by Stephanie Holliday
The preface says that this was written as ‘really useful information, not only for the general reader, but to all persons who unfortunately are necessitated to take the benefit of the Insolvent Debtors Act.’
The grim grey walls and towers of Lancaster Castle and Prison are set high up on a hill that was a Roman fort and looms large over the city of Lancaster. For any criminal, criminal lunatic or debtor, making their way up the hill to enter, it would be a place of grim foreboding and surely make the heart sink.
The criminals would at least know how long their sentence would last but for the debtors it would be different. Their ‘sentence’ would only finish if they, or someone on their behalf, could pay off their debt (a forlorn hope in many cases) or were released by the mercy of the county.
Joseph Hall mentions a Thomas Cardwell who ‘a short time ago died within these walls after being confined for Contempt of Chancery, nearly twenty-one years. Others have been imprisoned for nearly that length of time, one for nearly thirteen years and at least a dozen from three to eleven years. All appear to enjoy the best health and constant flow of spirits.’
Thomas Cardwell, he also notes, spent the many years of his imprisonment trying to make a ‘perpetual motion machine’ but never made ‘the great discovery.’
So what must it have been like to enter the debtor’s prison in Lancaster Castle for the first time?
Probably in most cases as hard as you could imagine, but for others better than you would have thought.
Captain James Hansbrow was Keeper of the gaol, from 1833 to 1862. He appears to have been a humane man, in charge of a well-run prison for both criminals and debtors. In 1843 he was paid £600 per annum and his family, including eventually eight children, also lived in the Castle.
Conditions for debtors were known to be so good that letters would be addressed to debtor prisoners c/o Hansbrow’s Hotel.
With upwards of as many as 350 debtors in prison at any one time it would have been noisy and crowded, everyone following their own pursuits and interests.
As visitors were allowed in and could stay all day, a thriving market was set up in the Castle yard by the local shopkeepers. For those with money, and therefore not reliant on the county for their keep, all kinds of food, groceries, fish and meat could be bought. Tobacco, beer and wine, but no spirits, could also be obtained.
Joseph Hall in his account of the prison written in 1843 says that ‘Fish may be said to be tolerably cheap; a good cod, upwards of twenty pounds in weight may sometimes be purchased for ten pence or a shilling, cockles at one penny per quart.’
Debtor musicians, ‘some playing above mediocrity’, provided music for dancing and concerts. Joseph Hall says, ‘Sometimes into the evening, even in the dark, couples would dance.’
As debtors could follow their own occupations and earn money, so could they also amuse themselves how they liked. Debating societies are mentioned as are games and cards being played, and even at the time of elections a mock election being held inside the prison (which, mimicking the outside world, the ‘tories’ always won).
There was also a library, ‘the yearly subscription being between two shillings monthly and one pound for the yearly subscription. Independently of this, many rooms have a tolerable, and sometimes expensive, collection of books consisting of science, history and other valuable information.’
Lessons in reading and writing were provided by the schoolmaster for any who wanted them. He did complain, however, that too much of his time was taken up by another of his duties, which was reading and writing letters for prisoners who could not do this for themselves. In a report he ponders on how the criminal prisoners could hope not to return to prison if they did not receive an education, and so did not possess the wherewithal to lead a different life when released. (Nothing much has changed, as prison reformers would recognise this thought even today).
Joseph Hall brings to life the debtors prison with many stories; such as that about ‘a few teetotallers or total abstinence men – one began to spout in the yard and was rudely seized and dragged to the pump in the centre of the yard where he suffered all that may be imagined in the pump trough.’
For those entering with money, (attorneys, publicans, clergymen, including dissenters, and Chartists are mentioned) it was highly possible that they had already visited to choose their room and made plans on how they were going to carry on with their profession while they were incarcerated.
This may sound strange to us but debtors often arranged for themselves to be arrested to be rid of their liabilities. There were accounts of the debtors being on such good terms with the Bailiff taking them in that they both had a good meal and overnight stay on the way to the Castle, at the expense of the debtor of course.
Joseph Hall explained that ‘there is an abundance of choice either grave or gay; and all prices to suit circumstances.’
Solvent debtors had a choice of twenty unusually named rooms for men and two for women. These would cost varying amounts according to the standard of living they wanted to enjoy, their profession or trade, and the company they wanted to keep.
The cheapest room, named ‘Constables’, was five shillings a week through to ‘No 8’ at one pound fifteen shillings via ‘Pin Box’ at fifteen shillings, ‘Quakers’ at one pound five shillings and many in between. This sum would give them candles, cooking implements, fires etc.
The two rooms for women debtors, of whom there were only fifteen in 1843, were either five or ten shillings
Again Joseph Hall explains, ‘In Constables are the poor debtors, as often as forty in the room of all tastes and habits; a cobbler and a tailor plying their trades, a group leaning over a fire of no ordinary dimensions, groups in earnest conversation, groups playing draughts and a group of politicians in loud debate.’
It must be remembered that this was still a prison and even for the debtors there were punishments for ‘all who dare to devote too much time to the “jolly god” or interrupt the harmony of the quieter debtors.’
Habitual offenders could be incarcerated in ‘the smoothing iron’ (the lock-up). So called because of its shape and in which a prisoner could only sit or lie down as it was impossible to stand. The length of stay was proportionate to the nature of the offence and the number of times previously in there. Joseph Hall says ‘If this fails they are sent to the hospital for a good physicking. The latter never fails to effect a permanent cure.’ (We have to rely on our imagination to understand this punishment!).
Life for the real insolvent debtor with no money and who had to be kept by the county was hard. They had to work long hours to pay for their maintenance by acting as servants to the debtors who could pay and by cleaning and maintaining the prison.
If they had to rely solely on the county for their maintenance their rations were only 3ozs of bread and 4ozs of oatmeal daily and 1oz of salt and 10lbs of potatoes weekly.
No fires were provided unless the debtor had friends who would send in coal or wood.
Joseph Hall says about some of the poor debtors; ‘Poor men are employed as servants to the Castle and to the richer debtor. Those they call ‘Yard Men’ wear aprons, with Lancaster Castle boldly displayed across the front, and clogs – displayed with pride to the laughter of their own associates. They seem to have an air and gait above the common order.’
In the last chapter of his book Joseph Hall writes, ‘With all its apparent pleasures to the transient visitor – with all its outward signs of jollity and mirth – with all that can be said in its favour – it is little better than hell itself to eight out of ten entering its gates. Neglect, oppression, injustice, and everything conceivable to the human mind track the unfortunate victim to the horrors of debt.’
He concludes that many debtors were previously respectable but that now they and their families were in abject poverty, and that ‘not one out of ten imprisoned for debt ever returned to their previous state.’
Reading Joseph Hall’s lively account of ‘Hansbrow’s Hotel’ you feel yourself being drawn back into the times with all its harshness and occasional pleasures. ‘Hansbrow’s Hotel it may certainly have been for some but definitely not for many imprisoned there.
I was inspired to research the Debtors’ Prison in 1843 because it was only when I was looking around for a story for the project that I found such a fascinating amount of information about the Debtors’ Prison that was actually written at the time. Joseph Hall, the debtors and staff of the prison came through with a very clear voice from his book.