'Contrary to the Spirit of the Age': Imprisonment for Debt in Colonial Victoria, 1857–90

43 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2020 Last revised: 10 Mar 2020

See all articles by Jodie Boyd

Jodie Boyd

Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

Ian Ramsay

Melbourne Law School - University of Melbourne

Paul Ali

University of Melbourne - Law School

Date Written: November 23, 2019

Abstract

The reintroduction in 1857 of imprisonment for debt in colonial Victoria flew in the face of international momentum for its abolition. In its criminalisation of debt and poverty, the Fellows Act 1857 (Vic) (21 Vict, No 29) also defied the rapid advancement of democratic and egalitarian principles in the fledgling colony. Frequently referred to as ‘gross class legislation’, the law was used unabashedly to target poor small debtors, leaving ‘mercantile men’ with significant debt untroubled by the prospect of a debtors’ gaol. Despite consistent and broad opposition to the Fellows Act, its advocates resisted repeated attempts to abolish or meaningfully amend it. It is argued here that the law, and its survival against the ‘spirit of the age’, can be understood as part of a broader story of conservative resistance to the democratic innovations that threatened the power of the Victorian mercantilist establishment.

Keywords: bankruptcy; debt; legal history; imprisonment

Suggested Citation

Boyd, Jodie and Ramsay, Ian and Ali, Paul, 'Contrary to the Spirit of the Age': Imprisonment for Debt in Colonial Victoria, 1857–90 (November 23, 2019). Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 3, pp. 737-779, 2019; U of Melbourne Legal Studies Research Paper No. 873. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3507170

Jodie Boyd

Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University ( email )

124 La Trobe Street
Melbourne, 3000
Australia

HOME PAGE: http://https://cur.org.au/people/dr-jodie-boyd/?expert-term=

Ian Ramsay (Contact Author)

Melbourne Law School - University of Melbourne ( email )

University Square
185 Pelham Street, Carlton
Victoria, Victoria 3010
Australia
+61 3 8344 5332 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://law.unimelb.edu.au/about/staff/ian-ramsay

Paul Ali

University of Melbourne - Law School ( email )

University Square
185 Pelham Street, Carlton
Victoria, Victoria 3010
Australia
+61 3 8344 1088 (Phone)
+61 3 8344 5285 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.unimelb.edu.au

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