Many of those who fell into debt in the late 1700s and early 1800s were interned in Debtor’s prisons until they repaid what they owed. Philanthropy was the only option for many, and the late 18th century saw increasing activity by charitable organisations aiming to help deserving cases. The most prominent, founded in 1772, was the Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts – more usually known as Thatched House or the Craven Street Society.
Its membership paid an annual subscription of just over £2. At their meetings they considered petitions for financial aid from debtors owing less than £10. Good moral character and sobriety was required of claimants. The impact of the society’s from 1772 to 1831 is clear in this publication, which details their activities. Over those 60 years they enabled 51,250 people to discharge their debts and rejoin society, at an average cost of just under £3.
The society’s figurehead was the prison reformer James Neild (1744–1814). He believed most fell into debt because of bad luck rather than bad character, and did not think imprisonment a valid approach. Part of the Society’s ethos was that creditors had a spiritual and moral duty to work compassionately with debtors rather than against them, and so it would only pay part of the amount owed to them.
- Full title:
- A summary view of the money annually expended by the Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts throughout England and Wales, from the institution in March 1772, to the 31st of December, 1831…
- estimated 1832, probably London
- Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts
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- British Library