What Were Debtors' Prisons Like in the Victorian Era?

Victorian Era debtors' prisons were purposefully unpleasant. Whether separate workhouses or a section of the general prisons, debtors' prisons were unsanitary, over-crowded and dangerous environments in which those convicted of owing money they could not repay were placed in the general population with violent criminals. Such prisons existed in England.

In the mid-1800s, Victorians grew concerned about the increasing crime rate. According to the United Kingdom's National Archives, criminal offences, including petty crimes and debt, increased from about 5,000 in 1800 to roughly 20,000 in 1840. To remedy the problem, the government began incarcerating people, including debtors, in old buildings that were often damp, rat-infested and nearly always cramped owing to high numbers of inmates. Those placed in such prisons included children and adults both male and female. A jailer operated each prison according to his unique rules. Inmates were only released at the jailer's discretion.

According to PBS, debtors were often imprisoned with their entire families, including children. In some cases children were able to come and go as they pleased, and would sometimes attempt to help work off their parents' debts while outside the prisons. By 1869 the British government abolished debtors' prisons. However, those who had the means to repay their debts and chose not to could still be imprisoned for up to six weeks.