What do we learn from the ‘declaration instead of a true just and faithful account’ and the ‘declaration instead of a true and perfect inventory’ of the goods and chattels of my 6 x great grandfather John Gibson (1699 – 1763), made by his widow Mary in 1764, and which I reproduced in my last post?

If we try to reconstruct the story told by these texts chronologically, it would appear that in 1742 or thereabouts (when John was 43 years old, and had been married to Mary for thirteen years), an ‘extent’ was taken out by the Crown against John Gibson’s effects, putting his household furniture at risk of seizure. (I understand that, in legal parlance, an extent is a writ to recover debts due to the Crown.) To prevent this happening, John’s mother-in-law Mary Greene purchased these household effects. Some time after this, John Gibson was declared bankrupt. However, since the ‘extent’ had not been fully satisfied, John was arrested and spent several years in prison, until he was released by an order of Parliament, subject to giving security for his appearance when called on by the Crown.

Hogarth’s image of an 18th century debtors’ prison

In 1757, some years after being released, John Gibson purchased a brewing business in Rosemary Lane, Aldgate (this appears to be what the document says, though a number of words are obscured at this crucial point). However, because the ‘extent’ had still not been fully satisfied, John bought the premises and equipment for this business in the name of his mother-in-law, Mary Greene, even though she was not personally involved in running it. In February 1757 (or so John Gibson’s widow Mary claims), Mary Greene signed a declaration confirming that John’s money had been used for this transaction and that she was the purchaser in name only. John was the day-to-day manager of the concern and (as his widow says, ‘growing …more regardless’ as the years passed and believing that the authorities ‘wou’d not after so long a period of time trouble him’) mostly used his own name when carrying on this business.

Brewing in the 18th century

On John’s death in 1763, his widow Mary took possession of the brewing business and sold it ‘upon a fair Appraisement’ to a Mr Holdbrook, using the proceeds to help pay off her late husband’s debts. Despite this, however, one of John Gibson’s debtors, a maltster by the name of John Soundy, took out a commission of bankruptcy against Mary Greene, suggesting that she was liable for the debt. He and one Joseph Burch, described by Mary Gibson as a creditor of John’s ‘but … pretending to be a Creditor of the said Mary Greene by reason of her Name having been made use of by the deceased’, were made assignees under the bankruptcy commission. In 1764, they took out an action against Mary Gibson for the ‘brewing utensils’, under the ‘pretence’ (as Mary puts it) that they really belonged to Mary Greene. As a result of this dispute, Mary Gibson declares that she is, as yet, unable to provide a ‘true and faithful inventory’ of her late husband’s property.

When I first read these documents, I assumed that they described a legal dispute between Mary Gibson and her mother, Mary Greene – something that seemed unlikely, given their relationship and the fact that the older Mary had always been a generous benefactor to her daughter and son-in-law, presenting them with the expensive gift of the manor of Woodredon, Essex, in 1738 and then, as these papers make clear, allowing her name to be used by John Gibson when he was in financial difficulties. However, on closer analysis, it would appear that Mary Gibson’s dispute was actually with her late husband’s debtors and creditors, who were using Mary Greene’s nominal ownership of the brewing business to extract money from her – to the extent of having her declared bankrupt. Perhaps it would be more accurate to read these declarations as evidence of Mary Gibson’s efforts to have her ageing mother (who must have been at least 80 by this time) released from this financial burden.

I’ve discovered a record of the bankruptcy of ‘Mary Green, late of Derby street, Rosemary-lane, Middlesex, Widow, and Brewer’, in a collection of miscellaneous memoirs and correspondence from August 1763. The shame attached to this state of affairs is reflected in the blanking out of letters at the head of the list:

As for John Gibson’s own bankruptcy and subsequent imprisonment, I’ve now found a number of contemporary documents that refer to these events, and which provide valuable information about John’s career and fall from grace. I’ll discuss them in the next post.