1841 was a bad year for my ancestor William Walters and his family of Pont Wedwst in Cilrhedyn, Carmarthenshire, Wales. They buried one son, Samuel, aged 25, on 8th February 1841. And the Census of England and Wales taken on 6th June 1841 shows 2 more sons in Carmarthen County Gaol: David (from later censuses, aged circa 23) and Robert (aged circa 21) see 1 below.

What sources will help me verify that these individuals are my relatives, and learn more about their imprisonment? I'm particularly interested in when and why they were imprisoned, and when and how they were released.

  1. HO107 piece 1387 book 6 folio 3 page 1 is the first page of schedule for the Gaol of the County of Carmarthen, and shows a David and Robert Walters both aged 20 with occupation "Debtor - Mason", both born in the county. There are no other matches in the census in Carmarthenshire or neighbouring Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire with the right names and occupations and approximate ages. In the 1851 census they are both masons in Cilrhedyn.

My first thought (probably yours) is that the two of them had been imprisoned for debt.

I can at least sketch out what I have found for my (presumed) 4G GF Henry Marley (abt 1781 - 1853), who was imprisoned for debt in Bristol in 1840 and 1846 or thereabouts. Quite how much transfers, I don't know.

The first thing to note is that the Charles Dickens inspired picture of debtors flung into prison for the rest of their lives is - at least for my ancestor - nonsense at this period. Next thing is to note that bankrupts and insolvent debtors are, at this time, different, and the Walters brothers are probably the latter. There are 2 TNA Guides Looking for records of a bankrupt or insolvent debtor and Bankrupts and insolvent debtors: further research which may help. The difference between the two is that bankrupts were traders owing at least £100 who couldn't pay, while insolvent debtors had private debts.

Crucially, once a bankrupt has had their assets liquidated, then the money goes to pay off their creditors and if they only get 6 pence in the pound back - that's it, that's all they get and the bankrupt can be discharged. But an insolvent debtor can never be discharged until they have paid off all their debts. Insolvent debtors were originally imprisoned, which, to say the least, hampered their ability to pay off debt. Eventually a "Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors" was created and when the insolvent debtors surrendered their property, they could be released from prison - subject to the agreement of their creditors. However, they were not discharged from their debts, subsequently acquired property remaining liable to claim by their creditors.

The TNA Guide referred to gives various possibilities for information. Most of my sources for Henry Marley's debts come from newspaper references, usually when he was applying to be released from prison - the London Gazette seems a good source. For example:

Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors Saturday the 20th day of June 1840 Orders have been made, vesting in the Provisional Assignee the Estates and Effects of the following Persons: (On their own Petitions) ... Henry Marley, late of Great Ann street, Bristol, Currier. - In the Gaol of the city of Bristol. ...

"Insolvent Debtors" looks like a good search term. One of the local papers the Bristol Mercury also has notices relating to requests for release. However, all these notices are fairly formulaic - they may add enough in terms of occupation and address to confirm who the debtors are but seldom seem to explain why the debt arose.

I did try to work my way through the TNA records in the B8 and B6 series for Henry Marley. B8 is an index. I found his case in the B6 files but there isn't much there - just data about the gaol, name, occupation, and dates relating to his petition for release.

The detail about the original imprisonment is held - I am told - in court records at Bristol. They are not in the Quarter Sessions records (I think this is a typical place for them elsewhere) but in the records of Bristol's Court of Requests which dealt with small debts. The Archivist did find the case in those records - I've not seen the records myself yet but she did describe the records as "not very informative". They did, nevertheless, state who the creditor was and the amount owed (£4 11s 6d).

My impression is that there's unlikely to be much more than this for Henry, at least.

Given the existence of the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors, I am wondering how much justification there is for the Dickensian view of imprisonment for life, which even infects the TNA Guide.


Parliamentary papers such as Sessional Papers Printed by Order of the House of Lords, Or Presented by Royal Command, in the Session 40 & 50 Victoriæ (26th January-22d June) and the Session 50 Victoriæ (19th August-7th October) 1841, Arranged in Volumes: Accounts and papers (available in Google Books) include annual reports of institutions, such as Carmarthen Gaol, that list numbers of inmates by type and the state of repair of the buildings, but seem unconcerned about the actual individuals incarcerated.

A far more "personal" view is gained from Twelve Months in a Victorian Gaol by E. Vernon Jones (available at Carmarthenshire Historian) drawing upon the Gaoler's Journal (CRO 4916) for 1845-6.

He notes

The house of correction and the prison chapel were accommodated in the gaol which had been built by John Nash to face Spilman Street. Adjoining were the debtor's cells. What rigours the inmates suffered is not apparent from the Gaoler's reports, but it is evident that they were tender enough at Christmastide to allow the 'poor debtors' within to celebrate tipsily at the expense of the pecuniary sympathy of well-wishers without. Except in certain cases, such as debt against the Crown, imprisonment for debt was abolished by the Debtors Act 1869.

It looks as though a search for other volumes of that journal in the Carmarthen County Archive might be productive.


Court records are likely to give information on the reasons for imprisonment. I would check the Quarter Sessions first. If that draws a blank consider other courts that may have heard the case. Local court petty sessions (e.g. magistrates/police court) and higher appeal court's records may be fruitful.


I suspect that the occupation of "Debtor - Mason" recorded in the census is a major clue as to the reason for their imprisonment. It most likely means they were imprisoned as debtors - in other words because they owed people money and couldn't pay.

In large cities there were specific prisons for debtors but in other areas they were likely mixed with other prisoners, and the wikipedia article certainly suggests that was sometimes the case.

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