The Gaols Committee of 1729

The committee that investigated the conditions of London main gaols during the 1729 and 1730 sessions was one of the first great ‘social’ inquiries by the House of Commons.   It was long remembered for its pioneering and humanitarian concern for the plight of thousands of respectable people who found themselves imprisoned for nothing more than being unable to pay off debts to their creditors.  The committee’s exposure both of the horrors of the prison underworld and the ill-treatment of debtors by the judicial system won widespread public acclaim.  To the discomfiture of the ministry, the inquiry’s findings were exploited by opposition journalists as a metaphor for the corruption on which Walpole’s ministry appeared to thrive.

London’s chief gaols were managed by wardens who had purchased their offices and saw their duties as money-making opportunities.   They extorted elaborate systems of weekly or monthly fees from prisoners in respect of their maintenance, which if not paid resulted in the withdrawal of minor privileges and basic comforts.  Most debtors tended to be small businessmen or tradesmen, and often were the innocent victims of economic circumstances beyond their control.   All too often individuals and their families became absorbed into the depraved and squalid low-life of the gaol.  Periodically, parliament passed ‘relief’ Acts enabling prisoners who met certain conditions to be discharged.  But such legislation arose chiefly from the need to relieve the pressure of overcrowding in prison buildings rather than from any compassionate motives on the part of MPs.   Though prison conditions were a major concern of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, there was little its pious members could do beyond providing modest charity and spiritual comfort.

The moving spirit behind the initiation of the Commons’ investigation in 1729 was James Edward Oglethorpe, a Tory MP whose family had Jacobite connections.   Oglethorpe had been much distressed when a friend, the architect Richard Castell, who had been committed to the Fleet Prison for debt the previous year, died there from smallpox.   On 25 February 1729 he moved for the appointment of a select committee ‘to inquire into the state of gaols of this kingdom’.   Despite its ambitious remit, the committee quickly decided that it would only be possible to concentrate on London’s main debtor gaols. 

Out of the 96 MPs nominated to the committee a sizeable core of activists soon emerged who dedicated themselves to the task of examining all aspects of prison life.   Attention concentrated initially on the notorious Fleet Prison, and then the Marshalsea.   The committee’s members, under Oglethorpe’s lead as chairman, met daily, made regular visits to the gaols, and often dined together after meetings.   A strong camaraderie among the members reinforced the sense of joint dedication to their purpose, and began to take an interest in other pressing social issues such as illegitimacy and pauperism.   After its first report on the Fleet Prison in March 1729 the committee began to attract much public notice and praise for its work, and further reports were awaited with anticipation.   Although the reports had prompted the Commons to charge the wardens and their accomplices with murder and other crimes, there had been little time for committee MPs to initiate reforming legislation.  Even so, at the close of the parliamentary session, Viscount Perceval, one of the members, commented that the committee had ‘got great honour’.   William Hogarth, a budding painter at this time, portrayed a delegation of the committee interviewing one of the gaolers amid the dark squalor and filth of one of the prisons.  Among the MPs said to feature with Oglethorpe in the painting are, Speaker Arthur Onslow, Perceval, Sir Archibald Grant, William Hucks and Hogarth’s father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill.

During the parliamentary recess Oglethorpe and several ex-committee colleagues became perturbed when the wardens of the Fleet and Marshalsea prisons together with their accomplices were tried and severally acquitted or lightly sentenced.   It was suspected that there had been jury-rigging, and MPs who had attended the trials found the conduct of the trial judges highly questionable.   There were rumours, too, that the lord chief justice of common pleas, Sir Robert Eyre, had visited Thomas Bambridge, the former warden of the Fleet Prison, at Newgate while awaiting trial.   Although it had been planned to extend the inquiry to other prisons in the next session, many former committeemen were now particularly anxious that some attention should focus on the role of the judges and the nature of their supervisory jurisdiction over prisons.  

Through the exploitation of its reports by the opposition press the committee had unavoidably provoked ministerial annoyance.   Oglethorpe chose to move for the committee’s reappointment, on 17 Feb. 1730, at the very moment the ministry was plunged into a parliamentary crisis over opposition revelations that government officials had allowed the French to reconstruct their harbour at Dunkirk in contravention of the 1713 treaty of Utrecht.   The new inquiry consisted not only of former committeemen but also of whigs who had recently defected to the opposition and were keen to participate in opportunities to expose ministerial wrongdoing or neglect.  

On concluding its investigation into the King’s Bench prison at Southwark, the committee turned to the allegations that Lord Chief Justice Eyre had in some way colluded with Bambridge before his trial.   However, the ministry felt that the inquiry had gone too far and intervened directly to ensure that Eyre’s name was honourably cleared and the allegisations dismissed as a ‘wicked conspiracy’.   This effectively ended the committee’s work.   It also seemed to rule out any possibility of thoroughgoing legislation to reform prison conditions and management.   However, a number of the inquiry’s dedicated members, led by Oglethorpe, went on to form a charitable trust - the ‘Georgia Society’ – committed to establishing a new colony in New England where newly released debtors might start a new life.

Author: Andrew A. Hanham