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Debtors Prison

If a person fell into debt before 1869 it was dealt with according to the amount of the debt. For debts of over £100 the debtors could apply for bankruptcy which would wipe out the debt and allow the person to continue trade, enabling him in time to pay off his debts. If however the amount was for less than £100 the debtor could be sent to prison until the debt was repaid. In London there were prisons exclusively for debtors and prisoners were often joined by their wives and families though they were charged for accommodation by the warders which added to the debt. Often prisoners died in prison being unable to secure sufficient funds to repay the debt. Outside London the debtors were imprisoned with all other types of criminal, and rarely had their families with them.

We found Thomas and Mary HESOM together in Willoughby on the 1841 census. Mary was the oldest child of Zaccheus and Ruth ELLARD. Zaccheus was the youngest brother of William ELLARD (1731-?) [5785] who is on our direct line. Ruth ELLARD nee HART [5788] mentions Thomas and Mary HESOM in her will.

On the 1851 census Thomas’ wife Mary nee ELLARD was still in Willoughby as a farmer’s wife aged 78 years but Thomas was not with her. We then found Thomas HESOM [9128] in Coventry Goal in Holy Trinity as an insolvent prisoner.

The Goal is on three schedules the first having the governor and his household together with the prison staff. The second lists convicts and miscreants while the third schedule lists 4 “misdements” 3 “for trial” 1 “small debt” and 6 “insolvent” so it appears that debtors were separated somewhat from the more serious criminals.

All but one of the debtors were married and the census does not show any family members resident with them. The debtors are given as a grocer, 2 ribbon manufacturers, a weaver, a printer, a farmer and a wine merchant and their ages ranged from 21-77.

Thomas is entered as Thomas HESOM Mar 77 farmer Warwickshire.

As yet we don’t know if he died in the prison but we do know that his death is registered in the December quarter 1858 in the Rugby district four years after Mary’s death (December quarter 1854). Both are buried in Willoughby with no extra note in the register to indicate where he died. There is no existing headstone for either of them.

As Thomas and Mary did not have any children it is difficult to see how they would have been able to find sufficient money to pay the debt off. It would have been difficult for Mary to visit the goal regularly if at all, even though Coventry is only about 10 miles from Willoughby.

Thomas HESOM had been an overseer of the poor in Willoughby for several years during the 1820s, He was an executor to Thomas ELLARD’s will, and was named as a land owner in the Land Evaluation book for Willoughby in 1824. A farmer could be put out of business by an accident, illness or economic pressures but Thomas’s situation was due to a dispute between the school master and the trustees of a charity that was paying for the school and its master. Thomas was one of ten trustees who had signed an agreement with the school master. Other family trustees were Thomas ELLARD and William ELLARD.  In 1831 the school master was issued with three notices to quit the house and his post at the school each notice giving 6 months. The master ignored all three notices so some of the trustees went and removed all his belongings from the house and forcibly ejected the master. As a result he bought four actions against the trustees. One for damages by the master, one for the master and his wife, one for the eviction of his son and one for assult on his daughter. The schoolmaster was awarded £1,130 damages against the trustees. The costs of attorneys etc being almost that amount again. The remaining trustees were quite unable to pay such huge amount. The case was discussed in Parliament and can be read at


Tracing Your Family Tree by Kathy CHATER has an interesting chapter on Bankruptcy and insolvency.

Land Evaluation book for Willoughby in 1824 held in Warwick Record Office

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