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Bankruptcy & Debtors Records (Crime & Criminals)

Nature of Source

Records of those declared bankrupt. Prior to 1869 an insolvent debtor could be sent to a debtors prison or separate quarters in a local prison until the debts were cleared or a petition for release was accepted. An insolvent debtor could remain in prison indefinitely based on the creditor having the final decision or if the debts remained uncleared, whilst bankrupt debtors, mainly traders or artisans, could pay the creditors and therefore avoid the courts. The distinction was abolished in 1861 and after 1869 debtors no longer faced imprisonment with all debtors classed as bankrupts. However, a bankrupt could still face imprisonment if found in contempt of court for not paying a creditor when in a position to clear the debt. Finally, the Administration of Justice Act of 1970 removed the option of imprisoning a debtor.

The name of a debtor might be found amongst the following records: Court statements and creditor affidavits; Bankruptcy Orders; Petitions for release from prison (an imprisoned debtor could petition a Justice of the Peace to be released); Admission and Discharge from prison records; Bankruptcy Commission Files and dockets; Registers of Petitions for Protection from Process. Consult Quarter Session records for those that were actually sent to prison. Debtors that died in prison were often subject to a coroner's inquiry. Bankruptcy records had to be kept for 25 years after which they could be destroyed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, four debtors' prisons existed in London; the Fleet (closed 1842), Faringdon (closed 1846), King's Bench, Southwark (closed 1880), Whitecross Street, Islington (closed 1870) and the Marshalsea, Southwark (closed 1842).

Details of bankruptcy proceedings were often published in publications such as the Gentleman's Magazine, The Times, the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes and Perry's Bankruptcy (later known as Insolvent Gazette) and Perry's Gazette or national and local newspapers.

Cases were heard at the Kings Bench or Court of Common Pleas until 1571 and thereafter at the Chancery Court. After 1832 the Court of Bankruptcy was established with creditors having to petition the Lord Chancellor for a Commission of Bankruptcy which then examined the circumstances of the alleged bankruptcy and set out to recover the debts from the debtor. Once the Commission had established that the debtor was bankrupt a notice would be published in the London Gazette. Once the bankrupt had discharged his or her debts, a Certificate of Conformity would be issued. District bankruptcy courts were established after 1842 serving districts outside of London and after 1869 these district courts were merged with the County Courts. In London the London Court of Bankruptcy was established in 1869 which was later incorporated into the High Court of Justice in 1884.

In Scotland the legal term for personal bankruptcy is sequestration and is dealt with differently to that in England.

See also
London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes Online
Quarter Session Records

Where Found

The National Archives (Series B, Bankruptcy Courts; B 8, Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors and Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts and successors: Indexes; B 6/45-71, Registers of Documents Filed in Bankruptcy Proceedings: Petitions of Prisoners; PRIS 1, Fleet Prison: Commitment Books; PRIS 2, Fleet Prison: Commitments Files; PRIS 3, Fleet Prison: Discharges; PRIS 4, King's (Queen's) Bench Prison and Queen's Prison: Commitment Books; PRIS 5, King's Bench Prison: Abstract Books of Commitments; PRIS 6, Queen's Prison: Commitments to Strong Room; PRIS 7, King's Bench Prison and Queen's Prison: Discharges; PRIS 8, King's (Queen's) Bench Prison and Queen's Prison: Execution Books; PRIS 9, Records of King's (Queen's) Bench Prison; PRIS 10, King's (Queen's) Bench, Fleet, Marshalsea and Queen's Prisons: Miscellanea; PRIS 11, Prison of the Marshalsea of the King's Household and Palace Court, and the Queen's Prison: Records; BT 293, Registers and indexes of all individuals served with petitions for bankruptcy, 1884-1923)
London Metropolitan Archives (Whitecross Street prison records)
British Library Newspaper Collections
(Titles include Perry's Bankrupt Gazette)
Society of Genealogists (Copies of the journals listed below in Notes and registers of bankrupts available on fiche)
County Record Offices (Local information such as discharge petitions and other Quarter Session material: ARCHON Directory: Find the details of a UK archive from a searchable list of over 2,500 archives The catalogue can be found on the Discovery home page)
National Records of Scotland (Court of Sessions records. The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland [NAS] and General Register Office for Scotland [GROS])
Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)

Period Covered

1710 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Names, addresses, occupation, age of debtor. Inventory of personal and real estate of debtor. Name, home and business address and occupation or trade of creditor.

Further References

Barty-King, Hugh. The Worst Poverty: A History of Debt and Debtors: Sutton Publishing, 1991 Buy Now on Amazon
Finn, Margot. The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740–1914, Cambridge University Press, 2007 (Preview available from Google Books)  Buy Now on Amazon
Markham Lester, V. Victorian Insolvency: Bankruptcy, Imprisonment for Debt, and Company Winding-up in Nineteenth-Century England: Oxford University Press, 1995 (Preview available at Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Marson, Edward. Prison: Five Hundred Years of Life Behind Bars: The National Archives, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon
Paley, Ruth & Fowler, Simon. Family Skeletons: Exploring The Lives of our Disreputable Ancestors: The National Archives, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
White, Jerry. Mansions of Misery: A Biography of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison: Bodley Head, 2016 Buy Now on Amazon

TNA Research Guide:
Bankrupts and insolvent debtors

Websites (History of Debt) (Descriptions of prisons extracted from Leigh's New Picture of London, 1819)'s_prison (Wikipedia entry: Debtors' prison) (TNA Research Guide: How to look for records of bankrupts and insolvent debtors) (London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet Number 66: Imprisoned Debtors)
(Researching Crime) (Prints, drawings, watercolours, maps and photographs held by the Guildhall Library Print Room, Guildhall Art Gallery and London Metropolitan Archives including prisons)
Old Bailey Sessions Papers and other printed sources for London Criminals
(Extract from James Grant's 1838 report into London's debtors' prisons)
(Your Archives: Bankruptcy records) (National Records of Scotland Research Guide: Sequestrations)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A], National Register of Archives [NRA] and  Aim25) (Debtors' Prison Registers. Combined search of two datasets: London, King's Bench and Fleet Prison Discharge Books and Prisoner Lists, 1734-1862. This collection includes records from London’s Fleet Street and King’s Bench prisons. Fleet prison closed in 1842, and the King’s Bench prison was renamed Queen’s Prison in 1842 and remained open until 1862. The original records are held in series PRIS 10 held at The National Archives; London, Marshalsea Prison Commitment and Discharge Books, 1811-1842. This collection includes mainly commitment and discharge records from Marshalsea Prison in London. Marshalsea prison closed in 1842. The original records are held in series PRIS 11 held at The National Archives)
(The Bankrupt Directory 1820-1843: These records are transcribed from The Bankrupt Directory by George Elwick, and contain details of all bankruptcies recorded in The London Gazette between December 1820 and April 1843)
(Gloucestershire, England, Prison Records, 1728-1914. Records include Debtors' registers) (The London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazette. Search and browse corporate insolvency and personal bankruptcy notices) (Insolvents in England and Wales) (Database of almost 5000 convicted criminals imprisoned York Castle Prison 1700s. Includes transported criminals, Criminals executed and debtors who pleaded insolvency)

CD Roms

Cornwall Family History Society (Debtors Imprisoned in Bodmin Gaol 1831-1853 & 1868-1879)