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A Limehouse Baker and ‘Carey Street’

Clennam (from “Little Dorrit”) in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison

Many people overspend and get into debt over the festive period but getting into debt in the early 19th century had more serious consequences including spells in prison. Michael Munoir sent the following which illustrates the case of a local Limehouse baker who was in Newgate prison for debt and wishes to be discharged from prison in 1813.

I John Jones, a prisoner for debt, confined in His Majesty’s gaol of Newgate, and late of St. Ann’s-place, Commercial-road, in the parish of St. Ann, Limehouse, in the County of Middlesex, and using the name and description of John Jones, baker, do hereby give notice, that on the 26th day of October 1821, I presented my petition, schedule, and oath to the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, at No. 6, Carey-street, Lincoln’s-inn, praying to be discharged from custody upon all process, and to have future liberty of my person against the demands for which I am now in custody, and against the demands of all other persons named or specified as my creditors, or as claiming to be my creditors, in my schedule annexed to my said petition ; and the said petition, oath, and schedule have been filed in the said Court: whereupon the said Court hath ordered, that the matter of the said petition shall be heard in the said Court, to be holden at the Guildhall of the City of Westminster, on Tuesday, the 14th day of December next, at the hour of nine in the morning ; and the said Court hath judged fit to dispense with my serving the Assignees of ……

A long list of creditors follows including a number from Limehouse such as Robert Gammon, Narrow-street, Limehouse, coal merchant; Thomas Luens, Ratcliffe Highway, grocer; Elizabeth Gardiner, Ratcliffe Highway, tallow chandler: I. Hawley, Ratcliffe Highway cheesemonger; John Williams, Church-row, Limehouse, coal-merchant; James Roberts, Three-colt-street, Limehouse, butcher;

being the creditors named in my schedule, with notice of my application in manner directed by the Act of Parliament in that behalf; and hath ordered, that notice of the said petition, oath, and schedule, be inserted in the London Gazette, and in the two newspapers called the Morning Post and the Star, of which my said creditors, hereinbefore-named are hereby required to take notice. JOHN JONES

Although we do not know the full story about John Jones, we can see from his long list of creditors that he was in considerable debt. Public notices regarding insolvent debtors and bankrupts, informing creditors about proceedings and applications for release, have appeared in The London Gazette for centuries, as a statutory requirement.

Newgate West View of Newgate by George Shepherd 1784-1862

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was said that more than half of all prisoners were debtors. In London, there were separate prisons for debtors including the Fleet (closed 1842); Farringdon (closed 1846); King’s Bench (closed 1880); Whitecross Street (closed 1870); and Marshalsea (closed 1842).

Execution by hanging, outside Newgate, early 1800s

We can see from the petition that John Jones was a prisoner in Newgate Prison which was one of the most notorious prisons in the capital. Until 1861, only those who bought and sold goods to make a living could be made bankrupt. Others who were unable to pay their debts were referred to as ‘insolvent debtors’. Public executions took place outside the Debtors Door which would not have made our Limehouse baker feel any better.

Newgate Exercise yard by Gustave Dore , from ‘London : A pilgrimage’ by Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold 1872

Debtors could be imprisoned indefinitely until the debt was repaid to creditors. This was made more difficult because some prisoners had to pay for their keep in prison which could mean getting into more debt. One of the reasons that debtors were put into prison was because it was expected that the debtors’ families and friends would repay the debt. Imprisonment for debt only ended in 1869, although there were some exceptions.

One of the best known individuals who were imprisoned for debt, was John Dickens, father of author, Charles Dickens. He was incarcerated in Marshalsea in 1824, when Charles was just 12 years old. John owed a baker, £ 40 10s, and was committed to prison, where he lived with his family (apart from Charles, who worked in a blacking factory) until he was released three months later.

This episode had a profound effect on Charles Dickens, who featured debtors’ prison in his work. Little Dorrit features a story about a debtor, imprisoned in Marshalsea which is also mentioned in David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers.

In the original petition, many readers would have noticed the address of the court, Carey Street became famous for the saying ‘being on Carey Street’ which indicates you were bankrupt or had serious financial difficulties.

Many thanks to Michael for bringing this fascinating subject to my attention.




1 Comment

  1. Michael says:

    What an interesting article. And a very big list of Limehouse names. I wonder how many of those families still live in the area.nearly 200 years later.

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