Book Review: Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Paul Blake

Bankrupt Ancestors, Bankruptcy
Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians by Paul Blake

Tracing Your Insolvent Ancestors: A Guide for Family & Local Historians. By Paul Blake. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. £14.99. US Distributor: Casemate Publishers 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. $29.95. 2019. 223 pp. Illustrations. Softcover.

This is not a book for the new researcher or beginner. This is an excellent, very detailed deep dive into a voluminous set of records about which little has been written. Debtors’ prisons are infamous – Charles Dickens father was in one, and many of his characters spent time there. Many people were often incarcerated following misfortune or mismanagement rather than criminal intent. The time spent there varied from a few days to years and stories this far back may not have survived within the family.

In reading this detailed book I wondered how one would even know the ancestor was a debtor. The clue came on page 193 where Mr. Blake suggests that “Reports in local or national newspapers can often be the first indication of a debtor or bankrupt ancestor, which can lead to surviving official records” 

Mr. Blake introduces his subject by highlighting the difference between insolvent debt and bankruptcy, the latter prior to 1842 being limited to traders owing more than £100, with the emphasis on traders. This distinction eliminated most skilled craftsmen and farmers.  The Stature of Merchants in 1283 made it possible for creditors to register major debts and use imprisonment to enforce them. In 1351 the use of immediate imprisonment was extended to civil debt in general. The ability to imprison someone for debt did not end until 1869. Thus, there are over 500 years of records for debtors.

After providing some background on insolvent debtors, the book addresses the machinery of justice and the many courts in which debtors can be found, followed by a chapter on charities and the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors. The next five chapters examine different aspects for insolvent debtors: courts and court records; imprisonment; common law, central prisons and their records; London courts and their records; London prisons and their records. The final three chapters examine: county debtors, i.e. those outside London; bankruptcy; and newspapers. Throughout there are mini case studies, with examples of what the records look like, and how to use the finding aids.

The book concludes with a surprising long list of Acts of Parliament in chronological order concerning debtors, imprisonment, sanctuary and bankruptcy in England from 1275 to 1901, plus a list of Regnal years.

If you have found an ancestor, probably in a newspaper, who is identified as an insolvent debtor or bankrupt then this is the book to which you must turn. This is the only book available that guides the reader step-by-step through these voluminous sets of records to find the details of misfortune that family historians so love to find. This book is highly recommended.

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