A commenter on a recent post about my 6 x great grandfather, John Gibson, remarked that the story of his imprisonment in the Fleet for fraud against the Crown brought to mind Dickens’ Dombey and Son. I’ve now discovered a record of John’s petition to Parliament, pleading for his release, and it has definite echoes of another Dickens novel – Bleak House, with its tale of a law suit caught up in a never-ending bureaucratic tangle.

The House of Commons in the 18th century

I’m still not entirely sure of the sequence of events surrounding my ancestor’s arrest and  imprisonment. We know that the original ‘extent’ against him was issued on 17th June 1742 and that a second extent was issued on the 7th July ‘following’, but I’m unsure whether this means 1742 or the 1743. We do know that some time between June and October 1742 the ‘violent rescue’ of John Gibson occurred, but that by early 1743 he was certainly in custody.

The record of Gibson’s petition to Parliament can be found in the January 1750 issue of The London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, under the heading ‘Summary of the last session of Parliament’. The exclusion of a number of pages from the online copy of this publication makes it difficult to determine the precise date on which the petition was considered. However, William J Hausman’s account of the case places it in 1743. Discussion of John Gibson’s petition was preceded by an appeal from the masters of ships involved in the coal trade, who had also been adversely affected by the fraud scandal:

Feb 7, There was presented to the house, and read, a petition of the subscribing masters of ships using the coal trade, in behalf of themselves and many others using the coal trade; setting forth a manifest neglect and breach of duty in the collector and comptroller of the duty upon coals, by which they and their families would be inevitably ruined, if not relieved by parliament: Which petition was referred to a committee, to examine and state to the house the matters of fact contained in the same. 

In the printed record, this is followed immediately by John Gibson’s appeal:

And on the 16th, there was presented to the house, and read, a petition of John Gibson, late of London, coal factor, then a close prisoner in the Fleet; setting forth his having been actually ruined by the neglect or fraud of the said officers, and therefore praying for relief. Which petition was referred to the same committee; and, March 23, Sir Myles Stapylton reported, that the committee had examined the matters of fact contained in the said petitions, and had directed him to report a state thereof to the house; whereupon, after the report’s being read, the same was referred to a committee of the whole house; and it was resolved, that the house would, on the Wednesday morning then next, resolve itself into a committee of the whole house, to consider of the said report. 

There has been a time when such petitions of these would have raised a flame in an English house of commons, and might, perhaps, have produced a very strict inquiry into the conduct of the office; but at this time, the above order for taking this report into consideration, was adjourned from day to day, until the 9th of April, and then entirely dropped.

I believe that the substance of John Gibson’s petition was contained in the pamphlet which he had printed around the same time, and which refers to his being ‘now a close Prisoner in the Fleet, whereby his Wife and Nine small Children are reduced to the greatest Miseries’ and in which he ‘humbly prays that he may be indulged with his Liberty, so that he may be able to get his Bread, which he humbly Hopes he is intitled to’.

The Fleet Prison, London

If John’s appeal was either rejected, or quietly dropped, as seems to have happened, it’s likely that he remained in prison for some years afterwards. We know that he was certainly free by 1757, when he entered the brewing trade, while maintaining his original business as a coal factor. According to William Hausman, in April of that year my ever-resourceful ancestor was back before Parliament, where he was ‘examined before a committee of the House considering a patent for a machine to unload coal.’