COLUMN: Jailed in Sheffield for non-payment of debt

Phil Meekin
Phil Meekin
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Imagine having a growing family, earning low wages and owing the local baker forty quid, which you cannot pay.

There’s is a knock on the door and, to your shock, you are arrested. With little alternative your wife and four youngest children join you in prison.

This isn’t fiction it is the true story of John Dickens – father of famous author Charles Dickens, who was arrested in 1824 and detained in Marshalsea prison, London.

This had a profound impact on Charles who was only 12 at the time and later became a keen advocate for prison reform. In fact much of his novel, Little Dorrit, is set in Marshalsea.

In the past if you could not pay your way you were known as an “insolvent debtor” which was an offence and as such punishable by imprisonment.

Conditions in prisons were generally grim. In 1729 a British Parliamentary Committee found that 300 prisoners had died of starvation in a period of three months.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries incredibly over half the prison population in England were there because of debt.

During the same period some 10,000 people were imprisoned for debt each year, and the people of Sheffield did not escape that fate.

Sheffield had its own debtor’s prison. According to Our Broomhall “the Jail was built in 1771, having moved from Bishop St, in what was then called Jail Street later Tudor Street and then finally Thomas Street, off the Sheffield Moor”.

The idea that you could be imprisoned for non-payment of debts seems unbelievable in 21st century, but in certain circumstances it is still a possibility.

For example if there is an element of fraud involved or false information was provided to secure credit this could result in a prison sentence.

Less commonly, the non-payment of fines, maintenance payments and even non-payment of Council Tax or Business Rates could all, in theory, result in a prison sentence.

These days, other than the circumstances outlined above, the non-payment of debts does not result in being put behind bars. Attitudes have changed and help is available to assist individuals and businesses to address their financial problems.

If you are having sleepless nights worrying about unpaid bills and trying to make ends meet, contact a licensed insolvency practitioner who can outline what options are available and how to get back on track with your finances.

This column is brought to you in association with Phil Meekin, Head of Marketing for Wilson Field.