Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A begging letter from a debtor’s prison

Begging letters from debtors don’t usually survive, although there are at least three reasons why they might. Perhaps the writer was a well known person who at the time was down on his luck and counted on a friend or person of means to help him out. Alternatively, the writer could later have become famous or even notorious and the letter would be regarded as a souvenir or talking point. Of course, the writer could have been neither famous nor notorious, and the retention of a begging letter was a means of recording a favour that one man owed to another.

This particular letter is from someone who signs himself M. Eurius Beaubrier, and is addressed to a Henry Clarke. Although preliminary research has revealed nothing of the writer, who may have been French, the handwriting is that of an educated man
and the tone is rather pathetic. The letter suggests that both he and Clarke, who is also hard to identify, had dealings before.

The plea for help comes from the King’s Bench prison in Southwark and is dated 20th July 1827. The tone is pretty desperate:

‘More than three months have elapsed since first I entered these walls--& God knows what have been my sufferings during that time. I have settled two of the actions against me & I can obtain my discharge on the last for about five pounds. I shall trespass on your friendship once more & for the last time & shall beg of you to lend me the amount which I shall faithfully repay with what you had the kindness to advance me already. I shall be indebted to you for my liberty, which I have learned to appreciate after so long a confinement.
I hope that the country air has been beneficial to you and that you are recovered from your late illness. Mrs Beaubrier writes to say that they have received letters from Sir William Congreve & that he finds himself much better.
I remain,
dear Sir,
your ever grateful,
M. Eurius Beaubrier'

It’s interesting that Sir William Congreve is mentioned. The inventor of the Congreve Rocket, he was a businessman who in 1826 was indicted for fraud. Fleeing to France to escaped prosecution, he was to die on the continent in 1828.

The King’s Bench Prison, which was opened in 1758, was reserved for debtors and for those sentenced by the court of King’s Bench. One of the first inmates was the novelist Tobias Smollett, who was confined in 1759. Dickens placed Micawber here in David Copperfield, although his father, who was the model for Micawber, was actually confined at another debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea, just up the road. In Thomas Allen’s History of London ( 1829 ) the King’s Bench  was described as consisting of ‘ one large pile of building, about 120 yards long ‘ containing 224 rooms or apartments, eight of which were called state rooms. Within the walls were ‘a coffee house and two public houses, shops and stalls for meat, vegetables, and necessaries of almost every description’ that gave the place the appearance of a ‘public market’. Not surprisingly, in the opinion of Allen, the numbers of people engaged in amusement and other activities were ‘little calculated to impress the stranger with an idea of distress, or even of confinement’.

Indeed, prisoners in no hurry to repay their creditors could enjoy a cushy life, especially if they were prepared to pay extra to secure the ‘liberties’, which amounted to an area of ‘ about three miles in circumference’, available beyond the jail’s 30 foot high wall, Presumably, if they were reluctant to face their responsibilities an  almost normal existence could be enjoyed by the debtors, who were allowed to take up actual residence within these precincts, although by so doing they lay themselves open to harassment or serious physical assault from indignant creditors or their agents. In Allen’s view, these privileges rendered the King’s Bench ‘the most desirable place of incarceration for debtors in England ‘. [R.M.Healey]


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