives Catalogue. In the ‘AnyText' field, enter the town name and debtors. Make sure that Word Options, to the bottom left, is set to ‘and'. Some prisons may be known by a number of variant names, for example, as the prison in Norwich was the County Prison for Norfolk, some of the petitions were listed as Norfolk and others as Norwich.
If you find any petitions which would be of interest, contact the Parliamentary Archives giving the reference number from Portcullis. You can either visit the Parliamentary Archives Searchroom to consult the record in person or order for a copy. Please see our Reprographics Service webpage for more information.
You can find out whether records for insolvent debtors survive for the area you are interested in by contacting the Local Record Office for the area. Details of all Local Record Offices can be found on ARCHON on The National Archives website. You can often search archive catalogues online – details can be found on the website of the relevant Local Record Office, which is listed on ARCHON. Records like those the history detectives found in Norwich will usually form part of the Quarter Sessions material. Often individuals will not be mentioned by name in the catalogue so if you don't have any luck with a name, you should try searching for 'debtors'.
Local Record Offices hold records relating to prisons. For the eighteenth and nineteenth century prisons or gaols would have been part of the responsibility of the Quarter Sessions, and records relating to them should be found amongst those of the Quarter Sessions.
As with Norwich, major rebuilding or other changes to local prisons may have required an Act of Parliament, so it is worth checking Portcullis, the online catalogue of the Parliamentary Archives. When carrying out your search, you should remember that during the eighteenth and nineteenth century the words prison and gaol were both used.