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told by himself, that he has been known, in cases of poverty, to carry men through the Insolvent Court, "free, gratis, for nothing at all!"
This place is a little world in itself, an "imperium in imperio." The great diversity of characters, and the close association in which all are compelled, in a certain degree, to live with each other, their good or bad qualities display themselves involuntarily, and almost hourly, and afford continual sources of amusing and instructive reflection to the observer of human nature. Baronets, gentlemen, tradesmen, mechanics, black-legs, swell-mob gentry, and rogues of all degrees, form a more motley group than I should imagine can be found in any other part of the world. The advantages derivable to society from this sublime disdain of classification cannot but strike my readers.
Many a man enters this place with clean hands, and an honest heart, but departs a villain. It would be absurd to expect any other result. Men of mind, and men of industrious habits, are here condemned to pass months of their time in gross demoralizing idleness-cards, marbles, or any other occupation, no matter how degrading or how puerile, for the mere purpose of "killing time."
The "fraudulent debtor" stands precisely on the same footing as he who is honest and industrious, though unfortunate. Can any thinking man, then, be surprised that numbers become contaminated? If men of superior attainments can scarcely escape, and there are many of this class who, knowing the dread effects of this debasing atmosphere, exclaim bitterly against the pernicious system-what evils must not but result to the ignorant and uneducated?
Imprisonment for debt is absurd and cruel. It is a notorious fact, that creditors rarely obtain even two shillings in the pound from their incarcerated debtors. Who benefits, then, by the practice? Certainly neither creditors, debtors, nor society in general; on the contrary, all are materially injured-the first, by the loss of their money-the second, by the acquirement of idle and vicious habits-and the latter, by the bad example and practice of the preceding. Lawyers, sheriff's officers, governors, chaplains, and all the immediate attendants upon prisons, are the only persons who thrive upon the system. Hear what Dr. Johnson says:- 66 Although the misfortunes of an individual do not extend their influence to many, yet if the relations and effects of consanguinity and friendship are taken into consideration, and the general reciprocation of wants and benefits, which make one man dear or necessary to another, it may reasonably be supposed, that every man languishing in prison gives trouble of some kind or other to two others, who either love or need him. By this multiplication of misery, distress is thus extended in a threefold ratio."
Some men there have been, who have preferred living years in prison to paying their just and perhaps impoverished creditors. Such men should be made to suffer; but is the fact so? Undoubtedly not. How many men of fortune in the "King's Bench, the Fleet, and within the Rules" of both, have lived, and are now living, in comfort and ease (some in absolute splendour) upon those means which ought, in common justice, to be devoted to the payment of their debts? Many men spend their hundreds (some few their thousands) per annum in these places, in the full enjoyment of every good-liberty excepted; whilst the unfortunate tradesman, ruined, perhaps, by these circumstances, and
the poor mechanic, depending upon his labour and industry, are suddenly torn from their homes, families, and occupations, and incarcerated within the walls of a prison, there to languish in indolence and misery. But the misery of jails is not half their evil; they are filled with every corruption which poverty and wickedness can engender between them, with all the shameless and profligate enormities that can be produced by the impudence of ignominy and the malignity of despair.
I have known persons who, for three whole weeks, loathing with disgust the association into which they had fallen, have“ refused to be comforted," yet have ultimately become joyous and reckless as the most abandoned. Men thrown into gaol, after a brief communion with their fellow-prisoners, feel that the public eye is lost, and that the power of the law is spent ; here there are no blushes, few fears.
Every one fortifies himself as he best can against his own sensibility, endeavours to practise on others the arts practised on himself, and gains the kindness of his companions by similitude of manners.
Morality is sapped to its very foundation in such places. Chaplains may pray, preach, expound, and exhort, with all the eloquence of a "Paul," the fervour and devotion of a "David," or the religious zeal and love of the apostles and evangelists combined, and their efforts will be vain, so long as men are condemned-compelled to live in idleness, and in association with, not unfrequently, characters of the very worst description, who, from their very boldness in iniquity, awe their fellows, and acquire a fatal influence over minds less strong and less steeped in vice than their own.
Dr. Johnson's remarks are so well worthy attention, that I trust an apology will not be necessary for introducing them. "The monastic institutions," said the great lexicographer, "have been often blamed as tending to retard the increase of mankind; and perhaps retirement ought rarely to be permitted, except to those whose employment is consistent with abstraction, and who, though solitary, will not be idle; to those whom infirmity makes useless to others, or who have paid their due proportion to society; and to those who, having lived for others, may be dismissed to live for themselves.
"But whatever be the evil or folly of these retreats, those have no right to censure them whose prisons contain greater numbers than the monaseries of other countries.
"It is surely less criminal and less foolish to permit inaction than to compel it; to comply with doubtful opinions of happiness, than condemn to certain and apparent misery; to indulge the extravagances of erroneous piety, than to multiply and enforce temptations to wickedness."
Of all evils, that of imprisonment for small debts is surely the most barbarous the most senseless, of which any nation pretending to a high state of civilization can possibly be guilty. In what is denominated the forty-shilling ward of this prison, there are not less than 1200 inmates during the year; these remain ten, twenty, thirty, and forty days, according to their respective debts; during which period they receive the county allowance of bread and beef-the parishes in which they may reside supporting their families during the imprisonment of their natural protectors: thus, an exceedingly heavy burden falls upon the public in the shape of county and poor-rates, not only without an equivalent good, but for a positive and most extensive evil in the destruction
of moral and industrious habits amongst that class of persons who are doomed to live by the "sweat of their brow."
An old man, sixty-three years of age, was brought from Enfield one morning, for a debt of nine shillings! This old fellow was lame, and otherwise so exceedingly infirm, that it became necessary to hire a cart for the purpose of conveying him to this place; he had a wife twenty years younger than himself, and two children, who were left to the care of the parish during the fifteen days he remained here to wipe off the debt. His infirmities had for a long period prevented him from doing any work of a laborious nature, and that only which he had been able to pursue of late was to scare birds from corn-fields, for which, when employed, he received one shilling per diem. The debt was for a score at a chandler's shop, incurred during a period when there were either no birds to frighten, or no corn for them to devour.
This man remained during the period prescribed by law,-or, in other words, he had "nine shillings' worth at Barrett's ;" and then, in consequence of his inability to walk, he was provided with money to take himself home again.
The public and the creditor were great gainers by this man's incarceration! for which the former paid, in one shape or another, about three times the amount of the original demand!
Some six or seven years ago, during my stay in that part of his Majesty's dominions, an accident of rather an extraordinary nature occurred to a soldier of the 36th regiment, then in the West Indies. He was cleaning his accoutrements in the gallery or veranda of the barracks, in the island of Barbados, upon the first floor, when his ramrod accidentally fell over the balcony, which he requested a person below to throw up to him, leaning at the same time over the balustrade for the purpose of receiving it; it was thrown, and stuck fast in the corner of the poor fellow's right eye, close to the upper part of the nose, whither it had entered to the depth of an inch and a half, and required the greatest efforts to extract. He was taken to the hospital in great agony, and speechless, when it was discovered that a nerve had been punctured which paralyzed the tongue and the whole of the left side: at the end of six weeks he recovered his speech, but the perfect use of the left arm and leg has been denied him to the present hour. This man was sent home, and discharged with a pension of ninepence a-day: having only one serviceable arm, it may be readily imagined such a person cannot be much of a labourer; he is, however, enabled to earn a few pence by occasionally turning a mangle. This unfortunate being, with whose misfortunes I had been so well acquainted at the period of their occurrence, I accidentally found in this place, condemned to thirty days' imprisonment in total idleness, for a debt of twenty shillings and ninepence! Some persons will perhaps say he is rightly served for getting into debt; but I maintain not more rightly than is the creditor who trusted him by losing his money. This man is now a double burden upon the community-as a pensioner and prisoner.
Two Irish labourers, one for a debt of five shillings and threepence, the other eight and sixpence, were incarcerated about the same time, each having wives and young children--the latter five, the former eight; at the time of arrest the wife of one of them had fivepence in her possession, the other nothing; neither have any settlement in England, consequently no claim
upon any parish; the mercy of the overseers of that in which they lived has been invoked, and not in vain, but to a very small amount-viz., half a quartern loaf every other day! My readers will exclaim with me, as the apostles did of old, "What! is that amongst so many?"
These are only a few, out of numberless cases which might be cited, to prove the cruelty, iniquity, and folly of the practice. If we estimate at merely one shilling and sixpence per day, what is lost by the inaction and consumed in the support of each man, thus chained down to involuntary idleness, the public loss will amount in one year to 360,0007. ! taking the average number of persons imprisoned for debt to be 16,000, according to a statement recently laid before Parliament. And I am afraid that those persons who are best acquainted with prisons will be constrained to acknowledge that my statement is by no means exaggerated, when I suppose that the heaviness of sorrow, the corrosion of resentment, the corruption of confined air, want of exercise, not unfrequently of food, and all the frightful complicated horrors of prisons generally, have the effect of shortening the life of, at least, one in every five of those that are shut up from the common comforts of human life: thus perish yearly three thousand two hundred men, overborne by sorrow, consumed by famine, or putrified by filth!-many in the most vigorous and useful part of life; for, as Dr. Johnson truly says, "the thoughtless and imprudent, the busy and the active, are rarely old."
To the credit of the present Ministry, the abominable law of imprisonment for debt is about to be removed from our Statute-Book, by Sir John Campbell's bill, which has already been before the House for its abolition.
So great a change as this will effect cannot be viewed with indifference. "Gentlemen of the law," regarding with disgust all legal reforms, spare no pains to impress the public mind with a belief, that this bill must necessarily destroy confidence, and open a door for swindling, upon an extended scale. Nothing can be more absurd than this assumption; that confidence must be of a most unsubstantial nature, that has no other foundation than the power afforded by law of seizing the debtor's body, in default of payment; and it would not require a Solomon to prove that man an idiot, of no common degree, who would credit another, to any amount whatever, upon the certainty of putting him into prison at a subsequent period. And as to increased opportunities of swindling, that will be utterly impossible, unless tradesmen, with the old law, take leave of their common senses.
The Court for the relief of Insolvent Debtors was undoubtedly a humane emanation from the legislature, for the benefit of honest but unfortunate men; in some instances it operates thus; but, in very many cases, (and it is notorious that they are by far the greater number,) it is a cloak for fraud upon the part of debtors, and not unfrequently of revenge upon that of creditors.
It is almost as common for men to perjure themselves in their passage through this court as to breathe; and this circumstance is of such daily occurrence, that numbers not only make no secret of the matter, but pique themselves upon their ingenuity, which has enabled them thus to get whitewashed, and preserve means for themselves, by making over property to their friends. Doubtless, there are many highly honourable men who have been compelled, from misfortunes, to avail themselves of
this law; I speak not of such, but "the many," who, having led, hitherto, perhaps, blameless lives, and, before arrest, would have scorned dishonesty in any shape, but, torn from their wives, their families, their occupations, and, consequently, from the means of maintaining them, they are no longer the men they were; imprisonment, entailing ruin, makes them callous; and they then readily fall into plans and schemes, that, but a few weeks previous, they would have spurned with sentiments of horror and disgust. These are not imaginary statements, but, alas! too true, of the vicious effects of "imprisonment for debt," and which are not at all ameliorated by the practice and conduct of very many of the professional men who frequent this and other like places as attornies of the Insolvent Court: there are some few amongst them who are entitled to be classed under the head" respectable," but a very large proportion can lay no claim whatever to the appellation, and have no right, therefore, to quarrel with me for withholding it. Many of them are extremely needy men, who, by their specious manners and fair promises, impose upon the ignorant and credulous, induce such to sign a "retainer," obtain two, three, or more" sovereigns," according to the means of the client, and the influence they have acquired over him, file his petition, and then, not unfrequently, neglect him altogether. Many such cases have occurred within my own knowledge; one of extreme cruelty I will relate.
A poor man fell into the hands of one of the numerous agents" with which this place is infested, who contrived to get from the friends of his client various sums, to the amount of 10/. 4s., for the purpose of carrying his business through the Insolvent Court;-the petition was filed; the schedule commenced, but not completed; and the poor man was totally abandoned by this corrupt "agent." Ten weeks have passed since this circumstance took place the client still a prisoner; and ere he can obtain relief, he must commence de novo with another attorney.
Application was made to the attorney whom the agent professed to represent, when the former declared the latter had robbed him of various amounts, and this amongst others; whilst the agent returned the compliment by pronouncing his "master," or "employer," or whatever he may choose to call him, a scoundrel.* What redress has the sufferer? "An action," will be quickly answered by many persons. But where is such a man, as the one I have described, to find the sum of moneythe fortune (to him) necessary to go into a court of law? Our HEREDITARY legislative assembly will not permit us to have cheap law; poor persons, therefore, must go without it altogether, and submit to imposition, chicanery, and robbery, no matter how flagrant in their nature!
All attempts to check or reduce the iniquity of the system by which, under the semblance of law, men are pillaged of their property, are virulently opposed by my Lord Lyndhurst with all the "profession" at his heels; as though the latter had a "rested right" in the goods and fortunes of others, for them to appropriate, in the shape of costs, as they may think proper.
Law in this "happy country," this "free country," is a positive nuisance, in which no man ever embarked without great certain loss. A case in point has just occurred so monstrous in degree, that it ought to be distinctly impressed upon the mind of every Englishman.
* Both attorney and agent have now totally disappeared.