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Guide reference: Legal Records Information 6
Last updated: 27 March 2007

1. Introduction

In most bankruptcy cases, the records held by The National Archives are confined to brief, formal entries in various register series that will establish the fact of bankruptcy but will not provide much background detail. Case files, in B 9, only survive for a very small sample.

2. Bankruptcy jurisdiction after 1869

After 1869, routine imprisonment for debt ceased, other than in cases of fraud or deliberate refusal to pay, and the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors was wound up. Creditors who were owed more than £50 could petition for bankruptcy proceedings. Cases in London were dealt with by the London Court of Bankruptcy, the records of which are held at The National Archives. London was defined as the City and the areas covered by the metropolitan county courts of Bloomsbury, Bow, Brompton, Clerkenwell, Lambeth, Marylebone, Southwark, Shoreditch, Westminster and Whitechapel. Cases outside London were normally heard by the county courts after 1861 (they had some jurisdiction since 1847) although they could be transferred to the London Court by special resolution of the creditors.

After 1883, the London Court of Bankruptcy was incorporated into the Supreme Court as the High Court of Justice in Bankruptcy. It subsequently became responsible for the additional metropolitan county court areas of Barnet, Brentford, Edmonton, Wandsworth, West London and Willesden. Bankruptcy petitions were only to be presented to the High Court if the debtor had resided or carried on business within the London Bankruptcy District for 6 months, if he was not resident in England or if the petitioning creditor could not identify where he lived. A High Court judge could, however, transfer any bankruptcy case to or from a county court. After 1883, official receivers supervised by the Bankruptcy Department of the Board of Trade took over responsibility for the administration of the bankrupt's estate, once a court had determined the fact of bankruptcy and made a receiving order. Its records therefore cover cases dealt with by both the High Court and the county courts.

Case files and some bankruptcy registers heard by the county courts are normally held at local archives. Further details of what is available locally can be found searching the website Access to Archives (a2a) which aims to bring records held at record offices, libraries and universities together in a single database. Try using search term 'bankrupt' or 'bankruptcy', and for case files, the name of the bankrupt as well. Contact details of local county record offices can be found using ARCHON, an online list of archives and repositories in the United Kingdom.

3. Searching for a bankrupt

The Registers of Petitions for Bankruptcy for 1870-1883, held under the references B 6/184-197 and arranged alphabetically by initial letter of the bankrupt's surname, cover both London and Country cases but only give a very brief entry with the case number, bankrupt's name, occupation and address. There are also registers of bankrupts, in both the London Bankruptcy Court and the county courts, for 1870-1886 in BT 40 which give dates of orders of discharge. More detail, for cases heard by the London Court of Bankruptcy, is given in the Registers of Creditors' Petitions (B 6/178-183), the best place to begin a search for cases heard in London 1870-1883. They are arranged chronologically and in alphabetical order of the first letter of the bankrupt's surname. They give his name, address and occupation and that of the petitioning creditor(s), details of what formal act of bankruptcy was committed (e.g. filing a declaration on insolvency or leaving the country), the date (and place if outside London) of adjudication as a bankrupt; the date of advertisement in the London Gazette, the names of any trustees appointed, the amount of any dividend paid, as shillings in the £, and the date when proceedings closed.

Indexes to Declarations of Inability to pay (London Court cases only after 1854), which were one means of committing a formal act of bankruptcy, give the date of filing and basic details of the name, address and occupation of the debtor and name of his solicitor, 1825-1925, are also in B 6. There is a Register of London bankruptcies for 1870-86 in BT 40/25-33 and County Court bankruptcies for 1870-1884 in BT 40/34-52. Registers of Petitions for protection from bankruptcy process in county court cases, from 1854, are in LCO 28.

4. Bankruptcy functions of the Board of Trade

After 1884, the Board of Trade supervised the work of the official receivers, who had the status of court officials and, after a receiving order had been made by the court, held meetings of creditors, investigated the circumstances of the bankruptcy and acted as interim administrators of the bankrupt's assets, pending, or in default of, the appointment of a trustee chosen by the creditors. If the bankrupt's assets were likely to be less than £300, the official receiver normally acted as trustee. When the trustee had realised as much of the bankrupt's assets as possible to pay his debts, he could apply for a release, discharging his responsibility.

For the period 1884-1923, Board of Trade registers in BT 293 (1884-1923), which are indexed alphabetically by name, should contain entries for all persons served with a petition for bankruptcy, whether the case was heard in London or locally although it should be noted that not all petitions resulted in formal bankruptcy. Each entry should give the name, address and occupation of the debtor; the date of filing of the petition for bankruptcy; the dates of orders in case, including final discharge; the names of any trustees and the rate of dividend paid to the creditors. The incomplete set of Estate Ledgers (1875-1952) in the series BT 294, arranged alphabetically by name, may show how the assets were distributed. Official Assignees' accounts, before 1884, are in BT 40.

From 1888-1947, registration of Deeds of Arrangement, made privately between debtors and creditors outside normal bankruptcy proceedings, became compulsory and the registers are in BT 39 (1888-1947), with some case files in BT 221. These case files, dating from 1879, may also deal with audits and official releases - they are searchable by name on the Catalogue. Case files of the Official Receiver relating to High Court cases from 1891 are in BT 226, sampled after 1914. These case files are also searchable by name on the Catalogue. Most cases are personal bankruptcies, ranging from comedians to stock-brokers.

5. Petitions to the High Court

Registers of petitions to the High Court, by or against debtors, chronologically arranged by initial letter of surname from 1884, which record the names, addresses and occupations of the debtors and petitioning creditors, the name and address of the solicitor, and the alleged act of bankruptcy committed, are in B 11. The actual petition will only have survived if there is a case file in B 9 on which it has been filed. Registers of receiving orders from 1887 (orders from 1883 are noted in the B 11 Registers), are in B 12 and give the dates of formal court orders including the receiving order, the order of discharge with a note of any conditions attaching to it, and the date of the trustees' release. Names of trustees may also be given, although not if the official receiver was acting as trustee. For London and High Court bankruptcies after 1869, there is a very small sample (less than 5%) of bankruptcy case files, arranged roughly chronologically by date of filing of petition, in the record class B 9. These files may be one or more substantial volumes - those for AW Carpenter, trading as the Charing Cross Bank, run to 152 volumes.

6. Searching for a bankrupt

Notices about bankruptcy proceedings were published in the London Gazette (also available at The National Archives in ZJ 1), and in The Times. Local newspapers, held by the appropriate local record office or by the British Library Newspaper Library, Colindale Avenue, London NW9 5HE, may also contain notices and reports relating to local bankruptcies. Details of undischarged bankrupts, or bankruptcies that have ended within the last three months, can be searched on the Individual Insolvency Register.

7. Bankruptcy appeals

Before 1875, minutes of appeal cases are in B 7, with entry books of orders in B 1. Thereafter, appeals were directed to the Supreme Court's Court of Appeal (J 15 (1876-1955), J 56 (from 1876), J 60 (from 1864), J 69 (from 1918) and J 70 from 1920). From 1883, appeals in county court cases went to a divisional court of the High Court (J 60 (from 1864), J 74 (1875-1920) and J 95 from 1920). An incomplete series of registers of petitions for protection from process in county court cases, covering the period 1854-1964, is in LCO 28 (1854-1964).

8. Statistics

Annual Judicial Statistics relating to national trends in court actions from 1986 are in The National Digital Archive of Datasets (NDAD) series LE 1: Monthly Civil Business Return. Statistics before 1986 are among Judicial Statistics within Parliamentary Papers.

9. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives' Library

Lester V Markham, Victorian insolvency: Bankruptcy, imprisonment for debt, and company winding-up in the nineteenth-century England (1995)

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

Sir Roland Lomax Vaughan, The law and practice in bankruptcy (1908)

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 6

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