1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to identify records in The National Archives that may be useful in researching bankrupts and insolvent debtors. It is worth noting that many bankruptcy records are held locally with county court records.
This guide will not suggest a quick way to find an insolvent debtor, but you should be able to establish quite quickly whether or not case files exist for specific bankrupts. In both instances there may be other sources that will establish whether or not somebody was a bankrupt or insolvent debtor.
2. Essential information
2.1 What is a bankrupt or insolvent debtor?
To declare yourself bankrupt, you had to be a trader, owe more than £100 (reduced to £50 from 1842), and petition the court.
Creditors could also petition for a bankruptcy order to be made against an individual debtor. All your creditors would have a claim to any assets you had left, and the court would order how these were to be distributed among them.
A trader was anyone who made a living by buying and selling, and by the late 18th century this covered anyone who bought materials, worked on them and then re-sold them - in other words, most skilled craftsmen.
People sometimes gave a false or misleadingly general description of their occupations so that they could qualify as a trader. The term 'dealer or chapman' (abbreviated to DC) was often used in this way.
Farmers were specifically excluded and yet still sometimes appear in the records. Partnerships of individuals could declare themselves bankrupt, but companies were not covered until after 1844.
Insolvent debtors were other people who were unable to pay their debts. They could be kept indefinitely in a debtors' prison if their creditors so wished. From 1861 insolvent debtors were allowed to apply for bankruptcy even if they were not traders.
2.2 What records survive?
Most case files for bankruptcy proceedings have not survived. Those that have are mostly among the records of the Commissioners of Bankrupts and the bankruptcy courts that followed it.
Use the corresponding research signpost to search by name for bankrupts within record series B 3, B 9 and B 10. Alternatively, search Discovery, our catalogue by company name in record series C 217 to help you decide whether to proceed further with your research.
If your bankrupt is not in these record series you will need to search various register and enrolment series that will normally only lead to brief formal entries which will confirm if bankruptcy took place, but will not provide much detail.
Case files and some bankruptcy registers heard by the county courts are held at local archives. Further details of what is available locally can be found on Access to Archives (A2A). Try searching for 'bankrupt' or 'bankruptcy', or by name of the bankrupt for case files. Contact details of local county record offices can be found using ARCHON.
3. Finding records of an insolvent debtor
Insolvent debtors were held in local or specific debtors' prisons, and often spent the rest of their lives there if they were unable to pay off their debts. Imprisonment for debt did not stop until 1869.
Use our catalogue to search using keywords such as insolvent and debtor. To narrow down your results specify particular dates or restrict your search to specific department codes.
The suggestions below may help to focus your search.
- Search for bankruptcy notices in The Times archive (available online at The National Archives in Kew) which published lists of insolvent prisoners applying for release.
- Search the London Gazette in ZJ 1 (available online at The National Archives in Kew) for notices published by the commissioners to inform creditors about their proceedings. The earliest notices are in 1684 and are indexed after 1789. Before 1832 they include many bankruptcies not included in the surviving records of the Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts and later bankruptcy courts.
- Browse department code PRIS for records of the Kings Bench, Fleet and Marshalsea prisons.
- Browse department code B for records of the Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts and later bankruptcy courts, and the Court for the relief of insolvent debtors.
- Browse files from the Prison Commission for Lincoln gaol in PCOM 2/309, Shrewsbury gaol in PCOM 2/396 and Lancaster gaol in PCOM 2/440 which list the names of many people imprisoned for debt.
- Search the files from the Palatinate of Chester in CHES 10 which include applications for release to Justice of the Peace from imprisoned insolvent debtors. Most of these types of record will be with quarter sessions papers held locally.
- Search official receivers' ledgers in BT 294 which include payments books, 1875 to 1904, relating to the former insolvent debtors' court.
4. Bankruptcy procedure
From 1832 when the court of bankruptcy was established, 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 distribution of his assets among the creditors.
Official assignees were appointed and given the responsibility of 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 that date.
After 1849 creditors petitioned for an Adjudication in Bankruptcy. The Commissioners took statements from the bankrupt and his creditors about his debts and the creditors would then elect trustees or assignees to value his assets and distribute them as dividends.
From 1849 to 1861, there were 3 classes of certificate of conformity which distinguished between a blameless bankrupt, and bankrupts who were either partially or fully at fault. After 1861, orders of discharge were issued instead.
5. Publication of bankruptcy proceedings
The Commissioners published notices in the London Gazette to inform creditors about their proceedings. The London Gazette is in ZJ 1 and online at The National Archives in Kew. Such notices begin in 1684 and are indexed after 1789. Before 1832 they include many bankruptcies not included in the records of the Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts.
Notices were also published in The Times (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.) which is available free at the National Archives in Kew.
Local newspapers, held by the appropriate local record office or by the British Library Newspaper Library may also contain notices and reports relating to local bankruptcies.
The National Archives hold microfiche copies of two Bankrupts Directories held by the Society of Genealogists. The covering dates for these fiche are 1774-1786, and 1820-1843. The later directory is also available on findmypast (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.)
6. Finding records of bankruptcy proceedings
Browse or search records of the Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts, the successor bankruptcy courts, and the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors (department code B) using keywords such as bankrupt or debtor. To narrow down your results specify a date or restrict your search to department code B.
The following record series may be particularly useful, although they are not catalogued by name.
6.1 Docket Books in B 4 containing information relating to the issue of commissions and renewed commissions of bankruptcy.
6.2 Registers of commissions of bankruptcy and fiats in B 4. 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. An entry that has been underlined or ticked means that a corresponding case file should be found in B 3. Enrolments of these commissions (after 1758) and fiats may be in B 5.
6.3 Declarations of insolvency and inability to pay are in B 6/74-8, B 6/176-177 and B 6/220-222. These records cover London and county cases from 1825 to 1854 and London only cases from 1854. They usually show the date the declaration was filed, the name, address and occupation of the debtor and the name of the debtor's solicitor.
6.4 Registers of creditors petitions in B6/178-183 (1870-1883). These are the best place to start looking for a London bankruptcy case and can often include
- name, address and occupation of bankrupt and petitioning creditor(s)
- details of the formal act of bankruptcy
- date of adjudication as a bankrupt
- date of advertisement in the London Gazette
- names of trustees appointed
- amount of dividend paid
- date proceedings closed
6.5 Petitions for bankruptcy 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.
6.6 Court of Bankruptcy records in B 9 (1832-2000). There are also a few files of Wandsworth, Brentford and Edmonton County Courts from the early part of the twentieth century onwards.
6.7 Some case files of proceedings in B 10 (1858-1862).
6.8 Registers of petitions to the High Court in B 11 (1884- 1994). If the original petition survives it will be in the case file in B 9. The petitions can be both by and against debtors and usually contain
- the name, address and occupation of debtor and petitioning creditor(s)
- the name and address of solicitor
- the alleged act of bankruptcy
6.9 Registers of receiving orders in B12 (1887) contain dates of formal court orders including
- Receiving order
- Order of discharge with a note of any condition attached to it
- Date of trustees release
- Names of trustees where it was not the Official Receiver
6.10 Petitions for protection from bankruptcy from the Lord Chancellor's Office for county court cases in LCO 28 give the petitioner's name, address and occupation and details of the court and debt concerned.
6.11 Patent rolls in C 66-67 contain commissions of bankruptcy, Close Rolls in C 54 contain conveyences of bankrupts' estates and C 217 contains miscellaneous exhibits in a few bankruptcy cases. State Papers in SP also contain some petitions.
7. Bankruptcy appeals
Some useful sources for appeals against bankruptcy are shown below. Record series with the department code J are from the Supreme Court of Judicature. Those with department code B are from the Office of the Commissioners of Bankrupts and the courts that followed.
- 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 also an incomplete series of registers of petitions for protection from process in county court cases, covering the period 1854-1964, in LCO 28.
8. Records 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.
Search our catalogue using keywords such as bankrupt or official receiver. To narrow down your results restrict your search to records from the Board of Trade (BT). The following record series may be particularly useful.
8.1 Registers of London and county court bankruptcies in BT 40/24-52.
8.2 Official receivers' registers in BT 293. These include entries for all those served with petitions for bankruptcy.
8.3 Official receivers' estate ledgers in BT 294. These show how assets of those declared bankrupt were distributed.
9. Further reading
Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives' bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives' library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.
Lester V Markham, Victorian Insolvency: Bankruptcy, Imprisonment for Debt, and Company Winding-up in Nineteenth-Century England (1995)
Paolo Di Martino, 'Approaching Disaster: Personal Bankruptcy Legislation in Italy and England, c1880-1939', Business History; vol 47 (1) (2005) 23-43
Hugh Barty-King, The Worst Poverty: A History of Debt and Debtors (Alan Sutton 1991)
M Shaw-Guisset, An Index of the Bankruptcies in England and Wales in the Year 1861 (2001)