1st Edition

Credit and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England An Economic History of Debtors’ Prisons

By Alexander Wakelam Copyright 2021
    266 Pages 8 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    266 Pages 8 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Throughout the eighteenth century hundreds of thousands of men and women were cast into prison for failing to pay their debts. This apparently illogical system where debtors were kept away from their places of work remained popular with creditors into the nineteenth century even as Britain witnessed industrialisation, market growth, and the increasing sophistication of commerce, as the debtors’ prisons proved surprisingly effective.

    Due to insufficient early modern currency, almost every exchange was reliant upon the use of credit based upon personal reputation rather than defined collateral, making the lives of traders inherently precarious as they struggled to extract payments based on little more than promises. This book shows how traders turned to debtors’ prisons to give those promises defined consequences, the system functioning as a tool of coercive contract enforcement rather than oppression of the poor. Credit and Debt demonstrates for the first time the fundamental contribution of debt imprisonment to the early modern economy and reveals how traders made use of existing institutions to alleviate the instabilities of commerce in the context of unprecedented market growth.

    This book will be of interest to scholars and researchers in economic history and early modern British history.

    List of Illustrations



    Chapter One: Indebtedness and Insolvency in Eighteenth-Century England

    Chapter Two: Enlightened Capitalism: Use and Structure of Debtors’ Prisons

    Chapter Three: Coercive Contract Enforcement: Debtors’ Prisons as Economic Institutions

    Chapter Four: The Debtor Economy: Obtaining Release from Debtors’ Prisons

    Chapter Five: The Insolvency Acts: When Debtors’ Prisons Failed

    Chapter Six: Private Enterprise: Operating a Debtors’ Prison

    Chapter Seven: Reform and the Unmaking of Debtors’ Prisons





    Alexander Wakelam is an Affiliated Researcher of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure. His research focusses on the economic and social history of Britain in the long eighteenth century and examines practices of exchange, work, and the experiences of economically active women.