‘For signing a Petition … [he] was put into the Stocks’ – Petitioning from within the Debtors’ Prison

Alex Wakelam

[This blogpost examines the petitions submitted by prisoners for debt in early modern England, especially their complaints against prison officials. It uses the case from Ludgate Prison in 1710 to show how the limits of such petitioning and the harsh consequences that could result for those who failed to gather enough support. The post is written by Dr Alex Wakelam (@A_Wakelam), author of Credit and Debt in Eighteenth-Century England: An Economic History of Debtors’ Prisons (Routledge, 2020).]

Every year throughout the early modern period, thousands of English men and women were imprisoned for failing to pay their debts. Most were confined without trial and had little formal recourse to legal aid. They were, however, surprisingly well placed to submit petitions to alleviate or remedy the worst aspects of their experience.

Unlike the felons they were confined alongside, most debtors were drawn from the middling sorts rather than the working poor. Even though they were cash-poor this population of shopkeepers, craftsmen, professionals (regularly including lawyers), and minor gentry were literate, familiar with civic administration, and expected a degree of public sympathy which allowed them to maximise the potential of petitioning.

Courts of Quarter Sessions and civic councils were thus deluged with appeals originating in the debtors’ prisons under their purview. Much of this volume did not, however, require much effort or time to resolve. Thousands of petitions were submitted between 1649 and 1830 to apply for one of the amnesties occasionally passed by Parliament known as the Insolvency Acts. This process was formulaic as courts were only required to collect and catalogue applications; by the 1720s printed petitions were widely available which only required an applicant to fill in their name and address.

Appeals for financial aid might be similarly formulaic. Petitions for financial aid in late seventeenth-century London were almost always seeking a ‘Charitable gift of five pounds for their relief’ implying that this was a routine award which courts merely signed off on.[1] In these instances petitioning was simply a tool of bureaucracy, a method by which debtors claimed aid they were entitled to but for which they had to grovel.

LMA, CLA/032/01/021
“The Humble Petition of the poore prisoners in the Poultry Compter”, 1698. Image courtesy of the London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/032/01/021.Copyright of LMA and not for reproduction.

Debtors did raise more specific complaints which touched on all aspects of prison life such as broken pipes, bad ale, leaking windows, their proximity to felons, or, as at the Poultry Compter in 1698, that new toilets (‘the Jakes or House of Office’) be constructed.[2] While these necessitated an active response from the court, they were still probably simple to dispense, merely requiring a release of funds to the prison officers. This did not stop debtors couching such minor grievances in dramatic terms. The debtors of Newgate were far from unusual when in their petition to the Lord Mayor in 1742 for a new pot capable of holding twelve gallons of broth they declared that ‘most of us are So Miserable poor … wee are in A Manner Burried Alive’.[3] Continue reading “‘For signing a Petition … [he] was put into the Stocks’ – Petitioning from within the Debtors’ Prison”

Women, gender and non-lethal violence in Quarter Sessions petitioning narratives

We have spent much of the last year and a half transcribing, editing and publishing hundreds of petitions to local magistrates in early modern England. But what can you actually do with all these new sources?

Sharon Howard has a new post on her blog showing that they can be used explore how people described and responded to violence in their communities. She focuses on 85 petitions about non-lethal violence, most involving a women as either victim or perpetrator or both.

She found that petitioners crafted narratives of violence that emphasised malice, public reputation, fear, material losses and of course physical trauma. Moreover, these narratives were highly gendered, with women often highlighting issues such as pregnancy, motherhood or marriage when trying to make their case to the magistrates.

The details are fascinating, so read the full post to find out more:

In 1594 Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife petitioned Cheshire Quarter Sessions, setting out the many abuses and outrages perpetrated against them by Anne Lingard. She had had unjust warrants against them, claiming to be afraid of “bodily harm”. This was “greatly astonishing” to the petitioners, who were “well known never to have disturbed her majesties peace” or threatened Anne herself. … [Read the rest of the full post here]

Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife. QJF 24/1/25 (1594)
The petition of Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife, 1594. Image courtesy of Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 24/1/25.

The petition of Elizabeth Skory: A young woman seeks redress against a powerful man in 1621

This post by Sharon Howard has also been posted on the UK Parliament ‘Petition of the Month’ blog and uses transcriptions from our newly published volume of petitions to the House of Lords.

The 1621 Parliament was summoned reluctantly by the king and achieved little in the way of legislation before being dissolved in early 1622. But it is remembered for other developments that would have long-lasting consequences: the revivals of impeachment, of the Lords’ role as a court of appeal, and of petitioning.

There are just 13 surviving petitions addressed to the House of Lords in the parliamentary archives up to 1620 compared to more than 60 in 1621. Here I look at one of those 1621 petitioners, Elizabeth Skory, who was also among the first women to petition the Lords in the early modern period.

The petition of Elizabeth Skory, 1621
‘The Petitcion of Elizabeth Skorey touch Sir John Bennett, 18 May 1621’. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/18.

Most famously, the 1621 Parliament brought about the downfall of Sir Francis Bacon, the lord chancellor, for corruption. But Parliament also pursued two other men and their associates during the spring of 1621: Sir Gilles Mompesson and Sir John Bennet. It was the latter who was the subject of Elizabeth Skory’s petition. Continue reading “The petition of Elizabeth Skory: A young woman seeks redress against a powerful man in 1621”

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to the House of Lords from the Seventeenth Century

Over 730 petitions addressed to the House of Lords – with a few to the House of Commons – have now been made public on British History Online. Full transcriptions of these manuscripts from the Parliamentary Archives are now freely available to be read online, alongside hundreds of other petitions from local archives and from the national ‘State Papers’.

Parliament was an obvious focal point for people with grievances and demands, as a ‘representative’ institution that played an increasingly active part in encouraging the submission of petitions, and as the highest court in the land. At times, MPs and peers were inundated with supplications, from all corners of the land, and all sorts of people. Due to the devastating Palace of Westminster fire of 1834 – when the papers of the Upper House were deemed more valuable than those of the Lower House – the overwhelming majority of those that survive are contained within the archives of the House of Lords, and the transcriptions in this volume represent a small sample of the texts that have been preserved. Rather than select texts on the basis of important events and famous people, we opted to transcribe as many as possible – usually all – from particular years when Parliament met 1597, 1601, 1606, 1610, 1614, 1621, 1624, 1640, 1648, 1661, 1671, 1679, 1689 and 1696.

These petitions provide ample testimony about the range of issues that motivated petitioners, about their expectations of Parliament, and about the responses they received. For example, since peers took it upon themselves to address problems with the legal system, they encountered people like Philip Page (1624), who professed to be ‘a poore oppressed prisoner in the comon wardes of the Fleet’. Page narrated a sorry tale of troubles in the Court of Chancery, and of his mistreatment, which was ‘contrary to all equity and conscience’, ‘against common sence’, and indeed ‘fraudulent’. He turned to peers as ‘the principall pillars who support equity and common good’.

To the right reverend, and right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in this high and most honourable court of Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of Philip Page [1624]. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/23.
‘To the right reverend, and right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in this high and most honourable court of Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of Philip Page‘ [1624], first two pages. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/23.
Of course, Parliament was a legislative as well as a judicial institution, and petitions were increasingly submitted by people who sought to express opinions about particular bills as they progressed through both Houses. In a demonstration of the participatory nature of Parliament, as well as London’s development as a global trading port, an interesting example involves a petition from ‘divers shopkeepers and warehouse keepers’ who dealt in ‘India, Persia and China silks, Bengalls and painted callicoes’ submitted in 1696. They were concerned about a bill ‘now lying before your lordships’ that would ‘utterly deprive’ them of their ‘livelyhood’, and they pleaded to be heard at the ‘bar’ of the House. What makes this all the more interesting is that amongst its forty-six signatories were at least fourteen women, headed by Mary Pyke. Petitions to the Lords, in other words, shed valuable light upon the lives and work of ordinary women.

To the right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of divers shopkeepers and warehouse keepers [1696]. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/484/1051.
Finally, Parliament was obviously the scene for momentous political, religious and constitutional battles, and these too are reflected in our sample. On 19 November 1640, for instance, the Lords received a petition from the Earl of Strafford, lord lieutenant of Ireland and a close ally of both Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. Strafford had recently been imprisoned by the Long Parliament, and he sought to be ‘bayled’, and to be granted access to his solicitor, William Raylton, particularly since he ‘heares not as yet of any matter in spetiall objected against him’. Strafford’s plea was rejected, and his subsequent impeachment for high treason, followed by his controversial trial, attainder and execution in 1641, proved to be a key staging post on the road to civil war and revolution.

To the right honorable the lordes spiritall and temporall in the Highe Court of Parliament assembled. The humble petition of Thomas Earle of Strafford. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.
To the right honorable the lordes spiritall and temporall in the Highe Court of Parliament assembled, The humble petition of Thomas Earle of Strafford (1640). Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.

Overall, the topics covered by the petitions in this volume – from rich and poor, and from individuals as well as large groups – ranged across all aspects of contemporary life, from debt and imprisonment to litigation and property, as well as the economy, the church and the state.

Chart of topics

Anyone who wants to know more about petitioning in early modern England could start by reading our ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction offering a brief analysis of petitioners and their business. Further guidance and advice will appear in due course; in the meantime, we hope that these transcriptions prove to be as interesting to you as they have been useful to us:

Petitions to the House of Lords, 1597-1696, ed. Jason Peacey, British History Online (2020) <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/house-of-lords>

We would love to hear what you find! Please note that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

The volume was team effort. It was edited by Jason Peacey and transcribed by Gavin Robinson and Tim Wales. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to the Parliamentary Archives who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. Their phenomenal collections provide ample opportunities for further research on petitions, not least in terms of the individuals and communities that appear in our sample. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their financial support, without which these volumes would not have been possible.

This volume represents the last of seven sets of transcribed petitions, the others of which include material from the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the City of Westminster, as well as from the State Papers in The National Archives.