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"Ungovernable" prisoners:Fleet Prison during the 1720s

In this report, I'd like to think about the conflict in the Fleet Prison during the 1720s, from the viewpoint of the prisoners.  This conflict is shown in my handout. My report consists of 3 parts, the first is general view of imprisonment for debt and the Fleet Prison, the second is life and the conflict in the Fleet, and the last is my interpretation*1.

1. Imprisonment for debt

Sir Francis Page, a judge of the King's Bench, said in 1729, "Imprisonment for debt is not a punishment". Then, what did the imprisonment for debt mean? Retaliation by creditors? And what kinds of people were imprisoned? [To be honest, Joanna Innes had already published her article in An Ungovernable People, 1980, before starting my study of the Fleet. I was greatly inspired by her, and fortunately encouraged by the talk with her in 1995 in Japan. If my study can add anything to hers, I emphasize social ties of the prisoners and their solidarities. (This point has been learned by my first experience of reading the book written in English. It was The Impact of the English Towns by Prof. Corfield.)]

People were sent to debtors' prison by legal process. This process was roughly divided into two, the mesne and the final process. The mesne process started when a case was brought to the court, and was followed by the final one when a trial started. On the final process, creditors could confine their debtors in the prison as long as they hoped [-- this was called as capias ad satisfaciendum, capture until satisfied --.] Imprisonment for debt gave some contemporaries, a cruel, terrible, dreadful impression.

This impression should be revised, if we get closer to know how this process was used. Creditors, of course, wanted payment of debt or interests without fail. They pressed to pay before the beginning of trials, and were willing to negotiate with debtors' parents or friends to pay for them. It seems that prisoners on the mesne process were even more numerous than on the final process, so negotiation on this process might be very important. If it failed, creditors often gave up their cases. Because imprisonment and seizure of half property were strictly alternative, if creditors chosen the former, properties were secured for prisoners. [It became impossible to recover all amounts of their credits swiftly. That the trial proceeded to the final process means the failure of the case for creditors.] "Prison pays no debt" was a common complaint of creditors in the eighteenth century.

However, relationship between creditors and debtors coexisted with other social relationships. Honest payment of debt was necessary for keeping good neighbourhood and fame of trades. Lots of debtors would make their effort to pay, I think. After all, imprisonment for debt functioned just to make it clear where debtors were.

The Prison of the Fleet situated on the eastern bank of the River Fleet (the Ditch-side), and it was one of His Majesties' Prisons, supervised by the Court of Common Pleas since 1670. [The wall about 25 feet high surrounded the site of the Fleet.] There were some 100 rooms, an alehouse, a coffeehouse, a chapel, a common kitchen, and a dungeon in it. The Fleet had no obstacles, so the prisoners could move freely within the prison.

What kind of people were the prisoners in the Fleet?  Before looking at my graphs, we have to make two reservations. One is that "the prisoners of the Fleet" did not mean only those within the prison wall. The warden of the Fleet gave liberty of the Rules to the prisoners who paid regular fees and provided collateral securities. The area surrounded by a dotted line on my map is liberty of the Rules of the Fleet. [It was an ordinary town area.] The second point is, we have to assume the number of the prisoners fluctuated from time to time. The Insolvent Debtors Relief Act released many prisoners at once. Prisoners could claim writ of habeas corpus to be issued, and move to other prisons.

There are two kinds of materials about socio-occupational composition of the Fleet prisoners. One is the "Commitment Book" [written in Latin -- this fact shows fairly high literacy of the clerks of the Papers --], and the other is a list of the applicants to the Insolvency Act [published in the London Gazette]. Since the Commitment Book in the 1720s is in too bad condition, I used lists of the applicants, and show you two graphs about social status and occupations of the Fleet prisoners of 1725 and 1729. The majority of the prisoners were middling sort of people, that is, farmers, tradesmen, and artisans. As it needed two pounds to apply for the Act, these graphs are not well balanced, of course. However, most of those who were concerned with credit transactions were merchants, tradesmen, and artisans. What these graphs show is also a matter of course. At least we might say that there were significant numbers of prisoners respectable and wealthy enough to live comfortably.

2. Life and the Conflicts in the Fleet

When he / she (women in the debtors' prison were a small minority) was brought into the Fleet, he / she paid commitment fee and others to the warden, and garnish money to other prisoners, and then, was assigned the room in the Master's side. If could not pay, taken into the Common side. In principle, prisoners shared the rooms (rule of chummage). They played tennis, ninepins, wrestling in the prison yard, billiards and cards inside the rooms, sometimes discussed politics, read books, and more often indulged in drinking. Their lives were not confined within the prison wall, in addition to those allowed to live in liberty of the rules, some were given "day-rule" to meet their lawyers in the term times.

We might say, to live in the Fleet was to pay various fees. In 1727, the Court of Common Pleas decided the table of fees. Fees had special meanings.

The warden was self-employed, and his business administration was financially based on the fees from the prisoners. The Fleet Prison and its wardenship had been freehold property since 1558. Certainly the Court of Common Pleas appointed the warden, when this office was sold. But the supervising Court did not pay any salary to the warden. He himself paid subordinate officials like vice-wardens, clerks, turnkeys, and nightwatches.

To pay fees were necessary cost to live in the Fleet. The prisoners were, "For better or for worse, treated according to their payment". But it must be noted, they had not resisted against payment of fees itself. According to Joanna Innes, in the King's Bench Prison in the later eighteenth century, "the impression is that prisoners in most instances ... paid for their food and drink and lodging with no more resentment than they would have felt at paying for them in outside life". This can also apply to the Fleet Prison in the early eighteenth century.

Thus relationship between prisoners and prison officials was interdependent or reciprocal. Prisoners were customers for prison officials. They made their subordination to the prison officials negotiable through payments of fees. [And the number of prison officials was relatively few (max 15 or so in the daytime, much fewer at night). They faced with prisoners over one hundred. They could not but compromise with prisoners.] This relationship was peaceful as far as the officials offered good service at a reasonable price.

The conflict between the warden and the prisoners of the Master's Side continued during the 1720s. The warden was John Huggins from 1711 when the Fleet Marriage, one of the clandestine marriages, was prohibited to perform at the chapel within the Fleet Prison. It caused serious reduction of the income of the warden. [He was in his 60s or 70s, had an estate in Hampshire.] And indeed, the table of fees already referred to, was one of the results of this conflict.

The prisoners of the Master's Side presented the petitions to the Court of Common Pleas, totally ten times. [Contents were different with each other in detail according to the situation, but] it might be said that the essentials were almost the same and can be identified in the first petition*2. As my italics shows, they petitioned to abolish the exorbitant fees (at least they thought so), to improve the poor accommodations, and that their self-government should be authorized. The warden Huggins replied in writing twice in the same tone, he never took any conciliatory attitude towards the prisoners. As for the supervising Court of Common Pleas, the chief justice Peter King was fairly sympathetic to the prisoners. But in May 1725 he was promoted to Lord Chancellor, his successor, Sir Robert Eyre, was a friend of Huggins.

The conflict reached the critical phase at the beginning of 1727 [(24th of March at the latest)]. That was the visit of Huggins to the Fleet Prison. Huggins showed his basis and foundation of all his demands. The prisoners compared it with the table of fees printed in 1693, and found them to agree one with another. Then they pressed Huggins to a further hearing before the judges. But, instead of giving any answer to it, [Mackay the solicitor for the prisoners wrote,] Huggins flew into a rage, "and those of them who had been the most active and diligent in pressing for a Redress of their Grievances, had their Chamber-Doors broke open, and were pull'd down like Dogs from the Master's-Side, and lock'd down on the Common-Side on Lady-Day 1727". This confinement continued till 5th of May, when the judges settled rules including a new table of fees. That confirmed the insistence of Huggins. "The poor Prisoners submissively acquiesced".

After that, Huggins wanted to be retired [and his son William was unwilling to succeed to the wardenship], he fully transferred his power over the prisoners to Thomas Bambridge, "a Person every way fitly qualified for the Execution of his diabolical rage". Bambridge put the Fleet under la Terreur. On the 3d of June 1727, he introduced a military force and kept them near three months, and shut the prisoners close down again on the Common-Side, and put in Irons. The prisoners once more, and the last time, petitioned to the Lord Chief Justice Eyre, but in vain.

The conflict [Huggins and Bambridge v. the prisoners in the Master's Side via the Court of Common Pleas] ended at this point. We have another chain of events from early 1729. That is the intervention by the House of Commons. But today I can't refer to it.

3. Behaviour, language, and consciousness of the Prisoners

Three points following are important: the issue in this conflict; no violence on the side of the prisoners; and autonomy or solidarity of them.

The majority of complaints from the prisoners were about fees. For example, the article no. 1 of the first petition ["Notwithstanding which Act of Parliament, the Warden does demand and receive 2s. and 10d. of every Person in Possession of any Chamber, ... and if two or more Persons are in Possession of the same Chamber, demands the Sum of 2s. and 10d. of each Person".] Then, was the payment of fees or the amount of them at issue?

The answer is maybe no, because fees should be recognized as necessary price for social services. The prisoners often emphasized that "Ancient Table of Fees" legitimated their complaints. The important point is how this "Ancient Table of Fees" was settled. According to the patent of the 3rd year of Elizabeth I in 1561, that "certain Constitutions were then established by Agreement between Richard Tyrell, Warden, and the Prisoners of the Fleet, and a Table of Fees annexed"[, and these constitutions were confirmed by the letters patent of Charles II (1667)]. Perhaps Fees were not arbitrarily decided by the warden, but needed negotiation with the prisoners and should be with their consent. Huggins might alter the means to collect the fees without consent of the prisoners, it caused to infringe day-rule, chummage, or habeas corpus. The points at issue were customary [and justifiable] rights of the prisoners and the constitution of the Fleet.

The prisoners never assaulted John Huggins directly, though they were of overwhelming majority. They wanted to settle the conflict by peaceful method [, that was petitions to the Court of Common Pleas, to the end, even if violently treated by Thomas Bambridge]. John Huggins in his first reply complained that "so soon as the Fees were settled by this Honourable Court, he caused a Copy thereof to be framed and hung up in the Common Hall of the House..., which said Copies the Prisoners were pleased to burn, tear to Pieces, and obliterate ... the Prisoners in general are so very ungovernable." Was this a physical violence, or should it be interpreted as symbolic expression against arbitrary changes by Huggins?

The prisoners continued to strive for more than five years, though intermittently. This needed some social ties formal or informal, and leaders. Sharing rooms in the prison forced prisoners to know each other. Recreations in the prison yard or inside rooms fostered a sense of community among the prisoners, and they could find persons of the same trade or from the same town or parish. At least they were not isolated in the Fleet. Moreover, the prisoners of the Master's Side established a body of themselves in this very conflict. It was "Steward and the Court of Inspectors". The first reference to that is the second reply of Huggins in 1726*3. The prisoners organized themselves after they experienced infringement of the customary rights by the warden. This body of the Fleet was described as the "Committee" in The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777) by the famous prison reformer, John Howard.

This body had the leaders who "have assumed to themselves the absolute Government and Disposal of the House [=the Fleet Prison]", "carrying their Orders and Resolutions into Execution, even so far as inflicting Corporal Punishment on their Fellow-Prisoners". [They were "the most active" who "were pull'd down like Dogs from the Master's-Side, and lock'd down on the Common-Side on Lady-Day 1727".] It is not irrelevant to suppose those who signed each petition as these leaders. Though I can identify very few of their social status, an impression is that fairly many gentlemen were among them.

Behaviour of the Fleet prisoners during the 1720s has several points in common with the popular movements in the eighteenth-century England: self-discipline, legitimating based on the past settlement [, and pseudo rough music]. However, the difference is also obvious. Their movement continued five or six years, and established a body. And there were not so many gentlemen in food riots. These differences were due to the Fleet Prison itself. It did not isolate a person from others, but functioned as the place to bring people from different social status closer to each other. The "Ungovernable" prisoners for Huggins were, so to speak, those who appropriated the constitution of the Fleet to themselves. Thank you.


 *1 summary
This short report attempts to investigate the social history of prisons through an examination of Fleet Prison in London during the 1720s. In 1729 Sir Francis Page (?1661-1741), a judge of the Court of King's Bench, said, "Imprisonment [for debt] is not a Punishment." This suggests prisons at that time had different meanings from today's counterparts. In order to make clear these differences, I take the points of view of the prisoners in these facilities. The documents analyzed include a pamphlet relating to the 1723-1728 conflict between prisoners and prison officials, a report from the committee of the House of Commons (1729), and a list of names of prisoners who applied under the Insolvent Debtors' Relief Act published in the London Gazette.

First, I examine imprisonment for debt within the legal process, the socio-occupational composition of prisoners, and life in Fleet Prison. The main function of imprisonment for debt was the physical custody of debtors during their trials or until the payment of debts. A considerable number of prisoners in "the Fleet" were from the upper and middle ranks, which consisted of gentlemen, tradesmen, and artisans. Prison life was defined whether or not the prisoners could pay various fees requested as a price for social services provided by the prison officials. These fees were vitally important for the management of Fleet Prison, because it had no other financial base. Therefore, in a sense, prisoners were the customers of the prison officials. Their relationship was somewhat reciprocal.

Then I enquire into the 1723-1728 conflict. Prisoners petitioned to the Court of Common Pleas, which had supervised Fleet Prison, for the improvement of prison management (ways of taking fees, in particular). Prisoners in this conflict were autonomous. They never exercised direct violence against John Huggins, the warden, or other prison officials, thou they were the overwhelming majority. Such autonomous action was based on a consciousness of never violating any arrangement concerning the constitution of the Fleet. Furthermore, during this conflict the prisoners organized themselves into a body called "Steward and the Court of Inspectors", which was lead by the gentlemen prisoners. Years after, it became one of the prison authorities maintaining order in the Fleet.

Fleet Prison put the people (almost all were men) from different social origins into a common environment and had them live there. The fleet and the conflict eventually helped them to form their own organization.

 *2 Articles of the Petition
 I. Whereas, this Honourable Court has been pleased to indulge the Prisoners in the Fleet, with a Day-Rule in Term-Time ...: The Warden ... not only Demands very great and unreasonable Security from Prisoners, and insists on the Sum of Five Shil. for his Servants enquiring into the Sufficiency of that Security, but also compels them to be at an additional Charge of Five Shil. for a Keeper's Attendance on such Prisoner....
II. By an Act of the 8th and 9th of King WILLIAM [Chamber-Rent = 2s. 6d.].... Notwithstanding which Act of Parliament, the Warden does demand and receive 2s. and 10d. of every Person in Possession of any Chamber, and 5s. a Week for a Chamber of several others, and if two or more Persons are in Possession of the same Chamber, demands the Sum of 2s. and 10d. of each Person.
III. Many Rooms in the Prison are full of Lumber, and many Persons not Prisoners are in Possession of Chambers....
IV. The Furniture of the Rooms is in a very bad Condition ....
V. The Drains, Gutters, Necessary-Houses out of repair ....
VI. By an Act 22d and 23d of Caroli Secundi, Chap 20. It is enacted that a Table of Fees shall be hung up in every Prison; but the Fees payable to the Warden of the Fleet are not hung up in this Prison, ... we apprehend the Fees now demanded, and taken by the Warden of the Fleet, exceeded the Fees allow'd to him by Law.
VII. The Warden's Clerk demands one Shilling for a Copy of Causes, and 2s. 6d. for a Certificate, neither of which is mention'd in the Table of Fees deliver'd to the House of Commons.
VIII. The Warden's Clerk refuses to deliver any Declaration to a Prisoner without being paid one Shilling for Delivery thereof, whereby Judgment is often obtain'd thro' the Prisoners Inability to pay the same.
IX. Upon a Prisoner's being remov'd from the Prison of the Fleet, to the Prison of the King's-Bench; or from the King's-Bench Prison to the Fleet, the Marshall and Warden demand a fresh Commitment-Fee for every Removal, which 'tis believ'd they are not entitled to.
X. By an Act the 22d and 23d of Carolus II, An Account of all Gifts and Bequests to every Prison, shall be hung up in such Prison: But no Account thereof is to be seen here ....
XI. for the better suppressing Prophaneness and Immorality among us, and that the Misery of Imprisonment may in some measure be alleviated by the Observance of good Manners, Cleanliness and Quietitude, we humbly pray your Lordships would enable us to regulate our selves in such Manner as the Prisoners in the King's-Bench are impowered to do by a Rule of that Court, 20 Die post sestim Sancta Trinitatis 11 ANNE.

 *3 References to the Court of Inspecors or the body of prisners
  1. " ... the Complainants, the better to support their turbulent Behaviour, and effect their Conspiracy and Design, are formed into a Body, under the Stile and Title of a Steward and Court of Inspectors, carrying their Orders and Resolutions into Execution, even so far as inflicting Corporal Punishment on their Fellow-Prisoners ...." The second "Reply" by Huggins, in John Mackay, A True State of the Proceedings of the Prisoners of the Fleet-Prison (1729), 31-32.
  2. "As to the Reflection cast on the Prisoners in this Paragraph, as well of their Mock-Court, as he is pleased to term it; 'tis no more then a Compact or Agreement among themselves; to support an orderly Behaviour, which being voluntarily signed by all the House, is ready to be produced in Court ...." "The Prisoner's OBSERVATIONS", in ibid., 33-34.
  3. T. B. Howell (ed.), A Complete Collection of State Trials, viii (1813), cols. 337-38.
  4. J. Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (Warrington, 1777), 164.

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