Biographies of Bankrupts

We can find out who all the bankrupts of the long eighteenth century (and later) were from the pages of the London Gazette.  The Gazette tells us names, trades and addresses, but beyond that we learn little more about these individuals.  Bankruptcy commission records, if they can be found, tell us something more.  However, unless a single exceptional historical document has survived, 'knowing' a bankrupt is usually only possible if a fortuitous variety of sources can be brought together.  This has been possible for a number of bankrupts and some of their biographies are set out below.  A few of England's more notorious bankrupts (notorious for a variety of reasons) have 'official' biographies in the ODNB or in parliamentary histories, but these biographies are not necessarily as complete as they might be and some additions and comments are included here.

The biographies below are a small selection of those that I have written to accompany my case studies of bankrupts.  The biographies are always 'work in progress' and will be amended when new information emerges and/or time permits the making of additions.  The year that appears before the name of the bankrupt is the year in which a 'commission of bankrupt' was issued against the individual.

1739 George Clay

George Clay was a merchant and ship owner in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. He dealt in a variety of commodities including corn, deals, iron and other goods; he was also part owner of two ships with William Bagge. His trading actvities extended to London, Rotterdam, Norway and Friedrichstadt in Schleswig-Hostein. He married Mary [Landidg/e or Landitch] (d. 16 Nov. 1741) on 9 July 1714. While living in King’s Lynn he may have rented properties in Tuesday Market Place and King Street (a property on King Street was recorded as being ‘in Geo Clays use’.[1]  Clay appeared in shipping news: on 1 March 1732 sailing from Lynn Regis for Norway in the Susanna.[2] There are indications that Clay had already been made a bankrupt in 1738 or earlier.[3] It was not unusual for a commission to be renewed or a second commission to be issued against a trader. The meetings of the commission issued against him were held at the Guildhall, Kings Lynn. His total debts ascended to around £2,200.

[1] NRO, 395, ‘Notes on houses in the Riverside Streets of King’s Lynn and their known owners and tenants up to 1849’, pp. 72, 101. In 1736/7 a George Clay, mariner, was recorded at 14 Tuesday Market Place.

[2] ‘Ship News’, Daily Post Boy, 15 March 1732, issue 6881, p.1.

[3] LG, 18 March 1739, issue 7894, p 4. It was proposed to make a dividend 26 April 1739 which would suggest that a commission had probably been taken out in 1738.

1744 Richard Hutchings

Richard Hutchings (will proved 1746) was a yarn washer and lived in the small Somerset village of Wilmistone (now Wilminstone) near the country town of Crewkerne. The name was sometimes recorded as ‘Hutchins’. A 1733 poll book and electoral register lists him as a yeoman. Classifying himself as a yarn washer was more likely to have qualified him for bankruptcy under the bankrupt laws. Hutchings was also collector of tythings for Woolmistone.[1]  A burial for Richard Hutchings was recorded on 22 February 1756 in Crewkerne. His wife Philadelphia was born in 1683 and her burial was recorded in Crewkerne on 10 May 1780. Hutchings had two sons, John, and Job (b. 10.08.1710 in Woolmistone). Job was subsequently baptized at the then Presbyterian South Petherton Old Meeting House on 22 August 1710. By 1744 Job lived in nearby Clapton and was recorded as a linen weaver. John moved away and lived ‘beyond London’. Hutchings had another son, also called Richard, who entered into a bond with his father in 1737. Job also ‘stood jointly bound’ with his father.[2]  Richard and Philadelphia also had a daughter named Philadelphia (b. 1713/14).[3] 

His petitioning creditor was Thomazina [Parker?], a widow. She had lent him several sums of money which accumulated to over £200, all of which had been outstanding for years; he was also unable to pay other creditors including his own attorney. He was declared bankrupt on 3 April 1744, and his commission met at the George Inn in Crewkerne.[4] It is unclear whether he was discharged before he died. It is possible that because of Hutchings the elder’s attempts to assign assets to his sons, and his sons also being bound with him that after his death actions continued against his sons. Job Huchings has £1432 recorded against him, n.d.[5]

[1] SRO, DD/MR/107, Bankruptcy records, Richard Hutchings.

[2] Ibid.

[3] South Petherton Old Presbyterian Meeting House, baptism records <> [accessed 9 May 2019].

[4] SRO, DD/MR/107, Bankruptcy records, Richard Hutchings.

[5] Ibid.

1772 Alexander Fordyce

Alexander Fordyce (1729–1789), described by Paul Langford as, ‘That prince of bankrupt bankers’, achieved lasting notoriety with his contemporaries for the scale and impact of his failure.[1] He is also one of the few eighteenth-century bankrupts to be widely known by historians of the period. Fordyce was the youngest son of George Fordyce, provost of Aberdeen. He was initially apprenticed in stocking manufacture but moved to London where he worked his way up in the banking business. By 1768 he was a managing partner in the bank of Neale, James, Fordyce and Down. He made a great fortune trading stocks and was able to purchase an estate in Scotland and built ‘a fine residence’ at Roehampton, Surrey ‘where he entertained in great magnificence’. In 1770 he married Lady Margaret Lindsay, the second daughter of the Earl of Balcarres. He also spent considerable sums trying to get elected to the House of Commons in 1768 and 1780.[2] 

His luck broke after sustaining heavy losses from short-selling East India stock in 1771–72. He used the bank’s money to cover his exposure, fell out with his partners, and lost the backing of the Bank of England. Fordyce fled London on 10 June 1772, and the complete failure of his bank quickly followed. This bank failure initiated a chain reaction of other banking failures, and a financial crisis ‘considered the worst since the Bubble year of 1720’. Fordyce surrendered before a bankruptcy commission in September.[3] Some disagreement exists about the level of his losses or debts, an arithmetic that gets particularly complicated where partners in banks are concerned, but figures range from c. £150,000 to c. £550,000.[4] As with other London bankrupts his commission was held at the Guildhall, but unlike most bankrupts his examinations were reported in the press.[5]

[1] Langford, Polite and Commercial People, p. 421.

[2] Price, ‘Fordyce’.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See discussions in Langford, Polite and Commercial People, pp. 569–71; Hoppit, Risk and Failure, pp. 135–36, and more recently Kosmetatos, ‘Financial Contagion’, passim.

[5] London Magazine or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (London, 1772), 41, pp. 431–33.

1797 Richard Muilman Trench Chiswell

Richard Muilman (later Richard Muilman Trench Chiswell (1735–1797), was a merchant banker and antiquary. His father Peter Muilman and his uncle Henry Muilman were Dutch merchants operating from London. He inherited a fortune of £120,000 from his mother’s brother Richard Chiswell along with Debden Hall in Essex. In 1773 he became known as Richard Muilman Trench Chiswell. In 1790 he inherited £350,000 from his father. That same year he was elected MP for Aldborough, Yorkshire. As an MP and investment agent for Mrs Warren Hastings he militated in Parliament against the delays and costs of Warren Hastings’ trial. He was also active in other parliamentary business.[1]

He preoccupied himself with parliament, antiquarianism, travels and estate projects such as engaging Henry Holland to rebuild Debden Hall in 1795.[2] Thus he would seem to have left the management of the house of Richard Muilman & Co. largely in the hands of his business partner Henry Nantes (biography below) with tragic consequences when the merchant house failed with debts in excess of £450,000.  Richard Muilman Trench Chiswell then shot himself on 3 February 1797 at Debden Hall.[3] Muilman/Chiswell’s ODNB dwells on his philanthropic, antiquarian and travel interests whilst no mention is made of the Muilman & Co.’s interests in the Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership (see details under Henry Nantes, below). Not surprisingly Muilman/Chiswell voted against the abolition of the slave trade on 15 March 1796.[4]

[1] Winifred Stokes, ‘Muilman Trench Chiswell, Richard (c. 1735–97)’, in R. G. Thorne (ed.), The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1790–1820 (1986).

[2] John H. Appleby, ‘Chiswell, Richard Muilman Trench (1735–1797)’, ODNB (Oxford, 2004).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stokes, ‘Muilman Trench Chiswell, Richard’, in Thorne (ed.), History of Parliament.

1797 Henry Nantes

Henry Nantes (1764–1836) was born Wilhelm Heinrich Nantes to a family of Bremen merchants who subsequently established an office in London.[1] He was sent to London at the age of ten and when his father died soon after, he was adopted by his uncle, Daniel Nantes, who was already established as a merchant in London.[2] In London Nantes was educated by Dr Palmer,[3] a non-conformist divine. Nantes was also in the habit of attending the Dutch Reform Church in Austin Friars. He was naturalised British in 1789.[4] In the early 1790s various publications list Nantes as residing in Broad Street.[5] In 1793 in Battersea he married Marianne Voguell, daughter of German merchant Henry Voguell.[6] Later in the decade Nantes’s address is given as both 5 Warnford Court, Throgmorton Street, and Battersea.[7] In Battersea he owned Sherwood Lodge, a riverside villa (also known as Sherwood House).[8]

Nantes became the partner Richard Muilman Trench Chiswell (biography above) in the firm of Richard Muilman & Co.[9] Richard Muilman was much preoccupied with his activities as Member of Parliament for Aldborough (1790–97), his antiquarian interests and with his estate in Essex, and so the management of the merchant house was left to Nantes. By the late eighteenth century Muilman and Nantes were running a global trading operation and ‘owned property and had assets on the islands of San Domingo and Grenada, on Long Island, and in South American Demerara, Berbece [Berbice], and Buenos Aires’. They traded in sugar, coffee and wheat, as well as trading with the East Indies, North and South America, and the Dutch East India Company.[10] Their operations included ownership of slave ships and plantations.[11] The provenance of the capital with which Muilman & Co. built up its trade seems to have come principally from the Dutch family; it is unclear whether Nantes brought any capital of his own to the enterprise, but Schulte Beerbühl believes that he was likely to have done so.[12] Failed speculations caused the house to break in February 1797 leaving debts of over £450,000 owed to 753 creditors.[13]

Richard Muilman Trench Chiswell took his own life whilst Nantes answered to the bankruptcy commission for the causes of the failure and the substantial losses sustained. Sherwood House was sold in the summer of 1797.[14] Marianne Nantes died in February 1800 in Battersea.[15] Nantes removed to the Isle of Man where he lived for a decade and where he would marry on a further two occasions (October 1800, June 1810).[16] By the second decade of the nineteenth century Nantes had returned to trade on a more modest scale based near Bideford in North Devon.[17] However, it is unclear whether Nantes ever received his certificate, and the liquidation of his bankrupt estate continued until at least the 1860s, long after his death in 1836.[18]

[1] Much of what is known about merchant of German origin Henry Nantes is the result of research undertaken by Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, see Schulte Beerbühl, ‘Risk of Bankruptcy among German Merchants’, in Gratzer and Stiefel (eds), History of Insolvency and Bankruptcy, p. 79; Schulte Beerbühl, Deutsche Kaufleute in London/German Merchants in London, pp. 112, 175, 203, 252–53, 368–83, 430; Schulte Beerbühl, Forgotten Majority, pp. 37, 76 fn.82, 79 fn.150, 114–15, 122 fn.62, 210–24, 242 fn.242.

[2] See Schulte Beerbühl, The Forgotten Majority, pp. 213, and p. 241 fn.239 for the merchant activities of Daniel Nantes (e.g. Russia Company). He was also in the partnership of Edmund Boehm & Co., see LG, 29 December 1804, issue 15767, p. 7); ‘A “history” of the Nantes family’ (mid-nineteenth century notebook), private collection of Robert Nantes. Some of the information about Henry Nantes’s early life comes from this short manuscript document. The account is part of a small collection of papers that is notable for its complete omission of any reference to Henry Nantes’s bankruptcy or his involvement in the eighteenth-century Atlantic slave trade.

[3] Possibly Samuel Palmer (1741–1813) the independent minister and memorialist, see Alexander Gordon (revised by S. J. Skedd), ‘Palmer, Samuel (1741–1813)’, ODNB (Oxford, 2004).

[4] An Act for Naturalizing Henry Nantes’, 24 June 1789, in Journal of the House of Lords Volume 38, 1787–1790, 21–30 June 1789 (London, 1767–1830), 459–83, p. 466, British History Online <>; [accessed 29 October 2020].

[5] He joined an anti-sedition committee for the ward of Broad Street in December 1792 (The Observer, 23 December 1792, p. 1), and appears residing in Broad Street in A List of the Members of the Philanthropic Society (London, 1793). In 1794 Nantes was still listed with his abode at 46 Old Broad Street along with Richard Muilman: ‘Nantes Henry, Mercht., 46, Old Broad-str. Muilman Richard & Co., Merchts., 46, Old Broad-str.’, in Kent's Directory for the Year 1794 (London, 1794); Muilman Richard & Co. are also listed in [Roger Wakefield], Wakefield's Merchant and Tradesman's General Directory for London (London, 1794), p. 219.

[6] Gentleman’s Magazine (London, 1793), 63, Part 2, p. 859.

[7] Boyle’s City Companion to the Court Guide for the Year 1798 (London, 1798), p. 98. NB Nantes was already bankrupt by the time this was published.

[8] ‘Battersea Bridge Road to York Road’, in English Heritage, Survey of London (draft), 2013, pp. 39–41 <> [accessed 29 October 2020].

[9] Appleby, ‘Chiswell, Richard Muilman Trench’; Stokes, ‘Muilman Trench Chiswell, Richard’, in Thorne (ed.), History of Parliament.

[10] Schulte Beerbühl, The Forgotten Majority, pp. 213–14. Berbice is a region along the Berbice river in present day Guyana.

[11] John R. Davis, Stefan Manz and Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, Transnational Networks: German Migrants in the British Empire, 1670–1914 (Leiden, 2012), p. 49.

[12] This question is addressed by Schulte Beerbühl in Forgotten Majority, p. 213.

[13] Schulte Beerbühl, Forgotten Majority, pp. 213–14 describe the high-risk activities which Nantes engaged in. Appleby and Schulte Beerbühl give an exact figure of £457,510.

[14] Gentleman’s Magazine (London, 1797), 67, Part 1, p. 247.

[15] True Briton (1793), 22 February 1800, issue 2238, p. 1.

[16] Manx National Heritage, Manx Museum and National Trust, ‘iMuseum’, see search results for ‘Nantes’ <> [accessed 3 November 2020].

[17] The school in Tiverton, Devon, to which Henry Nantes sent one of his sons in the 1820s records Nantes as ‘Mr. Henry Nantes, merchant, Bideford’, see Fisher (ed.), Register of Blundell’s School, no. in register 1924.

[18] LG, 25 June 1861, issue 22523, p. 2646. H. H. Stansfield, an official assignee with an office at 10 Basinghall Street, invited creditors to receive a dividend of 21/5d.

1830 John Slade

John Slade (b. 1793), originally from Wiltshire, became a maltster, brewer, and common carrier in Sherborne, Dorset, in the 1820s. He first set up in partnership with his brother Thomas Slade. They bought malting and brewing premises for £1,300. It is not clear where this money came from, but a family source is probable. John and Thomas Slade were equal partners, but the partnership did not last long with John buying Thomas out the next year. Slade may then have tried to manage without family financial support. He borrowed £2,000 secured against the premises and plant from Robert Davy, ‘Gentleman’ of Ringwood, which he probably used to buy out Thomas. He soon began to experience financial difficulties. He had borrowed too much, had got involved with horse breeding and racing, and had not paid what he owed the Excise. Finally, in 1830 when his sister took out an execution against him, he sought the protection of a bankruptcy commission as his only way to avoid inevitable imprisonment. However, he did not surrender to the commission and was thought to have left the country. His commission was held at the Antelope Inn in Sherborne.[1]

[1] Robert Nantes, John Slade of Sherborne, Maltster and Bankrupt: Financial Ruin in Early Nineteenth-Century Dorset, 2nd edn (Sherborne, 2017).