The persistent presence of the eighteenth century female debtor

We’re pleased to present the following guest post by Alex Wakelam, a doctoral student in the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure studying eighteenth-century female insolvency and the functioning of debt imprisonment.

On the 11th December 1742, the young Samuel Foote arrived at London’s imposing Fleet debtors’ prison.[1] At the age of twenty-two the eccentric and extravagant failed lawyer had already been thrown out of Oxford under a cloud of debt, married into money, spent all his wife’s money in London’s premier coffee houses and tailors, and exhausted even the most patient of his creditors. He was thus committed to prison until he came up with the money he owed, amounting to over £650, the equivalent of about £60,000 today. Foote eventually wrote his way to solvency, cashing in on a highly public family scandal, subsequently taking the London comic scene by storm and ending his life as one of London’s wealthiest theatrical figures as master of the Haymarket theatre. His story is a familiar one to those of us who study early modern debtors’ prisons, the spendthrift artist who went on to find fame and fortune just like Daniel Defoe whose fictional depictions of indebtedness in Moll Flanders were rooted in his own frequent spells behind bars.[2] Samuel Foote was then, according to the modern perception of the eighteenth-century debtors’ prison, the archetypal debtor: genteel, extravagant, artistic, and male.

However, even the most spendthrift artists couldn’t keep England’s hundreds of debtors prisons open. Accordingly, historians have acknowledged that most prisoners were, in reality, ordinary working people from across the economic spectrum. Alongside the poets and painters, as a 1792 Parliamentary report on Southwark’s Borough Compter showed, were a majority of ‘young hearty Men … of some Mechanical Trade’.[3] The stereotype of their gender remains though with the assumption that women, beyond the occasional prostitute, were just not present in these prisons. Foote would have known better.

Behind the young actor entering the Fleet that day was Mary Walpole, a Westminster widow, committed to answer two debts, £20 to William Oakley and £60 to William Harris. Nor was she alone, women made up 9% of commitments to the Fleet that year. They were hardly a majority group though they were certainly far more frequent and representative than artists like Foote. Indeed, other years experienced almost twice as large a female share of commitments. Even if Foote had somehow not noticed Mary, or (improbably) failed to meet any of the rest of that 9% of prisoners, a letter that arrived shortly after his arrival made him only too aware. The letter, written by his mother Eleanor back home in Truro, must have raised Foote’s hopes upon its arrival, though its contents dashed any hope of rescue, simply reading: “Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt. Come and assist your loving mother – E Foote”. Samuel, without much choice, wrote back “Dear Mother, so am I”.[4]

It is clear that women were imprisoned for debt in this period, those in prisons and their families or friends having first-hand experience of it. They have though, been broadly ignored by historians. Traditional assumptions abound about the place of women in the market, along with strict readings of English common law (which held that married women could not own property, including debt, and so could not be imprisoned for it). This has ended most discussions of women in the prisons before they even began. However, it is clear they were there. Why then have historical assumptions (and the letter of the law) been so wrong?

Women have historically been reduced in discussion simply to their marital status, and then “woman” and “wife” is used tautologically. Clearly not all women were married at all times, meaning that common law would not have always applied to them. As such, where historians have admitted to the existence of female debtors they are loosely stereotyped as old, poor, widows – suggesting implicitly that without the support of a husband they were bowled over by economic circumstances and crushed by debt.[5] Unsurprisingly, widows like Mary Walpole did represent a regular contingent. A minority of women (16%) entered into the Fleet commitment registers (1733-1805) were also ascribed a marital signifier, either by themselves or the prison clerk. Of this group, widows constituted 58% of all signifiers with never married women representing a further 28%. Similarly, of women who applied for release from the Fleet through the various Insolvency Acts passed by Parliament (1725-1781), 69% of those offering a marital signifier identified themselves as a widow compared to 28% indicating they had never been married. While the assumption that widows were in the majority seems correct, it should not be assumed that they were inherently poor or old. Many women in the eighteenth-century were widowed long before they might be considered elderly. Furthermore, widows (holding the legal rights of their late husbands) were a regular feature of economic life, operating in a variety of trades and businesses, sometimes accruing significant wealth. The wealthy inn-holding widow is as regular a stereotype as the impoverished widow. Even if they had not actively worked while their husbands lived, wives were expected to be proficient in managing household accounts as well as assessing credit worthiness. Having contributed to family income and managing marital household accounts for many years, they were not necessarily plunged into poverty and despair simply due to the loss of a man. The significant sum of £80 lent to Mary Walpole, for which she was imprisoned, at least suggests that there had been an expectation she would be able to pay it back, even if she ultimately failed.

Widows weren’t the whole of the prison picture. Those explicitly claiming to have never been married (‘spinster’) were consistently present even though as a minority. Additionally, most Fleet prisoners did not provide a signifier, perhaps suggesting that the number of never married women has been significantly underestimated. This has the potential to fundamentally change the stereotype of the female debtor. Though there were a not insignificant number of lifelong spinsters, marriage was the majority experience with most women ceasing to be never married in their twenties or thirties, limiting the pool of potential spinster prisoners. The average age of female prisoners may thus have been much lower than assumed. Furthermore, the Fleet was known for taking a “better class” of prisoner – more a prison for gentlemen than for glovers. London’s many smaller prisons probably contained a more accurate cross section of London society. At the nearby Woodstreet Compter in Cheapside, not only was the percentage of women imprisoned per year always higher than that at the Fleet, but of those who provided a marital signifier to the Insolvency Act, 49% identified themselves as a spinster, compared to 51% who claimed to be widowed. The predominance of widows may thus be less significant than at first glance.

Female debtors defied the stereotypes about their ages, marital status, and wealth with which they have been previously dismissed. It is possible that a further group have been obscured by the assumption that the law operated in reality as it did on paper. The Fleet marital signifiers mentioned above only add up to 86%. Remarkably, there were a number who were entered with the indicator of ‘wife’. Under the legal theories of common law, it should have been impossible for married women to have been prisoners for debt as they could own nothing in their own right. Some may have been widowed, perhaps recently so, the debts belonging to their husbands now their own. This was probably the case for Judith Willis, committed to the Fleet in 1741 under ‘a Writt of Capias ad Satisfaciendum against Thomas Willis & Judith his Wife’. Thomas does not appear in the prison suggesting his demised status, though it cannot be said absolutely and it is certainly interesting that their creditor Edmund Rush is recorded as having ‘recovered’ £37 7s 7d ‘against them’ and not merely just against Thomas. There is nothing to conclusively state the loss of a husband for most of these women, particularly as they should have been properly described as widows. Others may have been recently married such as ‘Mary Gardener the Wife of John Gardner formerly called Mary Lawford Widow … 26th day of April 1746 … at the Suit of Caleb Lawford for £100’; John Gardner later replacing his new wife behind bars.

With some examples, their identity as currently married and imprisoned is inescapable. At Woodstreet, on 24th November 1794, Thomas Hamlen and his wife Catherine were committed in two separate entries, owed different debts (Catherine sharing one of Thomas’s creditors though imprisoned for £200 less), and left the prison for different reasons on different days. Catherine was discharged from her debt indicating payment after three months while Thomas was removed later to languish at the King’s Bench in Southwark. In other instances husbands were committed after their wives without this seeming to interfere with their imprisonment. Jane Swingewood was committed to Woodstreet with the moniker ‘Jane the Wife of Zebulon Swingewood’ several days before Zebulon was committed and was not removed at his arrival. In some cases even where the husband wasn’t imprisoned we can categorically speak to a wife’s non-widowhood. Eleanor Foote’s husband (also Samuel) was very much been alive at the time of her imprisonment, and he would be until 1754. While the legal impossibility of all this is difficult to explain, that legal fictions were not always legal realities should be born in mind with the history of women.

This valuable marital data does unfortunately obscure information on how these women occupied themselves. However, it is possible to compile a snapshot on the work of female debtors through the petitions to the Insolvency Acts which required prisoners to declare their last address and a descriptor of their identity. While most female debtors supplied only a marital descriptor (57% of Fleet debtors and 74% at Woodstreet), some did offer an occupation, either alongside or instead of a marital signifier. A basic view of this data provides some valuable senses of why women ended up in prison. There are those occupations which fit into the brand of subsistence work on the edge of poverty, such as Minty Hannam of Peckham who described herself in 1761 as a ‘Dealer in Rags’. Additionally, the presence of the so-called “feminine trades” (e.g. mantua makers, embroiderers, and midwives) reaffirm a sense of marginality to female debtors. However, both these groupings were in the minority. More than half of female debtors worked in the secondary sector, representing the ‘Mechanical Trades’. The secondary sector accounted for less than half of men, seeing far more service sector occupations than women. Additionally there was diversity in female occupations; alongside the feminine trades, Wheelwrights like Elizabeth Satgrove (1755), Plasterers like Mary Moreland (1729), and Snuff makers like Jane Hume (1748) plied their trade. The majority of the remainder seem to have consolidated in the often well paid service industry as shopkeepers, victuallers, innholders, schoolmistresses, and the like. While these women became insolvent, it does not mean they were any less successful in work than their male counterparts simply due to their gender. As well as representing a range of marital statuses, women, like men, came from across the social spectrum to the debtors’ prisons with Gentlewomen and Green Grocers rubbing shoulders.

If anything has been clear in this short entry into the world of the female debtor, it is that historical stereotypes are built to be broken. Women were a regular minority in the debtors’ prisons of early modern England. Nor were they a helpless group of elderly poor widows but rather seem to have represented a variety of ages and were of varying marital status – the loss of a husband not intrinsically being the path to imprisonment. Furthermore, legal fictions about the absolute certainty of common law and thus the impossibility of married women ending up in prison, should not be taken so absolutely. As is often true, real life was a lot more complicated than in the legal treatises of retired eighteenth-century judges. Finally, female debtors like males, came from all sorts of occupational and social backgrounds with an emphasis on the middling sorts. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to say more about the life of Mary Walpole other than that she was an insolvent widow from Westminster – what we can at least say now, is that she was not necessarily unusual.

Alex Wakelam


[1] “Fleet Prison Commitment Book 1741-1744”, PRIS 1/9, Records of the Fleet Prison, The National Archives, London, f.185.

[2] Pat Rogers, “Defoe in the Fleet Prison”, The Review of English Studies, vol.22, no.88 (1971), 451-455.

[3] Journal of the House of Commons, Report from the Committee appointed to Enquire into the Practice and Effects of Imprisonment for Debt (1792), 51.

[4] Elizabeth Chatten, Samuel Foote (Boston: 1980), 14.

[5] Joanna Innes, “The King’s Bench prison in the later eighteenth century: law, authority and order in a London debtors’ prison,” in An Ungovernable People – The English and their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. John Brewer & John Styles (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 251, 263. Paul H. Haagen, “Eighteenth-Century English Society and the Debt Law”, in Social Control and the State – Historical and Comparative Essays (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 228-229. Margot C. Finn, The Character of Credit – Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 51, 54.

3 thoughts on “The persistent presence of the eighteenth century female debtor

  1. Reblogged this on The Bedford Centre Blog and commented:
    This fascinating post about the presence of women in C18th debtors prisons, shows that not only were they present in more significant numbers than previously thought but that not all were widowed or single. It suggests that the legal doctrine of coverture did not stop all wives being imprisoned. From my perspective, it would be interesting to see if some of these wives had been trading as alone (as a feme sole) and were therefore liable for their debts, but we would like to hear from anyone with other suggestions, so do get in touch if you have any thoughts on wider questions of women’s legal position or as debtors. Nicola Phillips


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