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Before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869, debtors in England were routinely imprisoned at the pleasure of their creditors. Around 10,000 people in England and Wales were in prison for debt in 1641, often for small amounts. In the 18th century debtors comprised over half the prison population: 945 of London"s 1,500 prisoners in 1779 were debtors. Other European countries had legislation limiting imprisonment for debt to one year, but debtors in England were imprisoned until their creditors were satisfied. When the Fleet Prison closed in 1842, two debtors were found to have been there for 30 years.
Prisoners would often take their families with them, which meant that entire communities sprang up inside the debtors" jails. The community created its own economy, with jailers charging for room, food, drink and furniture, or selling concessions to others, and attorneys charging fees in fruitless efforts to get the debtors out. Prisoners" families, including children, often had to find employment simply to cover the cost of the imprisonment.
Legislation began to address the problem from 1649 onwards, but it was slow to make a difference. Helen Small writes that, under جورج الثالث ملك المملكة المتحدة (1760–1820), new legislation prevented debts of under 40 shillings leading to jail (£446 in 2014), but even the smallest debt would exceed that once lawyers" fees were added. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act 1813, debtors could request release after 14 days by taking an oath that their assets did not exceed £20, but if a creditor objected they had to stay inside. Even after years in prison, the debt remained to be paid.