The National Archives Logo
Guide reference: Legal Records Information 5
Last updated: 19 January 2012

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you identify records in The National Archives that may be useful if you are researching a bankrupt or an insolvent debtor.

The National Archives holds relatively little information on individual bankrupts or insolvent debtors. Many bankruptcy records are in local archives.

For background information about the bankruptcy process see section 9.

2. Essential information

Insolvent debtors and bankrupts are different. Bankrupts were supposed to be traders, making their living by buying and selling. Many were not though and described themselves fictitiously as 'dealers of chapmans' to qualify for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy was later extended to include most skilled craftsmen.

Insolvent debtors were individuals unable to pay their debts. Only after 1861 could insolvent debtors apply for bankruptcy.

The best place to start is to search the London Gazette, on The Gazette website, by name of bankrupt. This has notices published by officials to inform creditors about their proceedings.

If you have found an entry in the London Gazette you can try looking for bankruptcy case files at the National Archives but only very few survive.

If you cannot find a case file you will need to browse various register and enrolment series that will normally only provide brief formal entries. They will confirm if a bankruptcy took place, but will not provide much detail. 

From 1842 district bankruptcy courts were established for cases outside London. Case files and some bankruptcy registers from these should be at local archives. Search our catalogue using keywords, and refine your results using the filters. Alternatively, look for a particular local archive using Find an Archive.

3. Insolvent debtor records (c1792-c1869)

Insolvent debtors could be kept indefinitely in a debtors' prison if their creditors so wished. Imprisonment for debt only ended in 1869.

From 1861 insolvent debtors could apply for bankruptcy even if they were not traders.

Consult B 6/74-8, B 6/176-177 and B 6/220-222 for declarations of insolvency and inability to pay. From 1825-1854 these records cover London and county cases. After 1854 they cover London only. They usually show:

  • the date the declaration was filed
  • name, address and occupation of the debtor
  • debtor's solicitor's name

London debtors' prison records are in PRIS 1-PRIS 11 (PRIS 10 and PRIS 11 are available online (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) via Ancestry). Gaolers' returns of insolvents in certain London prisons, 1862-69 are in B 2.

Find names of many people imprisoned for debt in Lincoln jail in PCOM 2/309, Shrewsbury jail in PCOM 2/396 and Lancaster jail in PCOM 2/440.

3.1 Applications for release

For Cheshire only, you may find applications for release to the Justice of the Peace from imprisoned insolvent debtors in CHES 10 (1760-1830). For other counties these types of record will usually be held locally.

In 1813, the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors was established and registers of petitions to it from imprisoned debtors, from 1813 to 1861, are in B 6 with indexes, from 1820, in B 8.

Lists of insolvent prisoners applying for release were also published in the London Gazette, available on The Gazette website. You can also search The Times archive (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) which published lists of insolvent prisoners applying for release.

4. Bankruptcy case files (c.1753-c.1979)

A small sample of surviving case files are within the records of the Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts and it successors.

Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to search within the following series. Search by:

  • bankrupt's name, address or trade within B3 (1753-1854)
  • surname and trade within B9 (1832-c.1970)
  • joint-stock company name within B10 (1857-1863) 

Case files may contain balance sheets submitted by the bankrupt. These are usually very general statements, rather than itemised accounts, and assignees' accounts.

If your search is unsuccessful you can look at registers but these will only provide minimal extra information to supplement what you have found in the London Gazette. (See next section)

5. Bankruptcy proceedings

Most of the information contained in these registers is available in the London Gazette on The Gazette website. However the registers can sometimes tell you a little more - such as what money was owed.

5.1 Records before 1869

Browse registers in B4 by date. You can find: 

  • docket books containing information on the issue of commissions and renewed commissions of bankruptcy 
  • registers of commissions of bankruptcy and fiats. Entries sometimes give the address and trade of the bankrupt (not between 1770 and 1797), and the names of either the petitioning creditors or those of the bankrupt's agent or solicitor.

A register entry underlined or ticked means a corresponding case file should be in B 3. B3 is searchable by name. Enrolments of these commissions (after 1758) and fiats may be in B 5.

5.2 Records after 1869

Registers of creditors petitions are in B6/178-183 (1870-1883). If you are looking for a bankruptcy case heard in London, start with these. They often include:

  • name, address and occupation of the bankrupt and the petitioning creditor(s)
  • details of the formal act of bankruptcy
  • date of adjudication as a bankrupt
  • date of London Gazette advertisement
  • names of trustees appointed
  • amount of dividend paid
  • date proceedings closed

Petitions for bankruptcy are in B6/184-197 (1870-1883). These cover both London and 'country' cases but only give the name, occupation and address of the bankrupt person. B6 also contains 'certificates of conformity' (1733-1837) which, when issued effectively discharged the bankrupt.

Registers of petitions to the High Court (1884-1994) are in B11. Actual petitions will only survive if the case file in B9 survives. Registers of receiving orders in B 12 contain dates of formal court orders (1887-1988) including:

  • the order of discharge with a note of any conditions attached to it
  •  the date of the trustees' release

 Read the series catalogue descriptions to find out more about what the records may contain.

You can browse both B11 and B12 by date.

6. Court of Chancery records (before 1832)

Further litigation about bankruptcy may be in Chancery pleadings.

Use the advanced search option to search by name and/or keyword 'bankrupt' or 'creditor' within department code C.

Close Rolls in C 54 may contain conveyances of bankrupts' estates and C 217 contains miscellaneous exhibits in a few bankruptcy cases.

7. Bankruptcy appeals (1864 onwards)

For appeals against bankruptcy browse the following series by date. Record series with department code 'J' are from the Supreme Court of Judicature.

  • J 60 from 1864
  • B 7 from 1871, with entry books of orders in B 1
  • J 15 from 1876-1955 
  • J 56 from 1876
  • J 69 from 1918 
  • J 70 from 1920

For county court cases, appeals can be found as follows:

There is an incomplete series of registers of petitions for protection from process in county court cases (1854-1964) in LCO 28. They are arranged by the initial of the petitioner's surname.

8. Bankruptcy functions of the Board of Trade

After 1884, the Board of Trade supervised the work of the official receivers. The receivers had the status of court officials and held meetings of creditors, investigated circumstances of bankruptcy and acted as interim administrators of the bankrupt's assets.

Registers of London court bankruptcies are in BT 40/25-33 and county court bankruptcies are in BT 40/34-52.

Official receivers' registers in BT 293 include entries for all those served with petitions for bankruptcy. Official receivers' estate ledgers in BT 294 show how assets of those declared bankrupt were distributed. BT 294 also includes payment books for 1875-1904 relating to the former insolvent debtors' court.  Browse both BT 293 and BT 294 by date and initial of the surname.

You can search the following by name: 

  •  registers of deeds of arrangement made privately between debtors and creditors in BT 39 and case files in BT 221
  • case files of the official receiver in BT 226. From 1914 only samples are included with indexes in BT 293.

9. Background information

9.1 What is a bankrupt?

Creditors could also petition for a bankruptcy order to be made against an individual debtor. All creditors would have a claim to any assets left, and the court would order how these were to be distributed.

A trader was anyone who made a living by buying and selling. By the late 18th century this was extended to include most skilled craftsmen.

People sometimes gave false or misleadingly general descriptions of their occupations so they could qualify as a trader. The term 'dealer or chapman' (DC) was often used.

Farmers were specifically excluded but still sometimes appear in records. Partnerships of individuals could declare themselves bankrupt, but companies were not covered until after 1844.

9.2 Bankruptcy procedure

Chancery commissioners dealt with bankruptcy before 1832.

In 1832 the court of bankruptcy was established and creditors could petition the Lord Chancellor for a commission of bankruptcy or a fiat. Commissioners decided if a debtor was eligible to be declared bankrupt and would oversee the distribution of assets.

Official assignees were appointed and were responsible for depositing the proceeds from the sale of a bankrupt's estates into the Bank of England. When sufficient creditors were satisfied and had signed a request for a Certificate of Conformity (a statement that the bankrupt had satisfied all the legal requirements), the Commissioners could issue the certificate which effectively discharged him, although dividends might continue to be paid.

After 1849 creditors petitioned for an 'Adjudication in Bankruptcy.' The Commissioners took statements from the bankrupt and his creditors. The creditors would then elect trustees to value his assets and distribute them as dividends.

From 1849 to 1861, there were 3 classes of certificate of conformity which distinguished between

  • blameless bankrupts
  • bankrupts partially at fault
  • bankrupts fully at fault

After 1861, orders of discharge were issued instead.

10. Further reading

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives' reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

See also Paolo Di Martino, 'Approaching disaster: Personal bankruptcy legislation in Italy and England, c1880-1939', Business History; vol 47 (1) (2005) 23-43.

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 5

Discovery

Discovery is an online catalogue of archival records across the UK and beyond, from which you can search 32 million records.