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Written by BarbaraB
(10/18/2012 11:46 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Ch. 31, penned by Stephanie
I have found this topic of spunging-houses/debtor’s prisons very interesting and have spent some time trying to find some information about them. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal about debtor’s prisons and far less about spunging houses, (also spelled sponging).
As Jane Austen and Crime points out, “...in the Georgian age no-one could remain in ignorance of establishments such as Newgate or be unaware of the horrors of Georgian imprisonment. Clearly, Jane Austen knew all about gaols and, from the evidence of her early writing, she was fascinated by them at a young age. Around the age of 13 she wrote the story of Henry and Eliza which describes a hilariously funny imprisonment:..."
And in her story Love and Friendship Augustus is imprisoned for debt. Indeed, the idea of confinement runs as a theme throughout Mansfield Park. Austen is known to have toured Canterbury Gaol with her brother Edward, whose duty was was to check on this county facility as a Magistrate. This visit, known because she mentioned it in a letter to her sister, happened in 1813 so whether she ever visited before S&S, doesn’t seem to be known. The point is, that her ongoing interest from an early age was more than enough to make her well acquainted with the prison system.
About spunging houses. An annotation in my Kindle text reports: “A place in which a person arrested for debt would be incarcerated before the case was heard and, if guilty, the person transferred to debtor’s prison. [In general] The spunging-house was privately run, and depending on one’s resources, would supply one with better quarters, bedding, food and books, etc. In an astonishing case, a wealthy aunt of Jane Austen was accused of shop-lifting a piece of lace in Bath worth just a few shillings and was confined to a spunging-house for nine months before trial. Her husband moved in with her.” In actuality, her Aunt Leigh-Perrot resided in the gaoler's (prison jailer’s) home. I imagine it is referred to as a spunging-house because of the similar set-up and it may well be that he took in debtor’s as well.
Were servants, outcasts, and such allowed into spunging houses? From the information I found, a creditor would go to the sheriff with a complaint and a warrant was issued for the person’s arrest and placement into a spunging-house, usually by a bailiff who generally ran the spunging house himself in his own home. A couple of sources said a person had 24 hours, another said it was 3 days and others were general pointing to the fact that a person needed to try to work things out as quickly as possible. I never came across anything that secluded any elements of society in this process. You would think it would be in the best interest of everyone to allow anyone the opportunity to try to resolve their debt. A servant might have a present employer or former employer or possibly family and friends who might be able to gather the amount if it was not too much. Brandon said the servant he was visiting was a former one who may not have even been a servant any longer. Some were able to save money to start their own business or found jobs in the growing industrial area. Eliza may have cited wealthy family members, wealthy former lovers (as Bridget said), etc as possibly being willing to help out. I could find nothing conclusive on this point. However, I feel that Jane Austen knew quite well the difference between a spunging-house and debtor’s prison. I can only assume that perhaps, districts may have differed in terms of what they allowed and for how long. I, too, am a fan of Shapard but he may not have been aware that there might have been some differences in some spunging-houses, if indeed there were. It just seems to me that if JA had a servant and an outcast in a spunging-house, she must have known that this was a possibility, in at least some of them---smaller country/rural districts which might have been more lax???
As to Eliza having a child with her, almost every source I saw on debtor’s prisons said that families moved in with the husband/father and children were born and raised in debtor’s prisons so children in spunging houses, temporary stops, would have been nothing at all I would think.
Not a lot of concrete information but hope it helps.
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