HOBS: Provincial Debtors' Prisons: Exeter

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries an unobservant member of the public passing Exeter City[1] and County gaol, may have been unfortunate enough to injure themselves against a dangling shoe suspended from an iron-grated window, located in the debtors’ quarters of the gaol. The iron-grated window from which the shoe was dangled was located in a room called the ‘Shoe’, no doubt after the activities of the debtors, who were attempting to obtain money from kind hearted passers-by. The practice had ceased by 1808 due to an order of the local magistrates.[2] In the seventeenth century[3] a number of bequests were made to aid the prisoners of Exeter City and County Gaol[4]. The motivation for these bequests could have been indicative of the general munificence of the benefactors or because of the appalling state of the prison at that time. If Pitt’s contentions are to be believed then the later motivation is probable. The bequests were not debtor specific. The parish of St. Thomas the Apostle in Exeter also contained a further prison which housed the County prison for Debtors and the Sheriff’s Ward, of which Neild observed “it is difficult to conceive the extreme wretchedness and misery this Goal (sic) exhibits, the debtors, for the most part being mechanicks and labourers.”[5]

Southgate-prison in Exeter housed debtors in the later seventeenth century. The debtors’ room and its physical layout is given by Pitt’s correspondent as being ‘a room which is not above Eighteen Foot and some Inches Square.”[6] The conditions in the debtors’ quarters were apparently so poor that ten or twelve men were forced to relieve themselves in one adjoining, “House of Office”. The effect of which was that the debtors were forced to, “suck the ill air that doth proceed from their Excrements, and the Nastiness of the House of Office, so that we are suffocated with ill Air, which makes us very sick, and are broken out with Boils, Carbunckles, and Botches.”[7]

[1] On the history of Exeter generally see: Jenkins, A. Civil and Ecclesiastical History of the City of Exeter and its environs from the time of the Romans to the Year 1806; comprising the religion and idolatrous superstition of the Britons, Saxons, and Danes; the Rise and progress of Christianity in the Western Counties of England; with a catalogue of the Bishops of the Diocese, from the first establishment of the See in this county; also a general and parochial Survey and Description of the Churches, and other places of divine worship, public buildings, institutions, antiquities, government, and prospects; together with an annual list of Mayors and Bailiffs embellished with Fourteen Engravings of Ancient Buildings and a portrait of the Author. 2nd Edition, W. Norton, Exeter, 1841.

[2] Neild, J, Account of Persons confined for Debt, in the various prisons of England and Wales, ... with their provisionary allowance during confinement; as reported to the Society for the discharge and relief of small Debtors. London, 1800, at page 196.

[3] On Exeter generally see: Stephens, WB. Seventeenth –Century Exeter – A study of Industrial and Commercial Development, 1625-1688. The University of Exeter, Exeter, 1958. See also: Izacke, R. Remarkable Antiquities of the City of Exeter, Giving An Account of the Laws and Customs of the Place, the Officers, Court of Judicature, Gates, Walls, Rivers, Churches, and Privileges, Together, With a Catalogue of all the Bishops, Mayors, Sheriffs from the Year 1049 to 1617. London, 1681.

[4] Ibid page 199.

[5] Neild page 202.

[6] Pitt, M. The Crye of the Oppressed being a true and tragical account of the unparrallel’d Sufferings of Multitudes of poor Imprisoned Debtors, in most of the Goa’s in England, under the Tyranny of the Goalers, and other Oppressors, lately discovered upon the occasion of this present Act of Grace For the Relief of poor Prisoners fr Debt, or Damages; some of them being not only Iron’d and lodg’d with Hogs, Felons , and Condemn’d Persons, but have had their bones broken; others poisoned and starved to death; others denied the common blessings of nature, as Water to drink, or straw to lodge on; others their Wives and Daughters attempted to by ravish’d; with other Barborous cruelties, not to be parallel’d in any History or Nation: All which is made out by undeniable evidence. Together with the case of the publisher. London, Printed for Moses Pitt and sold by Booksellers of London and Westminster, 1691, at page 21. Pitt’s exposition is drawn from a letter dated November 8th, 1690, written by two inmates, Aaron Bourne and Richard Lodden.

[7] Pitt page 22.