Elizabeth Stentiford in gaol

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Maybe there were supportive family members behind Margaret Stentiford and Ann Stuttaford who helped them out if things went wrong with advice or even financial support. This Elizabeth Stentiford was not so lucky.



From the Exeter Flying Post

10 June 1819:

"By Order of the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors:

The petition of Elizabeth Stentiford, late of Modbury, in the County of Devon, shopkeeper, but now a prisoner for debt, confined in His Majesty's Gaol of St. Thomas the Apostle, in the County of Devon, will be heard before His Majesty's Justices of the peace, at an Adjournment of the general Quarter Sessions of the Peace, which will be holden at Exeter, in and for the said County, on Friday, the 14th day of July next at the hour of ten o'clock in the morning; and that a schedule annexed to the said petition containing a list of the creditors is filed in the office of the said Court, No.9 Essex Street, Strand in the County of Middlesex, to which the creditors of the said prisoner may refer; and she doth hereby declare that she be ready and willing to submit to be examined touching the justice of her conduct to her creditors.

Signed: Elizabeth Stentiford

James Nicholls

for the Society for the Relief of Debtors,

29 Bennett Street,

Blackfriar's Road.



In the UK, until 1970 it was technically possible to be imprisoned for being in debt and unable to pay. In the 18th and 19th centuries more than half of all people in prison were debtors. In Devon there was even a dedicated gaol - the Devon County Prison for Debtors - situated south of the river Exe in St. Thomas.

Until 1815, debtors had to pay for their board and lodging in prison which brought them deeper and deeper into debt. Unless they could find work in the prison, they were caught up in a hopeless spiral from which they could only escape if someone else offered to pay their debts for them.

This Elizabeth Stentiford had few people to help her out of her troubles - she was at the very bottom of the social heap - an unmarried woman trying to support herself as best she could. But someone did eventually come to her aid because we can see from the above newspaper notice that a Charity had taken up her case. We don't know when she was first imprisoned so we can't tell how long she had been a prisoner but at least she eventually got a hearing and, hopefully, it wasn't too long before she was released.

Born in Aveton Gifford in 1789, she made her little attempt at shop-keeping in the nearby town of Modbury and was approaching 30 at the date of the petition above. We find her, in a safe haven at last, through the 1851 Census, living with her brother Charles Deering Stentiford and his wife Ann, in the Square at Ugborough. Someone - perhaps the brother - has bought her an annuity so that she has a little pension to bring dignity to the last years of her life.

So was she dishonest? Was she incompetent? Was she just too easy-going and gave her customers too much credit?  Well, interestingly, many prisons noted at the time that more than half of their debtors owed money to  door-to-door salesmen who left unwanted goods at  premises then took to court anyone who would not or could not pay up. So she may have been imprisoned through no fault of her own. Elizabeth (who never married) lived in her brother's Ugborough home until her death on 16 Dec 1865, at the age of 75.





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