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debt of gratitude

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

In 1985, Universal Pictures released a film called 'Brewster's Millions'. The story featured a baseball player challenged to spend $30 million in thirty days - the kicker being that he couldn't end up with any material possessions or gains from his spending at the end of the time period. The movie studio cast Richard Prior in the role but they could have equally chosen Peg.


When we last met her, she had amassed £1,100 (around €200,000 in today's money). To be fair to Peg and considering she had given up her means of earning and was banking on this sum lasting the rest of her days, it wasn't a huge amount of money. Arthur Young who toured the country between 1776 and 1779 talks about the cost of living:

I was told of a person’s keeping a carriage, four horses, three men, three maids, a good table, a wife, three children, and a nurse, and all for £500 a year

But that's fancy living. For a single woman in Peg's circumstances £60 a year would have provided a more than comfortable allowance. However, as Peg says herself "what signified that sum to a woman who knew not how to turn it to any sort of use; one of an extravagant turn, who never knew what economy was; and who always as she got money very lightly (light come light go), threw it away as it came very soon." In a matter of months she had run through all the money, pawned everything she could pawn and was eking out " a loathed existence"


Things were about to get worse:

I now found myself in the very abyss of misery, for having occasion to go to Fleet-street in order to settle for a debt I owed Mr. O'B—— a wine merchant: I was arrested for £15, at the suit of a Grocer in Grafton-street"

O W I N G M O N E Y

Eighteenth century people did not use money the way we do today. There wasn't as much currency in circulation and economic exchanges were mainly reliant upon the use of credit. Thanks to this trust-based arrangement, everyone owed everyone money all the time and many ended up in prison for failure to pay their debts. In a system which seems frankly counterproductive, debtors were imprisoned, kept away from their place of work and charged for their bed and board until the money they owed was paid off. Prisoners had to prevail upon the kindness of friends and family to help.


The Black Dog was the oldest debtors' prison in Dublin and was located near Christ Church Cathedral. An article from The Fountain Resource Group tells us: "There were twelve rooms of which two had five beds each, but the others were no better than closets and could only hold one bed. The general rent for lodgings in these rooms was one shilling per night. Frequently, four or five were put into one bed, but still had to pay the mandatory shilling, which was collected by the gaoler’s wife. Prisoners who could not pay the fee were thrown into a damp, dark dungeon, which was approximately twelve feet square and eight feet high and often 14 to 20 people were thrown into this dismal place."


There were a number of Marshalseas which operated in a similar fashion and in 1794 a new, state-of-the-art, Sheriff's prison was opened in Green Street. However, the salubriousness of the accommodation was somewhat marred by an inadequate sewage system.



T H E S P O N G I N G H O U S E

A person whoo owed money could sometimes be first detained at a sponging house. This was a was a place of temporary confinement - usually the bailiff's own home. The name came from the French phrase éponger une dette [to sponge up a debt] and was based on the idea that a sponge can release its contents when squeezed. Debtors would be held there temporarily and pressure exerted in the hope that they could make some arrangement with creditors. Peg was taken from Grafton Street to the Sponging house in Angel Court (pictured below), just off Beresford Street.

he carried me to his Sponging- house, without a shilling in my pocket, or any means left for subsistence; and my very bed in the hospitable purlieus of a Spunging-house, would be two shillings a night, with perhaps a bedfellow or two if there was a necessity, forced upon me in the bargain..

From Peg's description of her time here it sounds rather like a holiday - albeit a particularly nasty holiday in an extremely grim B&B. She quickly gathered a group about her, including "an agreeable girl, who had been seduced and brought from England by a nobleman, who cast her and was reduced to the necessity of turning common street-walker for subsistence." and a "fine, gay fellow`' who was the under-secretary in Dublin Castle. Her companion Betsy Edmonds visited regularly bringing cake and wine and was often permitted to stay the night. The man who ran the house was Captain Mathews, one of Peg's previous admirers and frequently, she was invited to eat with Mathews and his wife. One afternoon when she, Betsy and Mrs Mathews were having tea, a new prisoner arrived. Peg recognised him as "my friend Purcell, with whom I had spent so agreeable, so ecstatic a day on Plummer's Island" [the Killarney jaunt mentioned in a previous post]. Purcell suggested that they could once more share a bed but Peg was determined to stick to her new found virtuous ways. Purcell took her decision in good stead and gave her half his money, allowing her to redeem some belongings which she had previously pawned.

The addition of Mr. Purcell's company much enlivened our society, as he was a very agreeable entertaining man, who abounded with anecdotes; he also sung very pleasingly

But soon things took an unhappy turn. Betsy Edmonds died and Peg was devastated: "After the loss of my Betsy, no human misery could equal mine, I gave myself up entirely to despair and often invoked the Almighty to take me to himself."


K I N D N E S S

One of Peg's friends, Mr Falvey, took it upon himself to settled her debts. He also raised sixty guineas from the Whig Club which he gave her to set up in comfortable lodgings in Clarendon Street. Falvey suggested she write a third volume of her memoirs in the hope that it might generate her further income.


I have chosen to focus on this kindness of friends to illustrate this period in Peg's life. I have purposely repeated the layout of image number two where she is abandoned and alone. In these early years, even though her situation is hopeless she she is hopeful and energetic. Now, as an older woman, poor and worried about money, she is surrounded by friends who wish to help. Some may judge the path she chose but one can't deny that her spirit and goodness aroused feelings of love and genuine affection from many she met.


Here's image number two in case you missed it. The Building featured is the City Assembly House

and here is the latest image showing Peg released from the Sponging House. The building featured is Smock Alley Theatre


The next post will about Peg's final days. I hope you will stick with me even after this as my project is not yet complete. I would like to find a way to bring Peg's story to more people. I have some ideas which I would like to share and I would love your feedback.

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