Most famed old castle of the North, time-honoured, old and grey,
Where John O’ Gaunt for ever reigns a monarch of the day!
Where men of trade in thousands flock, when troubles are combined,
And who, like hunted hare or fox, a hiding place would find!
Where poor insolvent debtors seek a cure for all their woes;
And where both honest men and rogues do pay their friends and foes.
The Insolvent Debtor: A Lay of Lancaster Castle
– Anon 1861
In the long history of Lancaster Castle Gaol there is one group of individuals about which it is particularly difficult to discover much information: those incarcerated for debt. Whereas the criminal was carefully listed in the Calendars of Assize, along with his or her crime – and sometimes their sentence – all we have for those incarcerated for debt is a long list of what were known as ‘Causes’ with little or nothing recorded beyond a name. There is no indication of the personal stories, the tragedies and the misfortunes that brought these people to the castle, although the history of the Debtors Prisons of England is well known. Authors such as Charles Dickens painted grim pictures of what life was like for the poorest victims of insolvency; Little Dorritt in particular was a dramatic personal recollection of his own father’s incarceration for debt in the notorious Marshalsea Prison in Southwark.
Lancaster was, in the mid nineteenth century, the largest Debtors Prison outside of London. Unlike the Marshalsea and many others, however, it seems that conditions in Lancaster were relatively good. Mid century, the prison was known as Hansbrow’s Hotel, after the governor at that time, which is a good indication that life, at least for the Master Debtor, was tolerable. Tales of fairs, mock elections and concerts abound. Etchings, done by a man who was himself incarcerated in Lancaster Castle for debt, show well-appointed rooms, complete with servants, fires and what seems to be a plentiful supply of food and drink. There were rules for the good behaviour of inmates, as well as social clubs with well-thought-out constitutions – there even seems to have been a savings club at one time. That is not to say that there were no rules, or that debtors were not expected to behave while in prison: the dungeons of the castle were used from time to time to punish those who transgressed, and the debtors had to exist alongside crown prisoners and criminal lunatics. There are stories of the whole prison falling silent when the great brass execution bell was tolled for some unfortunate soul being despatched at Hanging Corner, and the arrival of the Assize Court each spring and autumn must have had an effect on the atmosphere in the castle as well. But this was tempered by the freedom most debtors enjoyed: the chance to spend time with their families, and in some cases even work to pay off debts.
Given the dearth of information on individual debtors we were delighted to be contacted by Fred and Diana Claussen from California. Fred had done a great deal of research on his great-great grandfather Stephen Cropper, and discovered that he had once been imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. What follows is the information supplied to us by Mr Claussen, reproduced with his kind consent:
Stephen Cropper was born in Southwark to Richard and Alice Cropper on November 22nd 1807. Richard’s profession was listed as ‘hatter.’
When he was twenty-two Stephen married Hannah Downs in Manchester Cathedral, and the couple lived in the Manchester area until 1830, Stephen carrying on the family tradition of hat manufacture. He lived in Carnarvon, Wales for at least nine years but by 1845 he was trading in Birmingham under the name of Peter Stephen Cropper, from his address at 63 Bull Street.
A fire destroyed the premises in October 1849 and Stephen found himself £470 the richer thanks to an insurance policy on the business. In late 1849 or early 1850 he left England for America, settling in Baltimore, Maryland. Hannah and her children arrived in Philadelphia on the ship William Penn on February 25, 1850. They were travelling under the family name of Brook/Brooke. By the summer of 1850 Stephen was back in England. Sadly for Stephen the outstanding debts he had left behind him after the fire in Birmingham came back to haunt him. He was arrested and tried in Lancaster in November 1850, probably at the Quarter Sessions given the date, and was remanded to Lancaster Castle for 18 months as an insolvent debtor. An appeal in the following January was denied and Stephen, it seems, served the full term his remand, appearing on the March 1851 census as a debtor in the prison. He was described as a shopkeeper born in Surrey.
Upon his release he left once more for Baltimore, where he ran the Howard House Hotel for a time before going back into trade, this time as a wine and spirits merchant, a lucrative profession: by 1860 he was married a second time, this time to Martha Finall (Hannah’s fate remains a mystery) and was worth somewhere in the region of $5,000.
In 1863, perhaps due to the outbreak of war, Stephen and Martha moved back to England from their home in Peoria, Illinois, settling in Birkenhead on Merseyside.
A will, written by Stephen in April 1865, named his wife Martha as executrix and heir. Mention is also made of his three children, Eliza Harris, Sarah Ann Dodson and John Richard Cropper and he also left money to his grandson William Stephen Brookes. It is possible that at the time of writing this will Stephen was ill, because in September of the same year he died at his home in Southport, aged 57. He is buried at St Marie-on-the-Sands in Southport. Martha survived him by some eleven years.