After starring in both EastEnders and Coronation Street for several years, Michelle Collins knows all about finding skeletons in the family closet – but she was shocked to learn that one of her ancestors was thrown in prison during the 1840s!

Today, many people find themselves in debt at some point but, back in Victorian Britain, anyone owing money could be thrown into debtors’ prison indefinitely and in ITV’s new series Secrets from the Clink Michelle discovers that such a fate befell her great great great grandfather…

“You think of prison as a place for people who have committed a crime, who are dangerous,” says Michelle. “But debt isn’t a crime – you just can’t always keep on top of things and it can escalate.”

Michelle learns that her ancestor was an umbrella maker with a workshop in London’s Covent Garden, then one of the worst slums in London.

It was a time of high inflation, and many people took out loans to stop their businesses from going under. But the creditors showed no mercy when you couldn’t pay it back and in 1848, Thomas was thrown into prison without trial. To make matters worse, he was still expected to pay his debts at an over-inflated amount or face more years inside.

“He still had to find that money from somewhere, but how can you when you can’t earn anything?” says Michelle. “It was so unfair.” 

Thomas’ only chance of release was to appeal. He had to prove his debt was caused by misfortune and have every asset seized, including all his stock and tools of his trade.

Nevertheless, Thomas eventually managed to rebuild his umbrella-making business and even pass it on to his daughter, Amelia, Michelle’s great great grandmother.

“I’m really happy to know Thomas got himself back on his feet again,” says Michelle. “It makes me feel really proud to know how he rebuilt his life for his family.”

Secrets from the Clink begins on ITV on Wednesday 6th August with Michelle Collins’ episode airing the following week.