WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Prison Punishment Records: The Price of Penal Servitude

‘Life should mean life’ is a popular adage that you might overhear in a pub, on public transport, even in the queue at the supermarket. It is hard to judge how widely, or sincerely, held this belief is – but it is certainly one that most of us have come across whether it be in an abstract discussion with others, or in popular commentary of notorious legal cases. For example, each time the issue of paroled for famed offenders such as Myra Hindley has arisen most newspapers, politicians, and popular figures can be relied upon to take the stance ‘tough on crime, tough on criminals’. But who, in reality, does this benefit?

When an offender is sentenced to penal servitude they disappear largely from public consciousness. Most of us are content to know that offenders are ‘behind bars’ serving their sentences. If we hear about life inside prison walls it is rarely an informative and educational tour of the daily grind of prison life. More often than not our only insight comes from an expose of the failings of the prison system, the soft treatment and shameless privileges headed upon those that ‘should be doing hard time’. Whilst as a civilised society of the twenty-first century we like to pay lip-service to the idea of penal servitude as a reformative process, prison remains, primarily, the same institution it was in the nineteenth century – a place intended for punishment.

Numerous historical, criminological, and sociological studies have shown us that modern prisons and imprisonment have changed little since their creation in the mid-19th century.  Original buildings are still in use, costs are not reducing, and rates of recidivism are as high as ever. There is even talk of reintroducing the uniforms and marks systems that typified the penal system in the Victorian age.

But even the swiftest glance inside prison records from the period offer valuable lessons about the danger, and counter productive, nature of allowing prison to be little more than a space of despair and punishment where we place offenders and throw away the key.

Mary Lynch

Mary Lynch was sentenced to Life imprisonment in 1872 when she grievously wounded Susan Snellgrove. She was taken from her cell in Newgate where she had awaited trial and transferred to Millbank prison to begin a sentence that was set to last for the rest of her natural life.

The Victorian penal system was strictly regimented and highly repressive operating on a basis of privileges and punishments which controlled everything – what offenders ate, wore, if they could write letters and, most importantly of all, what money they would receive when they were eventually released. The message was simple: those who obeyed would serve less time and be better off when they left, those who did not would face physical and mental punishment.

However for Mary, and many like her on long-term or indefinite sentences, a system of marks and merits became meaningless. With no guarantee of release (Indeed Sarah Murray, the woman convicted alongside her, died in prison) it mattered little what marks she accrued or what she ate from one year to another. Penal servitude stretched before her like an endless wasteland and left little room to hope for the future. Incentive for her to conform was minimal. The product of this is well evidenced in her prison offences record. Mary’s problems began just a few months into her sentence and signified over a decade of mental instability, self-harm, and violent conduct.

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Between 1872 and her eventual parole in 1885 Mary attempted suicide three times, and threatened to do so on several more occasions. She damaged prison property (including smashing 24 panes of glass) on four occasions. Mary physically and verbally assaulted prison officers and management – shouting, kicking, striking, and even in one instance, dousing with excrement – more than ten times. Mary also had numerous altercations with other inmates. In one case she harassed and taunted a young woman who had been convicted of attempting to smother her newborn baby, and made several other attempts to induce prisoners in the exercise yard to fight with her.

Each time Mary broke the rules she was punished, the loss of marks, restriction of diet and privileges, even solitary confinement and physical restraints. But no sooner was her punishment over than she again became violent and uncontrollable. The simple fact was that heaping punishment on punishment for a clearly disturbed and violent inmate did nothing but reaffirm her cycle of destructive behaviour. Mary’s experience was by no means unique. Bridget Kelly – only serving five years – regularly attacked staff and fellow prisoners, in one incident giving:

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‘M McCarthy a blow on the face holding her head down on the ironing table beating her also kicking her in a most savage manner’

The desire to punish serious offenders and to create a cruel and unforgiving space for them to dwell in for the rest of their days has been long standing and is not difficult to understand. But it is an idea that has gone largely unchallenged for too long. Creating a place that is a catalyst for hate, despair, and violence is not only a failure of our own age. Victorian prison records evidence that it has never worked.  A ruthless environment is not only counterproductive for the prisoners most in need of change, but also highly dangerous for those that work with them or around them. Even more worryingly these kind of offenders and this kind of setting also poses a grave risk of brutalising lower-level offenders, the weak, and the vulnerable too – turning them out, back onto the streets, more damaged and desensitised then when they arrived. To change the cycle of offence, punishment, brutalisation, and recidivism, Penal servitude must become a time of support, rehabilitation, and hope. Which doesn’t sound much like a Victorian – or modern day – prison at all.

No honour among thieves?

From the earliest representations of offenders right up to the politically and socially charged documentaries that ‘uncover’ crime and disorder in the present day (Ch4’s “Benefits Street” being a prime example) offenders have been cast in a particular role. Offending is not merely portrayed as an illegal act but, more often than not, a set of values and behaviours that individuals who transgress the law possess. Offenders are not just people that flaunt the law, but instead, they are ‘criminals’ – a distinct subset of persons who share a lack of morality and social conscious in common. Media representations of offenders might often focus on elements of a case that allows the perpetrator to be portrayed in way of this popular stereotype: Uncaring, morally bankrupt, dishonest, scheming, thoughtless. The nature of surviving accounts, both historical and contemporary , that we are offered of crime and offenders more often than not helps to proliferate and reinforce these ideas. But on the rare occasions when we are offered the chance to see circumstances and events from a different perspective, an altogether different picture is presented.

One of the biggest benefits using the proceedings of the Old Bailey give us is the ability to engage with testimony of offenders themselves. The trial reports allow us to hear individuals offer a defence in their own words, or a fierce rejection of the testimony given against them, or perhaps a candid answer to a question. Although far from perfect – the OB, for example, rarely allows us to see what questions were asked of offenders – accounts such as these are the closest historians are able to get to hearing our subjects speak. Their priorities, wants, needs, and negotiations all laid out for us on the page. Sometimes it is through these encounters that we are given unexpected glimpses into the social codes, sense of right and wrong, and relationships that shaped their world.

In February 1788 Martha Cutler, Sarah Cowden, and Sarah Storer were brought up in the Old Bailey on a charge of  highway robbery. This crime was a most serious offence, not only for its distressing and violent nature, but also on account of its fearsome reputation.

Their victim, Henry  Solomons, maintained that he had being going about his business in Whitechapel , in June that year, when he was accosted by three or four women at the end of an ally.  Solomons testified that the women made use of obscene gestures and ‘very bad expressions’ and pushed him into a passage that led into a house. As Solomons was ushered into a small room and thrown down onto a bed, where with two women restraining him, a third took over fourteen guineas from his person. When the ordeal was over, he was let up and told to go about his business. Solomons and a number of other witnesses, including a policeman, were able to identify the three women on trial.

Despite all protesting their innocence and claiming police brutality all three women were found guilty. The sentence passed down to them was death.

Cutler, Cowden, and Storer were all returned to custody to await their fate. Over one year later, which the women would have passes in the cramped and unsanitary confines of the local gaol, they were bought back to court. Each woman was offered a pardon, granting her respite from the gallows on the condition that she submit to being transported to the new colonies in New South Wales – for the term of her natural life.

Such was their conviction that an injustice had occurred, all three women gave the same surprising answer – to choose death rather than to live on the other side of the world wrongly convicted.

Sarah Cowden replied:

‘No, I will die by the laws of my country; I am innocent, and so is Sarah Storer ; the people that had the money for which I was tried, are now at their liberty, therefore I will die by the laws of my country before ever I will go abroad for my life.’

Martha Cutler:

‘Before I will go abroad for my natural life, I will sooner die.’

And finally Sarah Storer:

‘I will not accept it; I am innocent.’

The women were again sent down. The irritated magistrate informed them that their lack of gratitude for the king’s mercy would result in immediate execution.

Yet, in June 1789, the women still sat imprisoned, awaiting the sentence. They were again bought up to the court. Once more the women were offered respite of the death sentence on the condition they be transported for life. Sensing her chances were running out Martha Cutler agreed to save her own life.  Sarah Stoner attempted to bargain. She would agree to go, but not for the term of her whole life. The court decreed this offer to be an insult to their mercy, and no agreement was reached. Eventually Storer consented to life. Sarah Cowden also attempted to bargain. Most surprisingly, this was not for her own life – but her friends.

She stated:

“I will tell you what; I am willing to accept of whatever sentence the King passes upon me, but Sarah Storer is innocent, I would not care whatever sentence I went through; I will accept it if that woman’s sentence is mitigated.”

“I will take any sentence, if that woman’s sentence is mitigated.”

After another several exchanges with the court, where it was explained that she would either humbly accept the pardon or die, her resolve was as firm as ever.

“I will never accept of it without this woman’s sentence is mitigated.”

All the women were removed from the court except for Cowden, who spoke freely:

“Gentlemen, I hope you will excuse me for being so bold to speak in the court, but this woman is as innocent as a child unborn; she happened to come into the place where this robbery was done, she asked for the loan of a pair of bellows, and she was cast for death; and after being cast for death, I think to be cast for life is very hard; if this woman’s sentence is not mitigated I will freely die with her, I am but a young girl, I am but one and twenty years of age”

Further reports from the court indicate that all three women were eventually set to be transported, although they do not appear in the British Convict Transport Registers. One scholarly article suggests that Cowden later escaped the Lady Juliana convict vessel shortly before it sailed for New South Wales. She returned to London, and was discovered and brought back to the Old Bailey two years later, only to successfully win her freedom after pleading her belly.

This episode allows us to see Sarah Cowden not just as a serious property offender, but as a more three dimensional human being. By seeing her speak, we are offered a glimpse of a young woman with her own thoughts, motivation, and moral code. It would appear that Sarah Cowden was not devoid of feeling or sentiment, but instead a woman for whom the bonds of friendship and loyalty were worth risking life and limb for. A woman for whom, perhaps, justice and a sense of honour meant something. Even if we do not share the same understanding. Certainly I think we can discern that Sarah Cowden was, at the very least, a young woman brave enough to challenge authority in the courtroom and pursue her own agenda even though her status and gender both worked against her.

Instances when we can engage with female offenders exhibiting emotions and behaviours we ourselves might possess or recognise are, rather sadly, desperately rare.  However when we are lucky enough to find them it is a vital reminder that not only could there be honour amongst thieves, but also decency, bravery, and friendship too.

‘Murder by a Midwife at Manchester’

For every crime, and every offender traced to the streets of sprawling Victorian cities, we capture a few moments of life unfolding before us on the page. In these instances we are offered a snapshot of a time, a place, and an individual.

Writing histories like these can be a complicated and difficult process. There are days of immense reward when a problem is solved or when a disparate trail of evidence comes together, like pieces of a jigsaw, allowing us to form a pleasing narrative for a long-pondered story. Then there are times when a sea of documents, names, dates, and events make us realise that even the best investigations can barely scratch the surface of the intricate web of ideas and experiences that shaped life in the past.

Recently the discovery of a long forgotten crime, by a long forgotten offender, was a stark reminder of just how fleeting our interactions with those in the past can be.

Ann Cartledge was the kind of woman who rarely takes centre stage in history. She wouldn’t be out of place in a Gustave Doré painting, although she would never be the subject. Many of us have probably read dozens of descriptions of her, and those like her, in the work of Dickens or Mayhew. Ann was old and poor, and to her social ‘betters’ (not to mention her observers in the 21st century), she was unremarkable.

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Born in Stockport, in the 1820s, she married Thomas Cartledge, an engine fitter, and together the pair had four surviving children. Ann worked as a midwife. Unlike the modern profession, this occupation was not subject to formal training and practiced by local women for a network of their friends and neighbours. Knowledge of the services she offered was built up over time, and word of mouth was how she secured work. Like many other midwives, her duties could range from helping women give birth, to caring for women and helping around their homes after the birth of children, to the tending of sick children.

Other than census entries Ann would be virtually absent in the historical record, tending silently to poor women in the inner-city slums of Manchester, except for a seemingly out of place conviction cluttering her narrative – a murder.

In 1877, for a period of three weeks, Ann had been attending a thirty-four year old widow named Elizabeth Coleman. Whilst Elizabeth had been acting as a housekeeper for a man named Crompton the two formed a relationship and Elizabeth became pregnant. Ann was called to perform one of her little advertised but clearly well practiced trades – procuring abortion. Witnesses testified that Ann gave Elizabeth a ‘potion’ to bring on a miscarriage and then went upstairs with her to procure a miscarriage by ‘other means’. In this case that involved the use of a feather quill and a long piece of wire. Soon after, Elizabeth miscarried her child.  Although little evidence remains for historians of such medical procedures and the women who went through them, we can broadly assume that this is in part because of the common nature of such events, the coming and goings of the midwife must have been a regular feature of life.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth Coleman her ordeal did not end there. From the time of her miscarriage Elizabeth was reported to be in ‘great pain’ and suffering from abdominal pains, and symptoms like that of scarlet fever. She died just a short time later. A post-mortem of her body found her womb to be in a ‘very disorganised state’. Inflammation and gangrene made it difficult for the examining doctor to be sure of the severity of violence inflicted. Shortly before her death, Elizabeth had testified to her experience in front of a policeman. Ann Cartledge was quickly identified and arrested. Ann was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and she was released after serving six and a half years in prison.

As historians, we can understand that the frightening and painful death of Elizabeth Coleman was a tragedy for both victim and offender. For Elizabeth Coleman (and sadly too many women like her) contemporary gender ideals placed unrealistic expectations upon her, and restricted her rights – in this case to her own body. For Ann Cartledge, Elizabeth’s death resulted in the loss of her home and her liberty. Thomas Cartledge died whilst she was in prison and upon her release the widowed Ann spent the remainder of her life living on the support of her children. Ann, in her own words, made plain whilst in prison that she ‘was innocent of any bad intention’ towards Elizabeth.  Women who carried out the services of midwives mostly did so to earn a living, and to help women for whom there was legally or financially no other option. Although the records to prove Ann was not only a one time offender do not exist, and never have, it is only too likely that this was not her only offence.

The practice which led to Elizabeth Coleman’s death was just another day at work for Ann Cartledge. Not only can we assume that over the years that she practiced that Ann was responsible for procuring many miscarriages (an offence in itself during this period) but also that Elizabeth was unlikely to be the first or only of her patients that died from this unsafe and unsanitary procedure.  However, the length of time Ann worked this way, how many women Ann saw, how many deaths Ann caused – and the impact all of this had on her relationship with her peers, her community and her neighbours, are avenues of inquiry that remain forever blocked to us. It is instances such as this that we are offered a prudent reminder that most of us are, at best, repeat tourists to the past, barely aware of the lives risked and lost, property traded, and secrets buried all around us in the slums we think we know so well.

Bloggers, Beware!

When I started WaywardWomen in April 2012, I wanted to create a space where I could explore the themes and points of interest in my PhD project – but more than this, I wanted to create a place in which I could share and exchange my ideas with others – be that academic scholars, to those with a more general interest in the topics, and everyone in between. My hope, perhaps a naive one, was that WaywardWomen would allow me to become a better researcher, a better writer, and a more thorough thinker. The wonders of the internet and social networking sites like Twitter also allowed me to take the vital step it starting to associate my name and work with the subjects that I hope to build my academic reputation around. This is an experience that any anxious PhD student will tell you is invaluable at such an early point in their career. I am thrilled to say that the last year or so of running WaywardWomen has helped me to achieve all of these goals, and more, just as those who encouraged me to take up blogging said it would.

Yet, in all my haste to set up and begin publishing my thoughts and work on my blog, I wish I had taken a little more time to listened to the few people who cautioned me against it. Despite the fantastic attention and reputation that academic blogs are now enjoying, there can be some serious drawbacks – one of which I experienced last week.

On the 25th June, I was tweeted a link of a Daily Mail article that started ‘Edwardian Rogues Gallery’ by a friend and former lecturer. It was with surprise and a fair bit of horror that I opened the article to find my own work staring back at me, with somebody else’s name posted at the top.

Back in May this year, I published a post titled ‘Birmingham’s Brewery Blacklist’. This piece looked at a collection of habitual drunkards from turn of the century Birmingham which Ancestry.com had released back in 2010. The original records covered both male and female offenders, but given my research interests, and the interest of those that follow and read my blog, I wrote a piece profiling the commonalities the female drunkards shared. The post contained all original work – and several of my own statistics, which all took time and effort to compile. The Daily Mail had already covered the press release of the original records in 2010, and I could not account for them suddenly deciding to run an almost identical (down to the selection of the same six photographs) piece to mine – focussing on women and using many of the commonality profiles I had – out of the blue three years later.

I took my worries to Twitter and was soon informed that it was not only the DM, but also Telegraph, Express, Birmingham Daily Post, and others that had run a paraphrased version of my work, under the name of several authors. A fellow PhD student – and former journalist – later explained that it appeared that my work had been picked up by the South West News Agency, and circulated to a selection of national newspapers without my knowledge or consent. Most upsettingly, a collection of unscrupulous journalist were then able to present my work to thousands of readers under their own names without any acknowledgement to myself, or my blog.

 In the following days several other well renowned history bloggers consoled me, and warned me that this kind of behaviour was far from common.  On attempting to contact the individual journalists, or the papers that they work for, I was met, quite unsurprisingly, with a wall of silence. We quite rightly spend a good deal of time promoting, and discussing the many merits of running a blog – none of which I disagree with. But it is the above type of experiences that those who write blogs, and those that enjoy them are not talking about nearly enough. Blogging exposed my work to an amazing number and range of people who I could never have hoped to have reached before. It helped me to make new connections with other scholars, who helped me to refine my ideas. Numerous other people also offered input that will undoubtedly make me a better historian in the future. For these experiences I am exceedingly grateful. But blogging also exposed me to those who wanted to take my intellectual property – to sell it, and pass it off as their own.  A problem all of us need to be far more concerned with.

Since April 2012 I have thoroughly enjoyed blogging, and I would still recommend it to anyone. But, bloggers, beware . . . let’s start talking about the problems and perils of blogging (as there are clearly some pretty huge ones) as much as we talk about the benefits. That way, in the future, situations like mine might be avoided.

Let’s hope the press agencies pick this post up – acknowledge where it came from – and publish it. They have my full consent to do so . . .

But somehow, I rather doubt it.

Well behaved women seldom make history . . .

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s popular adage “well behaved women seldom make history” (sadly often attributed to Marilyn Munroe) has been used in a multitude of places and forms to express the need for women to be more subversive of social expectations if they are to truly put their stamp upon the world, and to secure their place in the annals of time. Yet this would suggest that subversion is all that is needed to mark a woman’s place in history, and that being ‘badly behaved’ is a sure way to make an impact and ensure a lasting legacy.

Alas, this is rarely the case. The WaywardWomen  that fill the pages of this blog have clearly been badly behaved enough to ensure a  mention in the footnotes of history, and sure enough in recent decades, as subjects, they have been sought out, identified, and explored more than ever before. But ultimately, it is their illegal activities that are remembered, both in histories and the bulk of primary materials that those histories are drawn from, rather than the women themselves or the more general interactions they experienced and contributions they made to life.

Academics and popular historians alike are starting to flesh out the profiles and activities of such female offenders. But still, little is known about the social and economic contributions that these women must have been making when not committing an offence, standing in court, or serving time in an institution. The entry of data in the nineteenth century census, parish records or birth, marriage and death registers is no better for female offenders than law-abiding women, they were after all created by men, for the use of men, the consideration of women is secondary. And so, often, wayward women are consigned to the same hazy and ultimately forgettable side-lines of history as their ‘well behaved’ sisters.

In fact, contrary to the above well-circulated quote, much of the time it would seem that we do nothing but remember the well behaved, the ideal model of women. Those who were recorded, accepted, presented as the acceptable norm for their period. For example, not just the wives and mothers, but also independent women and young girls, educators, servants, and dutiful factory workers of the past have for some time appeared regularly in a variety of histories – not always as individuals, but certainly as a present mass. These women might often struggle ( in popular representations certainly)  to be afforded the same time, attention or depth of enquiry as their male counterparts, but here is usually no denying that throughout most major developments and moments in history, women were at least there . . . somewhere.

In their excellent 1993 work Women’s Work and the Family Economy Pat Hudson and Robert Lee commented ‘Much of the history of women’s work has been written from a male perspective. This has resulted in a preoccupation with the ways in which women have ‘participated’ in social processes, including work, which are defined in terms of male experience’.[1] These scholars were quite right to lament the continued evaluation of women’s worth and contribution through male dominated definitions and systems, and to highlight the on-going need to integrate women’s experiences into more general social and economic explorations of the past.  In the intervening twenty years since their book was published, there has of course been a wave of works that have really pushed the boundaries in terms of our understanding and acknowledgement of women’s contribution to social, cultural and economic life throughout history – Works by June Purvis, Selina Todd, Kathryn Gleadle, and Ellen Ross to name just a few. But many of the women included in these histories, were ‘good women’, the well behaved sisters of those wayward and subversive individuals that we know must have been present, but yet we remain neglectful of fully documenting their role.

Despite several fascinating works examining female offending and offenders, the picture of the wider contribution these women made to economic life remains clouded. For some, most embarrassingly myself in particular, patriarchal control remains so embedded that we can often find ourselves producing histories that still use a categorisation of women’s lives and behaviours based on a male-dominated systems. That might be categorising a pick pocket that during the majority of her life looked after her own children or carried out domestic labour in her own home as ‘predominantly unemployed’. Or perhaps neglecting to acknowledge that the street prostitute was as self-employed a worker as the casual dock labourer or builder.

Even now, in 2013, whether the subject be ‘well behaved’ or wayward, it seems that few regular women really ever make it into history at all – not properly.  What is a history of Female offending if not, first and foremost, a history of women. One of the main objectives therefore must be to ensure that any woman’s inclusion in the pages of such a history is not measured by conformity, or subversion, nor great and good deeds, or headline grabbing wrongs, but solely by the very fact that she was possessed of agency, present, and contributing to the world. The same privilege that has been (and remains) afforded to her male counterpart without a second thought.


[1] P. Hudson and W. R. Lee, ‘Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective’, in P. Hudson and W. R. Lee (eds)  Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective (Manchester University Press, 1990), p . 2.

Birmingham’s Brewery Blacklist

So much of the history of crime focusses upon the interaction between the legal apparatus of the state – the police, the court room, the prison- and the behaviours of those acting outside of social and legal norms. For historians and enthusiasts of crime history alike, it can be refreshing and rewarding in equal measure to take a brief diversion and consider some of the extra-legal methods used to control and counteract offenders and deviants.

An intriguing collection recently released on the genealogy website ancestry.com The Holt Brewery Co. Ltd., Black List at the turn of the century shifts our focus briefly from the capital and ‘second city’ of Victorian England’s thriving empire, to another no less bustling but often historically neglected industrial hub of the country – Birmingham.

The 1902 amendment to the Licencing Act made it an offence for those identified as ‘habitual drunkards’ (those with three or more convictions for habitual drunkenness) to attempt to purchase, or to consume intoxicating liquids.  At the same time, this legislation left licenced premises and individuals liable to prosecution if they served alcohol to such individuals. Documents like the Holt Brewery’s Black list were created by local committees with the help of local authorities to assist publicans and licensed individuals identify and refuse service to local habitual drunkards.Image

This particular issue, created around the turn of the century contained the records of eighty-three individuals. Despite the abundance of Victorian rhetoric about the values of the fairer sex, thirty seven of these individuals were women. There are a great number of uses for a source such as this, and the information contained within its pages offers a historian a number of avenues of inquiries. The first and most simple of these may at the same time be one of the most interesting. What type of women might find herself upon the pages of a Birmingham brewery’s little black book?

Contrary to what we might expect of Victorian habitual drunkards – all of the women save two were employed – alcohol abuse affecting not just the down and out, but an addiction that could plight the life of regular members of a community. The women worked predominantly as factory workers  (metal polishers, press operators and the like) charwomen, but others worked as street sellers, dressmakers or laundresses.  The women on the brewery’s blacklist are of course all working class – this is not to say that Birmingham was unique in having no middle-class or upper-class women that over-indulged in alcohol, but then, much as now,  working class drunkenness took place in more public locations and spaces, than the middle-class equivalents who’s drunkenness took place more privately.

Eight of the habitual drunkards also worked as prostitutes. These were women who did not obtain their sole living through prostitution, but relied upon the trade as a strategy during  times of financial hardship to supplement their earnings, or as Judith Walkowitz detailed, as a way obtaining money that allowed them to be more active consumers – or quite simply, to provide ‘spending money’, be that on alcohol, entertainments or fashion.  Sarah Henson or Elizabeth Thompson (pictured below) may well have been such individuals.

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Overwhelmingly, the women were in their thirties and forties, with only five offenders being over the age of fifty, and just two offenders being twenty-five or under. A real contrast to the modern day perception that it is youth drunkenness that blights towns and cities nation-wide.  Given that the majority of women were of an age where we might  expect them to have a stable domestic setup, it is perhaps surprising that eight of the women could give no place of abode, the reset inhabited either court dwellings, or lodging houses – where they would pay by the night to stay. Less than five of the women were listed as married.

All but ten of the women were listed as having aliases, most used one or two, but a minority had four or five. This is significant only in the link that can be drawn between the use of aliases as a sign of not only repeat convictions, but also perhaps a wider criminal career than just drunkenness. Similarly to this, thirty-one of the women had scars or disfigurements –the most sever of which was Kate Kibble who had lost an eye, or a minority of offenders who had severe scaring or had lost fingers. In general the women had mild facial scarring such as cut marks on the forehead or cheeks, and several had scars from broken noses. Such a predominance of facial scarring amongst the women would suggest that most had been involved in several violent episodes, be this street fighting, or as the victim of attacks.

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Only three of the women had tattoos – amongst them the youngest offenders. The most interesting of these was twenty-five year old Alice Tatlow who not only had the initials (of family members of previous paramours) on her hands, but also pictures which may have related to either specific experiences, or more likely gang membership – such as clasped hands, a star, and the Prince of Wales feathers.

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However, some were quite ordinary, Like Forty-six year old Mary Bayliss or thirty-nine year old Susannah Booton – who had few scars, no  tattoos, or disfigurements, who somewhere to live, and who worked as a charwomen. In fact, unless you got close enough to inspect many of the women in detail, as they went to work or passed in and out of their lodgings they were unremarkable and in many ways indistinguishable from their law abiding peers – That is until they tried to enter a pub, and that unfortunate page in the brewery’s blacklist reared its ugly head.

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No Place for a Lady? Back to the Victorian Penal System

The reforms proposed by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling filled news headlines today. His objective is clear. To make prisons, tougher on inmates, and therefore no longer a ‘reward’ for those who break the law. The reforms that will come into effect later this year are predominantly aimed at male prisoners – the fate and consideration of their female counterparts left for another day. Historian Philip Priestley’s adage that ‘Prison was a man’s world; made for men, by men. Women in prison were seen as somehow anomalous: not foreseen and therefore not legislated for’ seems just as applicable in light of today’s announcement, as it does for the period he writes about – the Victorian. The reforms proposed today will in fact take place in many of the same institutions – and even buildings – created in the nineteenth century to tackle the very same problem ministers argue about today; Those most recognisable bastions of Victorian penal reform – Brixton, Pentonville, and Strangeways to name but a few.

The image of the Victorian convict prison has been enshrined in popular fiction and historical accounts alike. It is no doubt some of these representation that inform many of the ministerial decisions taking place today; A harsh unrelenting system of reform, punishment and self-reflection; An institution that brutalised the body to civilise the mind.

A short historical perspective has perhaps blinded many of us to the fact that when these institutions were created the early part of the Victorian period, the modern penal system (still in place today) was trying to make the experience of criminal justice, and undergoing punishment not more unpleasant for those at its mercy, but less so.

The ‘Bloody Code’ of the eighteenth century is a period in English criminal justice history that is in many ways more notorious than either its nineteenth or twentieth century equivalents. The iconic images of Tyburn’s gallows, of any local pillory, or the chaos of the infamous Newgate gaol help us to vividly imagine a brutal legal system so unlike our own.

Tyburn and pillory

The justice dispensed prior to the nineteenth century cared and catered little for the age, gender, or vulnerability of offenders, only for the perceived guilt or innocence of the accused. The corporal and (in some severe instances) capital punishment of children – for what in many cases could be subsistence level crimes  – is the most famed and unsettling legacy of this system. But perhaps more sinister even than that was the social and cultural experience of being incarcerated in a pre Victorian prison such a Negate or the transportation hulks. Gaols such as this acted not as institutions that dispensed punishment and strove to reform offenders, but instead of holding pens – a place to detain criminals until they could be brought before the court, or after their conviction until their sentence – to be whipped, transported or hung for example – could be carried out. These ‘lock-ups’ mixed men women and children together in a series of shared cells. The conditions of these places not only lacked basic hygiene standards, but ultimately left inmates vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and sexual violence. These were institution renowned for corruption, money rather than need determined an inmate’s experience.

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Developing Victorian social sensibilities – particularly those concerning gender – saw traditional processes of the legal system come under scrutiny, and the institutions prevalent during ‘the Bloody Code’ give way to those modern penal institutions that still service the justice system today. These institutions aimed not just to punish, but to civilise, humanise, and reform the prisoners within. Whilst Victorian society had labelled women the gentler, weaker sex, and fully acknowledged their inability to withstand the same interactions with the world that men undertook, the prison systems of Victorian England catered little for the difference between male and female prisoners.

Alongside some specialised regimes such as the separate and silent system – where prisoners were discouraged from communicating with one another, so as to encourage self-reflection, and deter the formation of criminal friendships – most prison operated a points and class based system dependent on notions of rights, responsibilities, and privileges, much like the ‘new system’ Chris Grayling is suggesting currently. This system held the key to a prison inmate’s experience – what diet they were permitted, how regularly they were allowed to write letters or receive visits, if and when they were permitted to socialise, what work they carried out, and what money they might receive on leaving prison.

ImageSarah Jane Swann’s penal record indicating she was in the ‘Star Class’

ImageSarah Jane Swann’s points record for 1881

Other commonalities of the prison regime were the use of uniform to strip prisoners of their former identity, and long days of laborious work, to punish the body and occupy the mind – for women, examples include fourteen to sixteen hour days in the prison laundry.

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Throughout the Victorian period, and well into the twentieth century, debates about Prison regimes, prison reform and the welfare of prisoners raged. With every gain made for better treatment of prisoners, staunch opposition was raised complaining of lessened deterrent for wrongdoers.

Yet the changes that did take place over the period were the real victories of the Victorian prison system.  Developments for female convicts included the education of prisoners, the provision of proper medical care, nurseries that allowed mothers to maintain contact with their children should they give birth in prison, and most importantly, refuges that acted as a stepping stone between incarceration and freedom  – striving to place women in employment once they were released.

It was the facilitation of a life outside of prison, that saw women (and men) most commonly cease to offend. It was by humanising them, not brutalising them, by offering hope, not despair, that prisoners could be turned back into people.

The Victorian prison system was far from perfect. Despite continuous reforms, it cannot have been a pleasant place to be – perhaps that is its appeal as a model for modern government policy.

Instead of looking back to the Victorian ‘golden age’ of penal reform and coveting some of the the worst aspects of this; the uniforms, the hard labour, the points systems, and the restrictive daily routines, perhaps it might be of more use to ministers to consider the wisdom of previous penal reformers and prison philanthropists instead. These individuals and organisations came to understand that it is by improving the quality of life and living for those most desperate and disenfranchised in society – those most likely to offend – that we reduce the rate of crime and most importantly, recidivism. No matter how unpleasant you make the experience of prison, until you improve opportunity and quality of life on the outside, there will always be inmates aplenty to fill the cells.

Are they not women and sisters too?

International women’s day – formally international working women’s day – is the yearly celebration of the political, economic, and social contribution of women over time and around the world. International Women’s day is also a valuable chance to raise awareness of the many challenges still facing women today, and an opportunity to promote a fairer, more equal society.

Should the recognition of women’s contribution, and the fight for equality, start and end with those who stay within the perimeters of the law? Perhaps when we look closer, a large proportion of female offenders both past and present are those most suffering from some of the legacies centuries of entrenched patriarchy have left.

In many contemporary perceptions (as well as some lingering historical accounts of the Victorian period), ‘criminal’ women often constituted their own, separate tier of society. In the minds of many authorities, and Victorian elites, criminal women – be they serious habitual property offenders, or low level public order offenders like prostitutes, or those convicted of drunk and disorderly behaviour – contributed nothing to the running or advancement of society. In fact, women who committed crime were considered in many ways to be worse than their male counterparts, they threatened the highly gendered social order of the period- and even worse, were primarily responsible for the physical and moral degeneration of the nation.

There are of course a small minority of WaywardWomen who fitted very closely to this stereotype. Those women who perhaps chose not to work, and subsisted solely by criminal means, and most particularly those whose violent and disturbing crimes seem to defy all rational explanation, or logic.

However, in stark contrast to these few cases, over three-quarters of the WaywardWomen were employed either before or during the period when offending took place. These women were the factory operatives, shop assistants, domestic servants, barmaids, and general labourers that helped to build and operate modern Britain. They were also the street sellers, laundresses, and piece workers that served the more fortunate in society. For a good number of these women, it was the failure of society to fully recognise these contributions (a problem that remains today) which in many ways determined their offending.

Cecilia Tierney (pictured above) could not earn enough money to feed herself, her elderly mother, and her illegitimate daughter Ellen, she held multiple convictions for theft of small amounts of food.

Most working class women in Victorian England were eligible only for the poorest paying and most menial of jobs in any industry, the best paying and most senior jobs would almost uniformly be held by male workers. Likewise, a failure to properly recognise the separate needs of female employees – provision for childcare being a major example – could also lead to some of the most troubling female offences.

Emily Church (pictured above), killed her eighteen month old daughter when the cost of child care outstripped her wages.

Most importantly, the sexual double standard that permeated most kinds of employment held many female workers to a higher moral and behavioural standard than their male colleagues. This double standard, could see a woman fail to gain a job, and even lose employment depending on the judgement of her ‘respectability’ and ‘reputation.’ Likewise, the number of recidivist women more often than not outnumbered that of recidivist men in this period because regaining respectability after a conviction was far more important, but much more difficult for women then for men.

Jane Colebrook (Pictured above) found it increasingly difficult to find work as a dressmaker after summary convictions for drunk and disorderly behaviour at the age of seventeen. Jane spent the latter years of her life working as a prostitute.

Of course we are right to acknowledge that in the past, as now, personal agency and choice must always play a role in offending. It is also right to acknowledge that not all crimes are a product of inequality, nor that everyone suffering at the hands of inequality will go on to offend.

Yet until we fully address the issue of a sexual double standard by acknowledging the role and contribution of women in every society, until we fully achieve equal rights and opportunities regardless of sex or gender, and until patriarchy rules no more, can we really be surprised if the historical outcomes of inequality – of which crime is just one example -continue to repeat themselves?

A Growing Class of Offenders?

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Image: Home Office and Prison Commission: Female Licences; Class: PCOM4; Piece: 59; Item: 6; Page: 2.

In 1882 Liverpool Echo published this article, lamenting the growing number of violent assaults committed by women, against women in the city.  In Liverpool, as elsewhere in the country, the ever present spectre of female deviance both upset the sensibilities, and captured the imagination of Victorian men, women, and children alike. Whether it was Charles Dickens’ fictional tragic moll Nancy at the beginning of the era, or the ghoulish real life serial killings of the ‘Black Widows’ towards the end of the century.

Those fascinated with crime, then as now, perceive a somewhat contradictory being when they call to imagination the idea of a Victorian female offender; Lascivious, immoral, scheming, lazy and dishonest – yet at the same time almost a victim, a weak and passive creature corrupted and invariably led into vice by their iniquitous male counterparts. The nineteenth century woman who committed crime was and is all too often represented as either the tragic heroine or dastardly villain of her own story. However, these melodramatic roles are very rarely ones occupied by real people navigating everyday life.

Rather than being a homogeneous ‘class of offenders’ that could be easily identified and profiled, Victorian female offenders were in reality a diverse collection of individuals. A fact reflected in both their backgrounds and their crimes. Some came from the depths of poverty, others from a world of luxury and privilege.  Some had immigrated to England in hope of a better life, whilst some had never ventured further that the street they were born in. To some, crime was a career and their offences numbered in the hundreds, others offended only once. Women experienced both reform and relapse at the hands of Victorian policing and punishment. Female offenders were thieves, housebreakers, pickpockets, fraudsters, coiners, prostitutes, brothel owners, drinkers, fighters, murderers, and more. Yet at the same time they occupied lives as workers, friends, outsiders, orphans, partners, daughters, mothers and sisters. They were women with hopes and aspirations, fears and responsibilities. Leading real lives and making real, and difficult decisions.

By combining the two worlds which many women straddled – the criminal and the personal – it is possible to get a better idea of the real women behind the Victorian myth of female crime, and to pursue the tantalising answers to the who, what, and why of offending.

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