Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Bankrupts and Insolvent Debtors: 1710-1869

Until 1841, the legal status of being a bankrupt was confined to traders owing more than £100 (reduced to £50 in 1842). Debtors who were not traders did not qualify to become bankrupt, but stayed as insolvent debtors.

Responsible for their debts but unable to pay them, they remained subject to common law proceedings and indefinite imprisonment, if their creditors so wished. The legal definition of ‘trader’ came to embrace all those who made a living by buying and selling and by the late 18th century, included all those who bought materials, worked on them and then re-sold them: in other words, most skilled craftsmen. Farmers were specifically excluded but, nonetheless, do appear in the records. Those who wished to qualify as bankrupts, and thus avoid the awful fate of an insolvent debtor, sometimes gave a false or misleadingly general description of their occupations: dealer and chapman was very common. Partnerships of individuals could also declare themselves bankrupt, but companies were not covered until after 1844. From 1861 insolvent debtors were allowed to apply for bankruptcy: see Bankruptcy Records After 1869.

Insolvent Debtors: Imprisonment
Insolvent debtors were held in local prisons, and often spent the rest of their lives there: imprisonment for debt did not stop until 1869. Records of some London debtors’ prisons are in PRIS 1-PRIS 11, with gaolers’ returns of insolvents in certain London prisons, 1862-69, in B 2 . PCOM 2/309 is a register of Lincoln Gaol, 1810-1822, which lists the names of many people imprisoned for debt: other PCOM records may be worth exploration. The periodic passing of Acts for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors allowed for their release, if they applied to a Justice of Peace and submitted a schedule of assets. Records relating to this process may be with quarter sessions records, held by local county record offices: exceptionally, some for the Palatinate of Chester,1760-1830, are here in CHES 10 . Lists of insolvent prisoners applying for release were also published in the London Gazette (available at The National Archives in ZJ 1 ). In 1813, the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors was established and registers of petitions to it from imprisoned debtors, from 1813 to 1861, are in B 6 (indexes, from 1820, in B 8 ). After 1847, this court also dealt with London bankruptcies under £300.

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