6 best websites for tracing debtors and bankrupt ancestors

By Guest, 27 October 2016 - 5:25pm

Thankfully for researchers, our ancestors’ financial woes tended to generate quite a paper trail. Jonathan Scott looks at some of the best resources for finding records of debtors and bankrupts online

1. The National Archives (link)

Although The National Archives (TNA) holds “relatively little information on individual bankrupts and insolvent debtors” (the majority of material is held in local archives), this concise research guide points researchers in the right direction for further material – both on and offline.

It details what can be found using the London Gazette (see below), and the London material that is held at TNA – registers of creditors’ petitions from after 1869 (B 6/178-183), which record bankruptcy cases heard in London; and records of the likes of Fleet Prison.

There are also podcasts and webinars on the wider subject of debt and poverty, including this podcast on ‘The Real Little Dorrit’.

2. Debtors' prison registers (link)

Ancestry has put together a dedicated page that enables you to search for London debtors held at the three main debtors’ prisons: Fleet Street, Kings’ Bench and Marshalsea.

The King’s Bench and Fleet Prison Discharge Books and Prisoner Lists (1734-1862) is drawn from the original record series (PRIS 10) held at TNA. You will also find Marshalsea Prison Commitment and Discharge Books from between 1811 and 1842, again drawn from TNA’s collections.

There’s also the more general England & Wales Criminal Registers database (1791-1892) as well as records from Bodmin Gaol (1821-99) and Dorchester Prison (1782-1901).

3. The Bankrupt Directory (link)

Remember that while it was illegal to be an insolvent debtor, it was not illegal to declare oneself bankrupt. Individuals could get around this by assigning themselves a general trade, such as ‘dealer’.

In any event, one useful research tool available here is the Bankrupt Directory, 1820-43 on Findmypast. This comprises more than 32,130 records from England and Wales, transcribed from The Bankrupt Directory, by George Elwick, which itself drew on bankruptcies recorded in The London Gazette (see below).

4. York Castle Prison (link)

This is just one example of the kind of database you sometimes find generated through county archives or museums. The York Castle Prison database lists around 5,000 convicted criminals, victims of crime and “debtors who pleaded insolvency” from between c1709 and 1813.

Although incomplete, there’s a useful research guide, which describes the source (again, The London Gazette), where debtors had to publish three notices of their intention to plead insolvency. As the guide notes: “Imprisonment for debt was very common. If you have lost track of someone before 1869, it is always worth considering this possibility.

For Yorkshire, besides York Castle, there were debtors’ prisons in York City (Ousebridge and St Peter’s), Beverley, Halifax, Leeds (Rothwell), Richmond, and Sheffield (Hallamshire).”

5. Victorian Crime and Punishment (link)

Easter Rising Dublin

Victorian Crime and Punishment has a page relating to debtors, plus you can search the website’s database of prisoners by this keyword to see examples of debtor inmates.

The first hit is 40-year-old Samuel Henry Towe, who in April 1897 was sentenced to 21 days imprisonment at Newington, Surrey. This includes personal and physical details, such as hair colour, height and occupation – in his case a fishmonger.”

6. Expert's choice: The Gazette (link)

Chosen by Dr Ian Maxwell, former PRONI record officer and the author of Tracing Your Glasgow Ancestors and How to Trace Your Irish Ancestors:

The Gazette is the UK’s official public record, and is comprised of three publications: The London Gazette, The Belfast Gazette and The Edinburgh Gazette.

"It traces its origins back to 1665 when King Charles II, having moved his court to Oxford to escape the ravages of the plague in London, approved the first issue of a newspaper called The Oxford Gazette. When the court returned to London early the following year the newspaper came with it and was first published as The London Gazette on 5 February 1666.

"For more than 350 years The Gazette disseminated government news, regulatory and legal information and details of military appointments and promotions. Almost from the beginning notices about bankruptcies began to be published and it quickly became standard practice to publish a formal statement there, showing the name, address and occupation of the bankrupt.

"Between 1813 and 1861 (and less frequently in earlier times) notices of the date and place of the hearing of petitions from insolvent debtors, usually but not always in prison, regularly appear. It is from these notices that the lists published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Times and other periodicals derive.

"So, if you have a Wilkins Micawber in the family who succumbed to the law because of debt or insolvency, you should visit this website. It facilitates searches by keyword, date or subject making a treasure-trove of information more accessible than ever before.”


A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

From the office: Appreciating our rural ancestors
previous blog Article
From the office: The Women's Land Army in WW1
next blog Article
From the office: Appreciating our rural ancestors
previous blog Article
From the office: The Women's Land Army in WW1
next blog Article
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here