Victorian London - Legal System - Courts - Insolvent Court

  In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing-desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There is a box of barristers on their right hand; there is an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left; and there is an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.
    It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood, by the general consent of all the destitute shabby-genteel people in London, as their common resort, and place of daily refuge. It is always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and, being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain; there are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered for sale in all Houndsditch in a twelvemonth; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving-shops between Tyburn and Whitechapel could render decent, between sunrise and sunset.
    It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise, and the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small portable dinners wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs or  sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish; but no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward. Whatever they do, there they sit from the first moment to the last. When it is heavy, rainy weather, they all come in, wet through; and at such times the vapours of the court are like those of a fungus-pit.
    A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it, who wears a coat that was made for him; not a tolerably fresh, or wholesome-looking man in the whole establishment, except a little white-headed apple-faced tipstaff, and even he, like an ill-conditioned cherry preserved in brandy, seems to have artificially dried and withered up into a
state of preservation to which he can lay no natural claim. The very barristers' wigs are ill-powdered, and their curls lack crispness. 
    But the attorneys, who sit at a large bare table below the commissioners, are, after all, the greatest curiosities. The professional establishment of the more opulent of these gentlemen, consists of a blue bag and a boy; generally a youth of the Jewish persuasion. They have no fixed offices, their legal business being transacted
in the parlours of public-houses, or the yards of prisons, whither they repair in crowds, and canvass for customers after the manner of omnibus cads. They are of a greasy and mildewed appearance; and if they can be said to have any vices at all, perhaps drinking and cheating are the most conspicuous among them. Their
residences are usually on the outskirts of 'the Rules,' chiefly lying within a circle of one mile from the obelisk in St. George's Fields. Their looks are not prepossessing, and their manners are peculiar.
    Mr. Solomon Pell, one of this learned body, was a fat, flabby, pale man, in a surtout which looked green one minute, and brown the next, with a velvet collar of the same chameleon tints. His forehead was narrow, his face wide, his head large, and his nose all on one side, as if Nature, indignant with the propensities she observed in him in his birth, had given it an angry tweak which it had never recovered. Being short-necked and asthmatic,
however, he respired principally through this feature; so, perhaps, what it wanted in ornament, it made up in usefulness. 
    'I'm sure to bring him through it,' said Mr. Pell.
    'Are you, though?' replied the person to whom the assurance was pledged.
    'Certain sure,' replied Pell; 'but if he'd gone to any irregular practitioner, mind you, I wouldn't have answered for the consequences.' 
    'Ah!' said the other, with open mouth.
    'No, that I wouldn't,' said Mr. Pell; and he pursed up his lips, frowned, and shook his head mysteriously.

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, 1837

The Insolvent Debtors' Court, or Court for the Relief and Discharge of Insolvent Debtors, is in Portugal Street, Lincoln's- inn-Fields. The principle upon which it is established is this : - The person is for ever released, but the property never, as long as any claims remain unsatisfied.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

INSOLVENT DEBTORS (COURT FOR THE RELIEF OF), 33, LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS - entrance, No.5 Portugal-street. The unclaimed monies arising from insolvent estates is laid out in Exchequer Bills; the interest on which is now applicable to the expenses of obtaining the discharge of poor prisoners, pursuant to 118th sect. of Act 1 & 2 Vict., c.110. The first Commissioner has 2000l. a-year; the three other Commissioners 1500l. each.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

The Insolvent Debtors Court, which, to a peculiar but not the most select class, is one of the pet lions of London, is situated in Portugal Street, close to Lincoln's Inn Fields. All sorts of jocular legends and sarcasms are current concerning this central spot—the barristers who plead here, the attorneys who crowd here, and the luckless tribe who are brought up for exhibition here, in pursuance of their own request, yet against their wills. The court itself, which is, for the debtor in the grasp of the law, what the Bankruptcy Court is for the defalcating trader, is said to be the refuge of destitute "swells." What we note on entering the court while business is doing, is a lack of every thing agreeing with one's ideas of the dignity and majesty of justice, and a general aspect of wear and tear, not to say shabbiness, about the denizens of the place, and also of the place itself. The court room is small and inconveniently crowded, and it is with difficulty that we are able to edge in side ways and take post against the wall.
    The object of general interest at the moment is a tall fellow, of middle age, in semi-rural garb, who, trickling with perspiration, and nearly dumb foundered with cross-questioning, bears on his face the expression of a wild animal at bay. He has claimed release from the debtor's prison, where he has been confined ; but he cannot account, or he will not account, for fifteen hundred pounds, of which he stood possessed nine months ago, and which, of course, his creditors are anxious to get sight of. He has had complicated doings with some small landed property down in the south ; he has bought and sold, mortgaged and redeemed, leased and released, borrowed and paid, and lent moneys, and has mingled together his transactions in such an inexplicable way, that neither he nor the lawyers can unravel the web. Then, there is, an aunt in the business, who is bedridden and unproduceable, and only speechable at rare intervals she is at the bottom of all the mystery, but she cannot throw any light upon it until she gets well, which won't be, according to appearances, until the nephew is safe out of prison, be that when it may. Meanwhile, the badgered debtor struggles in the, toils, and we, willing to escape from the spectacle of his shifts and doubles, and from the suffocation,. leave him to make the best he can of it.
     In another apartment is another species of entertainment. The performer here is a young would-be gentleman, brought up from Whitecross Street on his own petition. Unlike the countryman, he is cool and self-possessed as a judge ; he evidently considers himself an injured individual, suffering from the prejudices of society. What has he done that he should be incarcerated and deprived of the sweets of liberty? He has only contracted some few thousands of debt, without the prospect of liquidation. It is true that, out of his fifteen creditors, nine of them are tailors ; but what of that? how can a gentleman about town do without his tailor? and why should he incur rebuke, because he chose to distribute his patronage? If he has not paid/ their bills, he has at least paid the penalty of' default, by the detention he has already undergone. Such, so far as we can make it out, is the gist and essence of the plea on his behalf; but, unfortunately for him, it does not seem to have much weight with the commissioner, and he, in the end, sides with the creditors, who are in no hurry to let him out of their clutches. The Insolvent Court would furnish us with pictures of deeper shade and fair fouler hue than these ; but neither we nor our readers would derive any pleasure from contemplating them. We drop the subject; with the reminder, that a discharge from this court is only a discharge as to person, and not as to future acquired property.

The Leisure Hour, 1858