Becoming a gaoler I: the City of London

Gaolers are certain to be recurring characters on this blog, and likely to be perennial are questions of why and how individuals became keepers, wardens and marshals of some of early modernity’s most infamous institutions. What led them to take up posts where their income largely consisted of demanding fees from those already so hard-up or intractable that they’d already ended up imprisoned for debt? What follows unfortunately won’t provide a definitive answer (I think we’re still trying to work it out!) but instead starts with the question of how one became a gaoler in early modern England.

Like many offices in early modern England, gaolers ran their prisons for profit, charging fees to inmates. These positions were sought after, and depending on the constitution of the prison and the jurisdiction it operated under, different mechanisms controlled their appointment: in some cases, they were essentially possessions to be bought, sold and inherited, while in others they were controlled by specific courts. In this post, I’ll focus on prisons run by the City of London: Ludgate, the Poultry Compter and the Wood Street Compter. Newgate was also under the City’s jurisdiction, but operated somewhat differently. For the other three, appointments operated by a system of reversions, which basically amounted to a promise—in this case made by the Court of Aldermen—of an office once it next became vacant (often due to death, although sometimes by retirement).

Often, reversions were awards for services rendered to the City. In some cases, this was a kind of promotion. In 1629, Edmond Atwood was granted the reversion of either of the Compters or Ludgate for his numerous years’ service as an attorney in the Sheriff’s Court. In other cases, they were granted to sons of well-regarded servants of the City, or given as favours or rewards by prominent figures like the Lord Mayor. One person could hold multiple reversions (although typically it seems they held one office at a time), and likewise a single office could have multiple reversions, creating a queue of potential holders. And as each of the offices generated revenue through fees or rents, they were appealing rewards.

Their purpose as financial reward was made pretty clear when individuals were given reversions for numerous quite different offices at once. Lord Mayor Cuthbert Hackett, for example, awarded his grandson reversions for the keeperships of Ludgate and both Compters, the office of weights and measures and the office of yeoman of the chamber. Clearly these were not always awarded because someone either wanted or was seen as particularly suitable for a specific job. Instead, they were a promise of future profits from an office. Given that one had to wait for the office to be vacated to gain the position, and that there was normally already a backlog of reversions, granting a number of reversions was a way of ensuring a speedier fruition of this gift. For some, it was a case for many of taking whichever came first.

In many instances, then, the primary interest was financial, and some officers never performed the job at all. Instead, it was common to appoint deputies who took on the role, and the profits entailed, in exchange for a rent paid to the officeholder. This could mean that the keeper on the ground could remain the same even as the office changed hands in the background.

Perhaps the most illustrative case of all this is that of William Budd and his son Robert. In September 1612, William Budd, the deputy keeper of the Poultry Compter since at least 1607, petitioned the Court of Aldermen for the reversion of the keepership of either Compter for his son, Robert. The Court agreed on the basis of the ‘good opynion of the whole Court’ of William Budd’s ‘faithfull and acceptable service’. This probably took place when Robert Budd was a child, as 11 years later, in June 1623, William petitioned again asking for Robert to be appointed as his joint deputy keeper, to exercise the office together in order to prepare him for his future reversion.

Eventually, Robert’s time came. Around the turn of the New Year in 1627, the keeper of Wood Street Compter, Nathaniel Martin, passed away and on 2 January Budd petitioned to be admitted in his place as ‘next in revercon’. He was perhaps a little too eager, and the Court of Aldermen objected that ‘the said M.r Martin is not yett buried’, sending Budd away for a week. In his desperation to take up the office promised 15 years earlier, Robert perhaps came off as a little ghoulish.

Yet despite his enthusiasm to take up the post and his effective gaoler’s apprenticeship under his father in the Poultry, it’s not clear that Robert Budd ever actively presided over the Wood Street Compter. When, on 11 January, Budd was admitted as Keeper, Martin’s deputy, Daniel Ayres, was reconfirmed in his post, suggesting that Budd left him to run the prison. Even for someone raised in the “family business” of incarceration, the reversion was seemingly taken as a source of rental income rather than an occupation or social duty.

Indeed, in 1638 Budd appointed a new deputy, John Sivedale. And when Sivedale died in May 1645, the Court of Aldermen discovered that Budd had sold his rights and interest in the Compter ‘for a considerable some of mon[e]y’, seemingly to Sivedale and his heirs. It’s unclear that such rights were even Budd’s to sell, as such a deal seemingly circumvented the reversion system. Despite seeming reservations on this front, the Court of Aldermen decided that the need for a ‘trusty’ officer to ensure the safe keeping of the prison was the more pressing concern, and admitted Henry Sivedale, John’s son, as the Keeper.

William Budd’s apparent desire to create a legacy of prison keepers perhaps went unfulfilled. Having performed the job as a deputy, Budd was concerned with the day-to-day running of the prison. For others who actually held the offices, this kind of engagement was potentially optional. Despite mentoring his son, Budd’s hard graft and reputation as an efficient gaoler actually won Robert the ability to opt out and draw a rent from a deputy. Perhaps Budd’s aspirations for his son were out of sync with the realities of officeholding in the early modern City of London. While the City was concerned with maintaining social order through the safe running of its prisons, many involved were just as concerned with their financial stake.

Richard Bell


This post is based on the Repertories of the Court of Aldermen, held at the London Metropolitan Archives (COL/CA/01/01). For the specific cases mentioned, see:

  • Edmond Atwood: Rep. 43, fo.296v.
  • Cuthbert Hackett: Rep. 41, fo.97r
  • William & Robert Budd: Rep. 28, fo.32v; Rep. 30, fos.381v-383r; Rep. 36, fos.176v-177r; Rep. 41, fo.57r, fos.64v-65r; Rep. 53, fo.57v; Rep. 57, fo.118r-v.

One thought on “Becoming a gaoler I: the City of London

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s