Crime & Punishment in England (1700s/mid 1800s): Debtor's Prisons, Indentured Servants and More

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Debtors' prisons, such as Fleet, held both men and women and overcrowding was always a problem.
Solutions for overcrowded prisons included:

Exportation Abroad as Indentured Servants
Most indentured servants came voluntarily, choosing to be indentured servants in exchange for passage to America, which they could not otherwise afford. Many, however, were convicts who were given the "choice" to be indentured over prison. Much in the manner that soldiers were convinced to fight in the Crusades several hundred years before, indentured servitude offered convicts a way out of their prison term. Many thought this was a good deal and between 1661 and 1700 alone, at least 4,500 convicts, about one-quarter of them women, were "pardoned" from crimes in exchange for being sent as indentured servants to the Colonies.

Terms of indenture varied substantially, from four years for skilled adults to a decade or more for unskilled minors. And all could find their terms extended if they ran away or, in the case of women, if they became pregnant.

Press-Ganged into the Navy
Yet another "option" for the convict was service in the Royal Navy.

Note: More information on this topic to be added.

Related links:

Making Sense of English Law Enforcement in the 18th Century - an essay by David Friedman.

Trial & Punishment - from a PBS site on 18th century England.

From the site London Ancestor, 1819 descriptions of London prisons:
Newgate Prison
Tothill Fields Bridewell
Also at this site:
Courts of Justice - with many links.

*** *** ***

Tyburn Tree

Newgate Prison

Brief History During the Snow Era (1813-1858) - more on Newgate Prison.

Last Mile Tours - The Execution of Capital Punishment in Eighteenth Century England at Newgate Prison.

Fleet Prison

The Newgate Calendar - an extensive online account of crimes and criminals in England (late 17th and to mid 19th century).

Exporting Convicts Abroad and/or Indentured Servants:

Perish or Prosper: The Law and Convict Transportation in the British Empire, 1700-1850 - an in-depth article by Bruce Kercher from the journal, Law and History Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2003.

Passage to America, 1750 - they weren't criminals, but many immigrants indentured themselves for passage to America. This article describes the horrible journey. From the site Eye Witness to History.

Indentured Servants and Transported Convicts - a short overview from the site of the Stratford Hall plantation.

The People of British America, 1700-1750 - describes colonial emigration.

Print Resources:

Blumenthal, Walter Hart. (1973) Brides From Bridewell: Female Felons Sent to Colonial America. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., Greenwood Press Reprint.


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