Bankruptcy: a boon for family historians

Bankruptcy in the family may mean you weren’t born into luxury, but it does mean there’s a wealth of information to look for, tracing your ancestors.

In the late 1780s, a man named George Fawell, of London, secured a joint patent for the British Boiler.

‘The machine is entirely new, for cooking, washing and dyeing, with great saving of fuel.’ 

How much time, effort and money he sank into this revolutionary concept we can only conjecture, but it seems the opportunity to boil a ham and your smalls in the same machine wasn’t a winner with the Georgian public, however fashionable and popular steam inventions were at the time.

It was bad news for George, but had he known it, ensured his name and invention are still with us today – if only because he went bankrupt.

A report from an edition of The Times in April 1789 has sale details of his property and says he is a bankrupt, joint patentee and manufacturer of the new patented British boiling machines.

It tell us he had property at 1 Aldermanbury Postern; Forestreet, Cripplegate (both in the City of London, near the present Barbican Centre), and a manufactory at 35 Sutton Street, Clerkenwell, a short way away – information you’d be unlikely to find if his finances had been sound, unless he’d left a particularly detailed will. 

Bankruptcy: family history resources

This resource may have limited access, but one that anyone can use, and for free, is the London Gazette.

First published in 1655, it was the first official journal of record and the newspaper of the Crown and is THE go-to place for information on bankruptcies. And patents, such as William Edward Duckitt’s 1877 ‘improvement in umbrella coverings’; Henry Spencer Kenrick Bellairs’ ‘improved apparatus for turning over the leaves of sheet music’ (1876) and several people’s ideas in the 1870s for improving roller skates.

In a time when a proliferation of ‘fake news’ had led to censorship of the press, the London Gazette was a reliable and authorative source of information for the public – and it remains so today.

In jail purely for debt

For instance, the edition of September 22, 1761, list, on just one page, eight men who were prisoners because of debt. We can learn that James Wilks, formerly of Liverpool and late of Deptford, Kent, victualler and chapman, insolvent debtor, was a prisoner in the Poultry Compter, in the City of London; as was Gabriel Ralph Hue, late of Little Portland Street, Middlesex, since of Birmingham, gentleman; along with  Hyme Lerose, chocolate maker, of Gravel Lane, Aldgate, and; Mary Jones, widow and victualler, late of Great Russel Street, St Giles in the Fields.

A search on the history of this small jail (Poultry Compter) makes grim reading, as do others, such as the notorious Fleet Prison, whose discharge books and prisoner lists for 1734-1862 – along with those of the King’s Bench Prison – can be searched on Ancestry, although they give very little detail beyond names and dates, and perhaps the names of the creditors whose complaints had put them there.

For instance, one Thomas Bert esquire was in the King’s Bench in 1813 because he owed no fewer than 15 people sums ranging from £24 to £1,029. He’d been committed in February 1809, but as he owed more than £3,600 and had had only been discharged of £351 of that, it’s not surprising he’d been stuck in there for years.

Other bankruptcy (family history) resources

Quarter session records are another source of information on bankruptcy. Held by local archives, they may have online search options to track down the references you need to request to view the record books, or pay them to send you photocopies. Records may also show up on the National Archives’ website: some of theirs can be obtained as digital downloads, others can be ordered as photocopies, some are listed as being held by county archives.

For instance, a quick search on the National Archives’ website tells you Nottinghamshire Archives hold (ref C/QJD/5) a List of Debtors in the County Gaol in 1774, with relevant papers (petitions for release, warrants, schedules of property etc.). It also gives links for Nottinghamshire Archives.

Finally, local newspapers are also a good source of information and may even report banktruptcy hearings in detail. You can scroll through many on microfilm at local libraries or county archives, while the marvellous British Newspaper Archive (BNA) continues to expand and now holds many millions of pages from around 700 local papers. 

For instance, the Ipswich Journal, of July 8, 1797, details the property of bankrupt ironmonger and brazier Michael Apsey, which are to be sold at auction the following Friday.  It was dreadful for him, but the description of the house and workshop would be of great interest to anyone researching either his family or the history of Bury St Edmund’s today.

Was George Fawell a Cumbrian Character?

Anyone thinking there’s a lack of Cumbrian Characters in this post on bankruptcy: I may well come back to Cumbrian bankrupts in future. However, it is possible George Fawell, inventor of the British boiler, was a Cumbrian character.

Sadly, while the surname is rare, the choice of George as a first name is not. A previous post on Workhouse Life in Victorian Britain looked at  George Fawell, 1821-1905. He was from a Westmorland family. And they had a lot of links to London. It is possible that George Fawell the British boiler inventor was born in Temple Sowerby, Westmorland, in 1742. The son of Joseph Fawell and Margaret Fawell, née Harrison.

However, he could have been that George’s cousin: George Fawell, born in Temple Sowerby in 1743, the son of John Fawell and Elizabeth Fawell (née Harrison). (Brothers Joseph and John Fawell married sisters Margaret and Elizabeth Harrison).

Or not. If anyone reading this can confirm who George Fawell the British boiler inventor was, do say so.