A cushy life in the debtors’ prison

Photo: David Hurst
Lancaster Castle.

Photo: David Hurst Lancaster Castle.

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No one likes to be “Sent to Coventry” and for our forebears telling someone you had “Gone to Lancaster” was also something not to be relished as the statement was a well-known euphemistic phrase for appearing before the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors and spending time in the Debtors Prison for the County of Lancashire, then situate within Lancaster Castle.

In mediaeval England, bankrupts were seen as criminals but by the Georgian and Victoria period a more humane approach was developing and in the Bankrupts Act 1705 power was given to discharge bankrupts once there had been disclosure of all their assets and various procedures had been fulfilled.

Gary Rycroft.

Gary Rycroft.

If the process was a “friendly arrangement” to enable the insolvent person to get rid of his or her liabilities the usual course was for the bailiff and his supposed victim to travel together to Lancaster and at the railway station be met by a representative of the “Scheduling Lawyers” who appeared before the Insolvency Court.

If the insolvent had some funds available there would then be an adjournment to a local pub for a final carouse. Afterwards, the bailiff and insolvent person would present themselves at the castle and, after the bailiff had obtained his fee, the insolvent was duly handed over to the court to be incarcerated according to the process of the law. I have a family connection to this process in that my great, great grandfather James Norbury (who died in 1892) was a sub-bailiff working in Lancaster.

During the Victorian period, there were between 300 and 400 debtors living in the castle at any given time. Life in the debtors’ prison were fairly lax and certainly enough to permit “normal” life to continue for many. Debtors were allowed the use of tobacco, beer and wine but not spirits. They were permitted to receive their friends between eight in the morning and eight at night.

The debtors also had many amusements such as dancing and at one time (between 1752 and 1794) there was even a bowling green. All worth noting when people talk about today’s apparently cushy penal system.

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