Pushing the Boundaries of the Fleet Prison

In 1745 John Latham and some other debtors residing in the Fleet prison petitioned the Court of Common Pleas, asking that the “rules” of the Fleet be expanded. The term “rules” (or its synonym, “verge”) denoted an area physically outside the prison’s walls but conceptually within its boundaries. As long as he or she stayed within the “rules”, a prisoner was still considered to be in the custody of the Keeper.

Source: Roger Lee Brown, A History of the Fleet Prison, London: the Anatomy of the Fleet (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996)

It is not clear exactly when the rules of the Fleet were established, but their purpose was surely to avoid overcrowding in the prison building itself. In this case, though, the prisoners did not complain of overcrowding. Rather, they wanted to be able to shop, at the new Fleet Market recently established on the western side of the prison. So they asked that the rules be extended a bit westward to include the whole of the new market.

This is in part a story about the impact of urban renewal. Two long-time residents of the neighborhood bordering the prison, the carpenter Thomas Round and the peruke-maker Francis Harling, recalled in depositions to the court that in the past, “there were a great many Butcher’s shops kept in Fleet Lane as well as shops where pork, poultry green grocery and other provisions were sold.” And since Fleet Lane fell inside the rules of the Fleet prison (see map), those shops were patronized by prisoners and non-prisoners alike.

Things had changed in 1737, when the Fleet Ditch, a sluggish open sewer lying to the west of the prison was covered over, which was a great boon to public health and public noses. The nice new “Fleet Market,” was established on this spot. That killed the shops in Fleet Lane. Their proprietors either moved to the new market or left the area completely.

And so, as the prisoners explained in their petition, “not one butcher’s shop is left inside the Fleet’s rules,

so that the benefit your petitioners enjoy (which former prisoners had) of buying their own provisions and necessaries at market prices is taken from them; and several prisoners are obliged frequently at expense to send messengers to market who often as tis believed defraud such prisoners, either in the price quantity quality or weight of what they buy which lessens the income or earnings of many your petitioners.

The stories prisoners told about these dishonest messengers give us a rare view of inmates in the act of cooking and gossiping. John Latham, the petitions instigator, told the court he had sent William Sollers to the market to buy him a shoulder of lamb. Sollers had told him it cost 18 pence, which Latham had thought “much too dear.” A short while later, the wife of another prisoner, James Pence, purchased another shoulder of lamb from the same shop where Sollers had gone, paying only a shilling (12 pence), which was two thirds of the price Latham had paid. And Latham was quite sure, he told the court, that Mrs. Pence had bought the opposite shoulder from the exact same lamb!

Similarly, the prisoner Thomas Harbord had obtained a clod of beef (a cheap shoulder cut) from a messenger who said that it cost 7 farthings a pound. But half an hour later Harbord’s neighbor, Mrs. Todd, showed him a piece of clod beef that she had bought, equally good, for which she had paid only 5 farthings a pound. He was sure, he added, that Mrs. Todd, “a woman of good credit,” would not lie about this.

I want to write more in future posts about the cast of characters here — the dishonest messengers, the helpful wife and the credible neighbor Mrs. Todd. But for now, I’ll focus on the debate sparked by the petition.

Not everyone was hostile to the idea of expanding the rules of the Fleet. Some shopkeepers in the new Fleet market expressed support, anticipating that it would bring new customers. Some residents of Old Bailey Street, Fleet Lane and Ludgate Hill, streets that already fell within the rules of the Fleet prison, signed a collective statement attesting that being within the rules of the prison was “a convenience to us in trade and a benefit to such housekeepers therein as furnish gentleman prisoners with Lodgings.”

There was a lot of pushback, though. Hearing of the petition, a group of describing themselves as “housekeepers and occupiers of the several houses” in or next to the new market objected that their own trade and reputations would be damaged if the rules of the Fleet were expanded. Merchants would deny them credit, presumably because they would be unable to distinguish them from the debtors. Potential customers to their shops would be driven away by having so many idle prisoners loitering about. They particularly feared the altercations that might break out if prisoners wandering about the market should run into the creditors who had put them into prison in the first place.

Perhaps one factor inducing many merchants in the Fleet market to oppose the prisoners’ petition was an alarming letter sent by the wholesale merchants who provided “beasts, sheep and hogs” to the butchers of the Fleet market. They pointedly stated that they would refuse to give credit to the butchers who kept shops in the new market if it were included within the rules of the Fleet prison; those butchers, the wholesalers reasoned, would have no fear of imprisoned for debt, as they were in effect already in a debtors prison, and so could not be trusted to pay their bills.

Objections to extending the Fleet’s rules were also registered by “the several [neighboring] parishes” and by the “Mayor and commonality and citizens of the city of London.” They worried among other things about the ways in which prisoners would be oddly privileged in relation to other citizens. Perhaps prisoners themselves would open shop and carry on a trade without having obtained the “freedom of the city,” (that is, without having earned the right to conduct business by paying a fees or serving an apprenticeship, as other people had to do).

Much like the livestock merchants, the city and parish governments also argued that  to extend the boundaries of the Fleet prison so far that debtors might shop and potentially open shops (in a fairly nice market) would be to erase the boundaries between prisoners for debt and everyone else. It would, they said,

be in some measure to license or erect a new Mint in ye heart of ye city of London, which must prejudice the whole kingdom in general.

What they meant by “erecting a new Mint” is that the Fleet, instead of being a debtors prison, would become a debtor sanctuary, one of the special areas within London where no creditor or constable could arrest a debtor.

The Mayor, commonality and citizens further explained that more deterrence was needed, not less. Imprisonment for debt was “intended for a warning to deter others from abusing, and thereby in the end destroying private credit.” The rules as they already existed constituted a “great and uncommon indulgence” with which the prisoners were somehow not satisfied.

Prisoners responded vehemently to the idea that they were indulged. In their lengthy “Replication,” the prisoners detected in their opponents a “zeal for the punishment of prisoners” that overrode even “zeal for their own interests.” And this, they thought, was a break with the past, as “notwithstanding the necessity and usefulness of imprisonment for debt, the wisdom of the nation has constantly considered debtors as objects of compassion not of cruelty and oppression.”  The mere fact of imprisonment for debt should be regarded as punishment enough:

A compulsive restraint of that Liberty which every other Englishman may enjoy seems to your petitioners to be an evil of a very afflicting kind without any other aggravation

Why, they wondered, did their opponents” grudge your petitioners every opportunity of providing a subsistence either for their miserable selves or their unoffending innocent families?”

These exchanges between the petitioners and their opponents provide a glimpse of a fierce debate about how harsh imprisonment for debt should be, and how the boundaries between debtors and the rest of the world should be drawn and policed. Perhaps we are seeing a hardening of attitudes in 1745, as the petition was ultimately denied.  Or (as an alternative interpretation) perhaps John Latham, and this particular group of petitioners were especially hard to see as worthy objects of compassion. The Fleet had a long history of housing the relatively rich. Perhaps Latham and company, with their complaints about the hired help and their obvious ability to afford meat even at exorbitant prices, just did not match anyone’s ideas of the deserving poor debtor.

Rachel Weil


This post is based on a sheaf of papers concerning the boundary of the Fleet Prison, London Metropolitan Archives CLA/032/04/004

For the Fleet and its “rules,” see Roger Lee Brown, The History of the Fleet Prison, London: The Anatomy of the Fleet (Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press, 1996), especially chapter 5

For more about Mints, spaces where debtors were protected, check out http://alsatia.org.uk/site/

One thought on “Pushing the Boundaries of the Fleet Prison

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s