The Conditions of Debtors' Prisons in 19th Century Ireland
There were serious consequences if you owed money and could not pay the debt in 19th century Ireland. Usually, the debtor was imprisoned until the money was paid. If they could not afford to pay the debt, then it was not uncommon for the person to stay in the prison until they died there.
The Kilmainham Jail in Dublin
Men, women and children were locked up together at the old Kilmainham Jail in Kilmainham Lane, Dublin. The debtors' area was overcrowded, damp and rat-infested. The prison was deteriorating, and the prisoners who could not afford the higher rents for the better cells and food were locked up in designated areas. These prisoners found themselves housed in lower, damp cells that had no windows or fresh air. The new Kilmainham Jail was finished by John Traile in 1792, although it did not officially open until 1796.
Men and women were strictly segregated first by gender and then according to their crimes. A special section was designated for prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia, but this stopped in 1853. The children were kept in the lower cells, and the lunatics were separated as well.
Prisoners Received No Medical Attention
Debtors were not entitled to medical attention. Those who could not get their families to arrange payments of rent at the prison had to take the dampest and darkest cells. If payment was not made for food they were given bread that was boiled in water three times a day.
If by whatever means they were lucky enough to have the original debt paid off, they were still liable for the total rent which had accumulated. If this was not paid they were returned to prison while the total amount of the bill continued to rise.
No One Was Exempt From Debtors' Prison
In 1800, Sir Newenham M.P. was sent to Kilmainham Jail because he owed over £600. Ironically, he had been an ardent supporter of reform. When the new Kilmainham was opened only four years before, Newenham was one of the dignitaries present.
Newgate Prison in Green Street Dublin was opened in 1781. It cost £18,000 of which only £2,000 was given by the government. The debtors had to endure even harsher treatment. Here the rent was high and those who could not pay were beaten up and stripped naked. They were left chained in their cells with barely enough food to keep them alive.
Those whom the jailers took a further dislike to were put into the worst cells in the bowels of the prison where the tiniest bit of light flickered from the sewer. The prison finally closed down in 1863 and was turned into a fruit and vegetable market in 1875. Eventually, it was demolished and converted into a park in 1893.
Sponging Houses in the 18th Century
In the 18th century Ireland before the prisons were built, debtors were placed into sponging houses. These were usually the houses of the bailiffs that charged very high rents to the prisoners who were forced to stay there.
Corruption was widespread and the bailiffs made a lot of money from the misery of the prisoners locked up for the inability to pay their debts.
The City Marshalsea Prison
The City Marshalsea Prison was built in 1798 at a cost of £2,174. It was very badly designed by Sir John Trail. The prison was falling down and was in a bad state of disrepair within ten years. Just as in the other prisons, the amount of money the prisoner was able to pay would determine how they were treated. Considering the fact that the prisoners were in jail because they were unable to repay a debt, usually they had now way out of their miserable existence in the prison.
Debtors' prisons were unescapable nightmares for the individuals confined there. Increasing rates for cells and food worked against the prisoners' hopes for freedom. Unfortunately, spending the remainder of their life in prison was not uncommon for Irish people in the 19th century.