Becoming a gaoler II: marriages and mothers-in-law

When it came to his love life, George Reynell had a type: women connected to prison offices. His first wife was the widow of a prison warden, his second the daughter of one. As a result, Reynell spent many years running prisons in London. Following on from my last post about becoming a gaoler in early modern England, this instalment turns from City of London gaols to those outside the city walls. Many of these prisons operated under jurisdictions which treated offices as property that could be bought, sold, transferred and inherited, moving hands and crossing generations rather than automatically reverting back into the gift of a court each time the post was vacated. The result was numerous business deals and occasional odd transactions, a couple of which I want to look at here.

Reynell’s case is particularly curious. His first wife, Elizabeth, was the widow of Edward Tyrrell, former warden of the Fleet. Their marriage in 1596 won Reynell the right to run the prison, and within six months he had taken up the post. He exercised the position for the following eight years, but in 1604 was told to vacate the office following an appeal to the master of the Wards by Tyrrell’s son, who claimed inheritance of the office from his father. Reynell contested the decision in a case that lasted until 1608, but in the process was forced to relinquish the position in 1605.

Yet as luck would have it, in 1603, before he had even been removed from the Fleet (perhaps around the time Tyrrell’s son first moved against him?), Reynell had made another fortuitous match. This time he wed Ethelred, daughter of Sir Edward Peacock, the marshal of the King’s Bench prison. So, almost as soon as he had to give up the Fleet, Reynell became his father-in-law’s deputy at the King’s Bench. Eventually, following Sir Edward’s death in 1606, Reynell managed to purchase the reversion to the marshalcy of the King’s Bench, taking on the office in his own right. However, he yet again lost the position due to legal wrangling, after technical issues with his reversion were brought to light.

Following this misfortune, Reynell took a short break from his career as a gaoler to become MP for Grantham during the 1614 “Addled Parliament”, but after this brief interlude, returned to the King’s Bench at some point in 1616. This time he managed to hold on to the position, remaining marshal of the prison until his death in 1628, surviving despite numerous complaints from his prisoners. What motivated Reynell is unclear, but he was evidently pretty committed to running prisons, and had apparently worked out that as they could be inherited, marriage was a pretty convenient way to secure these offices, although he also found himself dispossessed on more than one occasion.

Other gaolers came to their positions through more conventional routes of patronage and business deals. In 1630, Sir John Lenthall apparently tottered on the precipice of financial ruin. Having recently moved to London, he searched out new offices and business ventures. With the help of his mother-in-law, Hester, Lady Temple, he managed to secure a meeting with ‘Mr Reinolls’ and ‘Mr We[e]ks’, most likely Carew Reynell, the son of George and inheritor of the marshalcy of the King’s Bench, and perhaps Aquila Weekes or Wykes, keeper of the Gatehouse prison. Over the course of September 1630, he met with the two men to draw up a business deal, apparently underwritten and supported by Lady Temple, her husband and Sir John Rous.

By 1631 he was the new marshal of the King’s Bench prison, presumably having bought the office from Reynell, beginning a career that would earn infamy and scorn from many inmates. Clearly, patronage helped grease the wheels of this transaction, and Lenthall wrote to thank to Lady Temple, acknowledging that it ‘was onelye your love and faithefull frendeshippe & assistance that brought it on’. He also anticipated that the position would be a good source of profit, claiming to be ‘very confidente, that (wth gods blessinge) I shall doe very well in th[e] office, wch I finde will fall out no lesse worthe, then yt hathe beene spoken of and I hope better, yt yeeldinge monye daylye’.

Becoming a gaoler staved off financial ruin. But this wasn’t simply about making money. As Lenthall put it to his father-in-law in July 1631: ‘I have encouragement to thinke yt a place of good profitt, and greate, yf not [too] greate, creddite, But God can raise a man out of ye duste’. Profits were one thing, but Lenthall’s credit had needed rescuing, not just his wallet. As Craig Muldrew has shown, credit in this period was a question of reputation and social judgement, not just economic calculation, and it was this relationship that Lenthall was trying to navigate. In the early stages of his long career as gaoler, he considered this a success, claiming that his wife ‘beginnethe to like this place much better then shee did, beeinge she findeth an increase of respect, and also of plentye & proffitt’. Clearly, then, with the position came a certain social standing as well as income.

The proprietary nature of these positions meant that they were viewed as investments and business ventures–they could be bought, sold, inherited, leased. As with the reversions in the gift of the City of London, many people who held these offices viewed them as source of rent and little else, giving the day-to-day duties over to deputies. Yet the cases I’ve explored here reveal individuals who undertook the work themselves, and perhaps looked for something more than just income from it. The question is, what motivated them? If you asked many of their prisoners the answer would likely involve claims of deep misanthropy and greed. Clearly money was an issue, although many gaolers found out to their disadvantage that income based on taking fees from those already imprisoned for debt did not always make for the most stable financial foundation. Yet there was something else of value in the office, and in actually running the gaols – in spite of its less salubrious aspects, like many offices running a prison offered a social position and even respect that appealed to some, even if it earned them the ire of their inmates.

Richard Bell


On George Reynell, see: Paula Watson and Rosemary Sgroi, ‘REYNELL, Sir George (c.1563-1628), of Southwark, Surr.’ in The History of Parliament:

Details of John Lenthall’s early career are drawn from his letters to Hester, Lady Temple and Sir Thomas Temple in the Temple papers at the Huntington Library, California, specifically STT 1278-1284 and 1367.

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