10 August 2012

Punishing Debtors: The Court of Requests

Part of High Street in about the 1820s to 1830s by Thomas Underwood.

Tucked behind the main shops of High Street, down an alley, (as seen in the 1820s illustration above) stood a shabby old building,[1] but one holding onto the remnants of grandeur. It had been built in about 1650, reputedly for the wealthy ironmonger John Jennens, as a smart house and home, and exhibited some good examples of the new classical influences that were permeating into architectural designs at that time; the segmental pediment over the door is particular of the period (see image below). By the 1770s, the building was being used by Benjamin Mansell as a tea-warehouse,[2] though, by the time of the drawing above, the building was used as the Court of Requests, and its basement would have most likely been filled with imprisoned debtors unable to pay what they owed. This close proximity of the incarcerated to daily life is alien to us today. At about the same time as the above image Nathaniel Drinkwater ran a fruiterer's in the Court of Requests yard, and the image itself suggests that there may also have been a brewery, the passage leading to the court was often 'packed along with baskets of goods and boxes',[3] so business and life went on around the building with the prisoners being audible and perhaps visible through the heavily barred windows.

The house had been acquired by the newly homeless Court of Requests in 1784 as the court had originally been held in the room above the Old Cross, a building demolished that year; and had been, since an act of Parliament in 1752, the court dealing with small debts of no more than 40 shillings for the Birmingham and Aston area. Larger debts were still dealt with at the county court. Both at the Old Cross, and at the court’s new home, 72 ‘commissioners’[3a] were chosen from the local area to pass judgement, only three sitting for each hearing, and always on Friday’s. The Court of Requests also shared the building with the town’s magistrates, but in 1807 they moved to the new public offices in Moor Street, and the building became synonymous with the ‘poor debtors’ that it incarcerated. The same year the magistrates moved out the building was also extended and another act was passed so that the court could deal with those with debts up to £5.

There is a definite sympathy in the writing of contemporaries;[4] Walter Showell notes in 1882 that there were 'many [who] are still living who can recollect the miserable cry of "Remember the poor debtors," which resounded morning, noon and night from the heavily-barred windows of these underground dungeons'.[5] How true this was is uncertain, but for any person in business, except the very wealthy, bankruptcy and the prospect of debtor’s prison could be a very real threat, especially as fashions waxed and waned and economies (as today) were uncertain. On the 1841 census, just three years before the prison shut down, there were 24 men and one woman incarcerated in the court of requests. Some were serial bankrupts, such as James Stainton, an ivory and bone turner, and Henry Flavell, a publican. William Luckcock, a jeweller, was most likely related to the wealthier Luckcock brothers whose jeweller’s establishment was on St. Paul’s Square, so there were business owners from all parts of the social spectrum.

The poor conditions of the prison were well known, it had been nicknamed the ‘Louse Hole’, and considering that the poorest inside slept on the cellar floor with only straw, lice were likely not to be the only problem. Some could purchase better conditions, but those were often businessmen who had chosen a spell in prison over paying their debts. In 1827 a report recorded that the paying inmates (paying two shillings a week) still slept three to a bed and that 19 of these men slept in a space only four paces square.[6] Those sentenced to time in the prison and these conditions (at the time when the maximum debt was £5) received 'one day in durance for each shilling due',[7] but no more than 100 days in total. There could be 30 to 40 trials an hour, with about one in ten being sentenced to imprisonment, and there could be no appeal to the verdict.

[*] References available on request.
[3a]  Although originally anyone who wanted to could apply to be a commissioner, towards the latter part of the courts use all commissioners were required to have an income from real estate of at least £50 per year of be personally worth £1000.[8] William Hutton (the historian) was a commissioner for about 19 years till the riots of 1791 when he retired his post.
[6] Chris Upton, 'Heavy Punishments 200 Years Ago', Birmingham Post, 14 May 2010, found online here.

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