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September 2014 Item of the Month

Thomas Blackett, a debtor

This important drawing by Joseph Bouet (1791-1856) depicts life inside a debtor’s prison in the mid-19th century. Blackett is presented full-length, seated in a small wooden chair in the austere prison kitchen of Durham Gaol. He wears a shapeless coat, dark waistcoat, striped breeches and white hose. His top hat is tapered outwards at the top and has a narrow band. Beneath it is a cap, probably for extra warmth. He is a portly figure, sitting with his legs apart and his left arm leaning on the back of a second chair. Behind him to his right is a small chest and a ring on the wall; to his left there are two spigots, one above a stone sink and another attached to a large barrel. Other domestic items include a wooden bucket, a large dish and a jug. The clean and homely interior probably reflects the influence of John Howard (1726-1790), the prison reformer, upon the prison governor John Wolfe (1758-1832).

Thomas Blackett spent over twenty-seven years living in Durham Gaol: first imprisoned there for non-payment of costs in a Chancery suit, he then declined to leave! He was originally of Shull in Hamsterley and Helmington Hall, but by the time of his incarceration had sold all his lands, and perhaps by the end of his sentence he had nowhere else to go. Nevertheless, his girth and relatively decent attire indicate that he was still receiving a (more than) sufficient allowance: in addition to the support of family or friends he would have been in receipt of a small daily sum for his subsistence from the County. He would thus appear to have been one of the ‘master’s side’ debtors who could afford to pay rent for rooms and other privileges - he fathered two of his children during his protracted stay. When Charles Lambton visited Durham Gaol in 1830, he described seeing two fat men, one of whom was imprisoned for debt. It seems possible that one of these was Thomas Blackett. More about his life and family history can be found in Allan Kirtley’s A History of the Blacketts.

Joseph Bouet was a French artist who spent most of his adult life in Durham City, where he practised as a professional artist and drawing master. The bulk of his surviving work is in the form of miniature portraits in pencil, including several caricatures, but he also worked as a topographical lithographer and his prints appear in numerous early 19th-century publications on the North East. He regularly attended Durham Assizes and drew judges, high sheriffs, lawyers and felons. Most of his extant work is collected in two albums held by Durham University Library Special Collections; a third album is held by Durham Cathedral Library.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.