A Proposal to Enslave Petty Offenders (1621)

We are delighted to share this post by Krista Kesselring, Professor of History at Dalhousie University. It originally appeared on the Legal History Miscellany blog on 10 January 2017.

Legal History Miscellany

Posted by Krista Kesselring; 10 January 2017


The State Papers contain a remarkable rough draft of an Act intended to condemn petty offenders to slavery. Prepared at the opening of the 1621 parliament by an unknown author, the proposal had the following title: ‘An Act for keeping in servile works such persons as shall be convicted of petit larceny and felony capable of the benefit of clergy, and such as shall be convicted for cheaters or incorrigible rogues.’ It echoed in some ways the infamous but short-lived 1547 Act to enslave the persistently unemployed, though this one – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, given its talk of slavery – presented itself as a measure not just of heightened rigour but also of mercy.[1]

The text is given below. The measure did not pass – nothing passed into law from the 1621 parliament, save for a few new taxes – and the…

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Imprisoned without Trial: Remembering John Bernardi

As America says goodbye to a president who promised but  failed to close Guantánamo, and prepare to inaugurate one who says he wants to “load it up with some bad dudes” we would do well to remember John Bernardi. As suggested by the title of his Short History of the Life of Major John Bernardi, … Continue reading Imprisoned without Trial: Remembering John Bernardi

Grates and Keys: Violence in Early Modern Prisons, Part II

Richard Bell's recent post showed how a humble garden billhook could a potential tool of violence against prisoners. Keys, doors, locks, and grates could wreak a subtler kind of violence. Barring visitors from a prison could be deadly.  "When prisoners are sick," some Newgate debtors told the JPs in 1724, the underkeeper Mr. Perry "won’t let … Continue reading Grates and Keys: Violence in Early Modern Prisons, Part II

Looking for Women in 18th-Century Newgate

We tend to think of prisons as male spaces. So I'm trying an experiment. I will return to material I wrote about in my previous post, When Prisoners Complain, but I'll focus on the women this time. As you'll recall from that last post, in 1702 and again in 1707, some Newgate prisoners informed the … Continue reading Looking for Women in 18th-Century Newgate

When Prisoners Complain

Complaints from prisoners, and magistrates' investigations of them, are among our most valuable sources for early modern prisons. But when a small number of prisoners made a complaint, for whom did they speak?  To what extent do our archives reflect the issues prisoner's prioritized, to what extent do they reflect the concerns of the magistrates, … Continue reading When Prisoners Complain

Prisoners as Voters

Edward Coleburn won the 1718 by-election for alderman of the ward of Mancroft in the city of Norwich, beating his opponent William Chamberlayne by 28 votes. There was only one problem. Many of the votes cast for Coleburn had come from prisoners in the city gaol, which lay within the boundaries of the ward. As … Continue reading Prisoners as Voters

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 … Continue reading Pushing the Boundaries of the Fleet Prison

Welcome to Early Modern Prisons

This is a collective effort to find out what it was like to be locked up in the early modern period. We are interested in the economics and government of the prison, the fees, the food, how alcohol was sold, diseases, smells, sex, lice, irons, close confinement, charity, garnish, ancient privileges, violence, how prisoners organized … Continue reading Welcome to Early Modern Prisons