English Bankrupts 1732-1831: A Social Account
Date: 24 May 2021
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in History
During the long eighteenth century in England many thousands of men and women became bankrupts, but little is known today about what they experienced as bankrupts. This study seeks to redress this imbalance by giving an account of the social experience of a wide and varied sample of English bankrupts from between the years 1732 and ...
During the long eighteenth century in England many thousands of men and women became bankrupts, but little is known today about what they experienced as bankrupts. This study seeks to redress this imbalance by giving an account of the social experience of a wide and varied sample of English bankrupts from between the years 1732 and 1831. Through the employment of twenty-four case studies this study introduces the reader to some very different members of the English middling sort, all of whom, however, were engaged in a trade at which they failed. Some of these bankrupts were the predictable tropes of bankers and merchants who risked too much, but others were small provincial businessmen and shopkeepers. This study therefore challenges notions that bankruptcy was largely an event affecting only speculators and the extravagant. Each case study is supported by a variety of sources, for example, law court and bankruptcy commission records, personal correspondence, private journals, self-published exculpatory pamphlets and press reports. Together the sources reveal bankrupts’ personal experience, their beliefs, attitudes, anxieties, reflections and introspections. The social and cultural climate that surrounded bankrupts is represented by a range of polemical pamphlets and treatises, newspaper columns, advice literature, novels, verse and plays. Bankruptcy was not always the soft-option choice of the privileged. There was a larger overlap between the regimes of imprisonment for debt and bankruptcy in England in the long eighteenth century than is often supposed. This study will show that it was because all traders faced the real prospect of being summarily flung into debtors’ gaol, that bankruptcies were triggered. The study explores bankrupts’ relationships with family and friends and finds how these connections continued to represent the most vital safety net against poverty, and how dire the consequences were when these affinities failed. Space and time were transformed for bankrupts as the law deprived them of freedom to move and trapped them in proceedings of indeterminate duration. Finally, the study assesses how bankrupts and their families experienced sudden financial and personal loss, and how they responded to, and came to terms with, downward social mobility. They lost property, public roles, status, often their health, and even their lives. However, as this study shows, not all bankrupts were equal in the degree to which their experience was unpleasant or tragic. Some sank, whilst others rose to the surface again to lead, often different, new lives.
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