The campaign to abolish imprisonment for debt in England, 1750-1840.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
In the Common Law of England, a writ of capias could be used to arrest a debtor and hold him on bail or in prison until he was brought to trial, and thereafter until he paid the debt. This thesis studies the development of attitudes to this law in the period 1750 to 1840. At the commencement of this period the law was universally accepted, even if attempts were made to mitigate its harsh effects. By the end of the period, imprisonment before trial had been abolished, and imprisonment after trial had been restricted. This thesis explores attitudes to the old law and investigates the sources of criticism of it in the new moral attitudes of the period and the better information on the problem. Agitation by pamphleteers is traced. Nineteenth century criticisms of the practice are related not only to compassion but to new attitudes to the function of law, although the former motive is not discounted. Parliamentary reactions to the law are analysed, and there is special attention to reformers in Parliament, dating from Lord Beauchamp in 1780 to Henry Brougham in the eighteen-thirties. The political significance of reform is considered • .An account is given of the social problems caused by imprisonment for debt. The number who suffered such confinement is investigated, and the commercial background to the question. The "trading morality" of commercial parts of society is seen as the chief opponent of reform.