In God We Trust - all others pay cash - Using bankruptcy records in researching publicans

Publicans have always got themselves into financial trouble as their pubs failed to prosper or found too late that their staff had had their fingers in the till. Some must just have disappeared as the creditors called or made some rough and ready financial agreement to pay their debts incrementally, while others (probably a small minority) were taken to court.

Offering credit was another way to financial ruin. In many districts it must have been hard for publicans not to run a slate for regulars temporarily without funds in the hope that they would be paid back in due course, and with the realisation that their customers might depart for a pub which was more amenable if tick was not forthcoming. This was universal part of working class life. Poor families in general depended on tick: W H Whitelock, the registrar of Birmingham County Court wrote in 1914 that “there was little doubt that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of working class families still supply their requirements on credit.

The downside was that it was hard for small businesses, including pubs, to make their creditors pay up. In many cases they just did not have the money. Local licensed victuallers’ associations may have circulated notices of bad debtors: other trade associations certainly did.

English contract law allowed creditors who were owed sums of money of more than forty shillings to arrest and imprison their debtors but in practice few actually were. There were a network of courts and procedures through which creditors could seek repayment, before this drastic step was taken.  By 1900, well over a million cases relating to debt each year were heard in County Courts across England and Wales.

And of course the same rules applied to debtor publicans, although here they were more likely to be taken to court because they had greater assets, such as the value of the stock or the freehold of the pub. One way around this was to declare bankruptcy: because bankrupts were treated somewhat more leniently then debtors.

From 1705 if a person become bankrupt, claims were strictly limited to a bankrupts assets at time of bankruptcy to encourage traders to restart their businesses and hence to maintain the nation’s economic activity (still an argument used today). After a decent interval, he could start again with all debts wiped out. The right was limited to traders, although innkeepers were excluded: perhaps because they were not perceived as having a tradable skill. It was widened by an act of 1849 to include anybody who sought their living by “the workmanship of goods or commodities”.

Creditors could apply to the Lord Chancellor for a commission of bankruptcy. He would then appoint commissioners to decide whether a debtor was eligible for bankruptcy proceedings and oversee the distribution of assets among the creditors. The officials took statements from the bankrupt individual and the creditors about the debts and financial position and the creditors would then appoint assignees to value the assets and distribute them as dividends. Eventually, if the bankrupt satisfied the commissioners and the creditors, a certificate of conformity would be issued and the individual discharged.

In the last resort bankrupts could be sentenced to death, if they were found to have hidden funds to pay creditors. During the 18th century the Old Bailey found six such people guilty.  The last such case was a wine and spirit dealer, James Bullock, who was convicted in September 1807 for declaring bankruptcy for £189, even though he had a Bank of England banknote worth £500, promissory notes for £300 and a collection of silver.

It can be difficult to research bankrupts, debtors and creditors, either individuals or pubs. The best place to start is with the London Gazette which contains details of all bankruptcies. It is also available online back to at least 1755 at The website is easy to use: just type in the name of the publican or pub you are researching into the search engine.

There are however several points to watch. The first is the website is strangely designed –you need to scroll down usually to the bottom of the page before you find anything useful. And because the resource is so vast you need to have at least some idea of when the event occurred – there are, for example, nearly 2000 mentions of the phrase “Rose and Crown” between 1755 and 2005.
And this leads to the third point, often the “Rose and Crown” itself was not being declared bankrupt, but was the place where the business of a bankruptcy was dealt with in days before court buildings and law offices were widespread.

The National Archives has a variety of bankruptcy records in series B 9. There are several readers guides explaining the records in more details at or they can be picked up in the reading rooms. In 1842 a network of district bankruptcy courts were established across England and Wales: their registers of bankrupts may be at local record offices.

Simon Fowler is treasurer of the Pub History Society, the funds of which are too small to consider stealing!

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