WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Women’s work and ‘working girls’: Inspiration for International Women’s Day

Earlier today I was delighted to give a talk on the subject of ‘Inspirational women from Liverpool’ at the Museum of Liverpool in honour of International Women’s Day 2016.

Liverpool Is a city with a long history of inspirational women who have changed the lives of others and the world around them. With so much to choose from, the history of crime might not seem like the most obvious place to start a story of inspirational women in the city. However, its as good as any place for a day  originally titled ‘international working women’s day’. A day which gives us an opportunity to celebrate the social, political, and economic contributions that women have made to the world -through hard work and perseverance.

We are used to thinking about women in the history of crime in two ways: of victims of crime – sexual and other violence in particular troubling women through history to the present day – or as victims of the legal process. The case of Florence Maybrick, has gone down in Liverpool’s history as a famed miscarriage of justice. We are also conditioned to think of women who  break the law as villains. Not only on account of their criminal acts, but because so often breaking the law requires women to break gendered codes of expectation too. Criminal women can be so ‘unwomanly’. They harm children, can be lascivious or violent, or abandon their homes and duties for the pursuit financial gain. Liverpool’s Black Widows were immortalised in the popular press as inhuman, masculine, monsters. However, crime  is not always black and white. There can be stories of success as well as despair. Light as well as darkness. Many suffragettes, who less than a century ago won the right of universal suffrage that we all now enjoy, were incarcerated as criminals . In history they are heroes, but in their day they were considered violent militants and disturbers of the peace.

One crime in particular  has a long significance in the history of both women and Liverpool: prostitution. Prostitution is, as we might suppose, the battleground on which so many feminist and social issues have been fought. Consent, abuse, exploitation, and gender inequality to name but a few. Yet prostitution can also be a prism through which we can view the struggles, triumphs, and extraordinary stories of ordinary women. Prostitution can even be a place, somewhat surprisingly, where inspiration can be found.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, Liverpool was not only a flourishing site of world trade, it was also a desperate place where many working class women struggled to survive. It was a city in which prostitution thrived.

Researcher David Beckingham estimated that ‘on the basis of criminal statistics, Liverpool was by some distance the capital of prostitution in Victorian England’. It also had one of the highest prosecution rates for prostitution in the UK, outstripping cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle many times the size. 

Life as a prostitute in Victorian England was a hard and unenviable one. By the 1860s life for prostitutes  became even harder  as the government moved to legislate against those working the streets with the Contagious Diseases Acts.

The first Contagious Diseases Act (CDA) was passed in 1864, and the acts were amended and expanded again in 1866 and 1869. They made provision for the apprehension,  detention, and forceful medical examination of any woman suspected of being a common prostitute and suspected of having venereal disease in the port and garrison towns of England and Ireland. These acts gave the police the power to apprehend women they suspected of working as ‘common prostitutes’ and to take them before a magistrate who could  order them to be detained in a lock hospital for invasive internal examination. If  found to have a ‘contagious disease’ to be detailed for a course of mandatory treatment – up to six months long, before releasing them with a certificate of clean health. Women could be further required to report for fortnightly check-ups. If a woman refused to cooperate at any stage she could be convicted of an offence and imprisoned. If a brothel was found to be employing infected women they could be fined up to £20. The legislation gave already vulnerable women little place to hide.

The Acts were an unmitigated failure. Not only do we know that the horrendous and invasive treatments they forced on women had little medical affect, they also ignored the obvious reality that the spread of infection could not be stopped by only treating half of the sexually active population.

What  these acts did achieve was to breach what we would now consider basic human rights – such as that to liberty and the right for women to control their own bodies.The CDAs persecuted and discriminated against women. Laying the blame for the sex trade and all of its perceived evils at the feet of the women who worked in the trade.

Josephine Butler moved to Liverpool in 1866, just as the acts were being amended – so that her husband could take up the post of principal of Liverpool College.

Josephine_Butler_-_portrait

She had been raised in rural Northumberland, a world away from the wretched streets and Brothels of Liverpool. Yet almost immediately upon arrival in the city she began work with women and young girls who she met in the course of visiting the streets, hospitals, and workhouses of the city. Butler wrote to her Son that she felt compelled to help those who were so much less fortunate than herself.

Butler letter 1866

Her work began almost immediately, turning her own home into a house for dying women rescued from the streets and workhouses. Later, she rented premises near her home to run as a house of rest and industrial home. Butler’s institution was the first of its kind in the city. The home offered care for women who had once walked the streets and aimed to combat what she saw as some of the primary causes of women’s ruination. The poor level of education, training, and employment available to them in the city that saw the poorest and most vulnerable with little other option for survival than to sell themselves. Her industrial home took women from the street and gave them a small income in return for learning ‘honest occupations’ that might help them to live a ‘sin-free’ life in the future.

By 1869 when the final and largest extension of the contagious diseased acts were passed into law, Butler began writing powerful public papers rallying against the hypocricy of the acts, and the double standard which saw male promiscuity as natural, and female sexuality as a perversion, yet one that should be  exploited ‘to serve the requirements of men’. She wrote of the acts, ‘their system is to obtain prostitution plus slavery for women and vice minus disease for men. In her paper the Moral Reclamability of Prostitutes she wrote that the acts rendered women ‘no longer women but only bits of numbers, inspected, and ticketed human flesh, flung by government into public market’.

She founded the Ladies Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1869, and campaigned through writings, speeches, and public tours for the next decade – despite battling with severe exhaustion. The association fought against the established acts on an eight point premise, and also fought against a counter-campaign which aimed to extend the acts throughout Britain.

Handbill pontefract

 

The acts were repealed in 1886. But by 1882, when Josephine and her family left Liverpool she had written over forty books, pamphlets and speeches for the cause. She made a huge contribution to the campaign for the acts to be repealed, and doubtlessly impacted for the better the quality of life of women working the streets in Liverpool and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, only too often , International Women’s day is a time when we celebrate just the achievements of the great and the good. The Butlers, the  Pankhursts, the Nightingales of the world. When it comes to prostitutes – still one of the most vulnerable groups of women anywhere – history remembers the men and women who advocated on their behalf but forgets the ordinary women who overcame appalling and extraordinary circumstances just to survive.

Minnie Wright

Minnie Wright was a contemporary of Josephine Butler’s but only in the very loosest sense of the term. Her life could not have been more different from Josephine’s, yet both women found their lives shaped by Liverpool’s sex trade during the period of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Minnie was born in Swansea prison in 1851 where her mother maria, a prostitute and thief was serving a six month sentence for theft. Minnie’s mother was a twenty-six year old famine migrant from cork, and her father was a fifty seven year old thief, abusive drunk, and pimp with a criminal record stretching back to before Minnie, her mother, and Josephine Butler were even born. Minnie grew up in a home where sexual and other violence by her father against her mother and others was common. By the age of six she was living with her family in a brothel in Liverpool. It is hard to fully comprehend what life was like for Minnie, living side by side with sexual exploitation and violence on a daily basis. She was married at sixteen but continued living at the brothel even as her children were born. Minnie gave birth to ten children, although only her son John and daughter Mary Ann survived into adulthood. In her early twenties, after the incarceration of both of her parents for running a house of ill-fame and death of her father, Minnie was left to run the brothel – her home and only source of income – alone.

As the ladies Association were campaigning to repeal the CDAs in 1873, and the zealous policing of prostitution and brothels in the city was at its height, Minnie too was arrested and imprisoned for running a disorderly house. In the years that followed more prosecutions came as a string of new criminal activities – illegal drinking, gambling, and fencing of stolen goods – took place at the brothel. While Minnie must be viewed as responsible for the exploitation which occurred at the brothel, it must be acknowledged too that her options to make any other living were extremely limited.

Minnie was the daughter of a prostitute, and a pimp. She had grown up witnessing in all its detail and horror the Victorian sex trade. Minnie lived in Liverpool’s notorious red-light district in which brothels and prostitution must have been normalised for many local inhabitants. She had no education, no training, and no prospect (with her reputation and background ) of obtaining any but the most poorly paying and casual work in the city. Work outside the brothel for Minnie, if not prostitution, would have involved street selling (hawking) or charring. During this period street work for women in Liverpool came with its own drawbacks and dangers.

Little HellA Map of Liverpool’s ‘Little Hell where Minnie and her family lived. The red lines illustrate locations of one or more known brothels  1860-1880.

The year after Josephine Butler left Liverpool, Minnie was convicted of receiving stolen goods from her twelve year old son. Minnie was sentenced to five years in one of London’s convict prisons, and John spent five years in a reformatory. Minnie was released from Prison in 1886 – the year that the CDAs were finally repealed. Something – very possibly the long separation from her family – had changed for Minnie. Despite the considerable social barriers in her way Minnie changed her life dramatically. She took the money she had earned from her years at the brothel and moved with her family to the Wirral. there they began a legitimate business – a butchers. Run by Joseph, and joined, when he was released from the reformatory, by John. Minnie even managed to secure her daughter Mary Ann a domestic service position. While this might seem perfectly ordinary, for Mary Ann it was remarkable not only because she was born in a brothel, but also because her mother, uncle, and grandparents had all spent time in prison for offences related to prostitution or violence.

1901-census

Given the overwhelming odds against it, it really is extraordinary that both of Minnie’s children lived stable , law abiding lives. Especially that her daughter, and her granddaughters, and great-granddaughters all lived respectable, law abiding lives – untouched by the misery of sexual exploitation into which three successive generation of women in Minnie’s family had been born. Minnie died at the age of eighty-eight. She had not changed the world, but in the face of real adversity – of personal tragedy and social restriction- she transformed her own life and the fortunes and opportunities of the women around her.

When we think of how women from the past might inspire us, there is room to draw from the small as well as the great, the  pioneers who fought for all women, and even the ones that had only the means to fight for themselves.

Josephine Butler and Minnie Wright never met one another. They were women of vastly different family backgrounds, educational levels and social classes. Yet the lived in the very same city and their lives were connected by the injustice and sexual inequality of prostitution in Victorian Liverpool. Both women, through this unique moment in history, have something to teach us about women’s abilities and agency to shape their own lives, and the wider world.

Josephine Butler’s story is well known. She turned privilege and position into a opportunity to advocate against the injustices suffered by women with little social or political power to do so themselves. By contributing to the repeal of laws which persecuted and discriminated against women, Butler will have changed the quality, and probably the course of many lives. Minnie Wright’s life is not the stuff of history books, and rarely the stuff of talks, she had, you might think, little impact on the wider social and political lot of women in Liverpool. Yet should we consider her struggle any less difficult, and the repercussions any less monuments?  Successive generations of the Wright family, Mary Ann’s children, and her children’s children lived ordinary lives, which is rather extraordinary when you think of what could have come to be. It is not just the great and the good like Josephine Butler, but the ordinary and every day women of Liverpool who have struggled against injustice, fought for every opportunity, and made the choices, that have changed the lives of women in the city, and in many instances their relationship with crime too.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Like the blog? Buy the book!

I’m thrilled to announce that my first book, Wayward Women, inspired by this blog, has been published by Pen and Sword books.

Wayward Women was inspired by my PhD, but it doesn’t draw directly from it. You don’t need to be an academic to enjoy this book. If you are interested in the history of women and crime, if you’ve like the content of this blog, then this book is for you!

Cover

From child-strippers, land-sharks and hocussers to brawlers, traffickers and sneaks Wayward Women takes a closer look at the fascinating world of female offending in Victorian England. Whether it was everyday crimes of violence, theft, and disorder that filled busy police courts or the sensationalised acts of deviance that dominated newspaper headlines nationwide, Wayward Women follows the stories of women navigating poverty and opportunity in a world where life was hard and the law was unforgiving. Looking beyond the crinolines and stereotypes so often associated with Victorian female offenders, this book reveals a rich history of diverse crimes, and the ordinary and exceptional women responsible for them.

Its been fantastic fun having the opportunity to write up so many cases of nineteenth century female offenders and their crimes of property, violence and public order all over England. You can now buy Wayward Women direct from Pen and Sword, or on Amazon. The support and encouragement I’ve received for WaywardWomen the blog has been amazing, I hope you’ll all like Wayward Women the book just as much – if not more. May it be as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write!

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Female offenders were nothing if not inventive. The crimes of women in Victorian England could be both ordinary and extraordinary, from child-stripping, hocussing, and fantastical frauds to brawls, drunkenness, and acts of utter desperation. As with any subject, the more we study the particulars of an offence – despite the individual players and nuances of circumstance – the more predictable certain kinds of crime become. We can begin to see patterns in the way women went about deceiving their peers and dodging the law. I’ve come to know that many violent altercations between women occurred after accusations of infidelity and slights over reputation were traded, and that too many infanticide cases share in common the tragic plight of the unwed and abandoned mother. Even what once seemed like audacious and unpredictable forms of theft are soon revealed to be repetitive and formulaic. Prostitutes who would pick up drunken clients in a pub and entice them back to a room with the promise of a final nightcap, only to rob them blind. Women who would lure children into darkened alley ways to steal their boots and shawls. Pickpockets that worked railway stations and busy thoroughfares.

After studying hundreds of cases and police court reports I have moments of feeling like I know all there is to know about how female offenders plied their various trades. It is always thrilling to find a well-timed case which reminds me that as much as I know, in the world of female offending, there is always something more to learn.

Coining was one of the most popular forms of property crime for female offenders in the nineteenth century. Women could be involved in the process of making counterfeit coins, but more often then not, their primary role was in distributing batches of freshly minted fakes into circulation. Those who uttered counterfeit coin, or ‘smashers’ as they were also known, did not need to be of a particular physical type or skill set. They did not need respectable clothing, right speech, or the confidence or wares to carry out long-term deceptions. All that successful utterers needed to do was to trade counterfeit coins for legitimate ones.

Conterfiet CrownA counterfeit crown

 Victorian England was awash with bad currency, From Liverpool, to Birmingham and London, there were large networks of both male and female offenders who made and distributed bad money. The small number of female coiners we know most about were those captured by the police. They fall into two groups: those of who worked with poor forgeries – greasy soft coins, or those of the wrong colour or weight – and those who became greedy or lazy, trading their coins in the same place over and over again, or those who tried to trade a counterfeit too large in value for the small goods or service they were after.

Until recently, every case of female uttering I had encountered followed a familiar pattern. A woman, or sometimes a pair of women, working with small denomination coins (shillings, half-crowns, sixpences) would enter a pub and ask for a small drink. A half-quartern of gin, for example, might cost 2 ½ pence. She would pay with a bad shilling, and take the drink, and a sizable amount of change in return. If an utterer did the same at several establishments, by the end of the day she could find herself full of free alcohol, and with a pocket of legitimate currency. The same ruse could also be carried out in shops. Coins were exchanged at butchers and bakers for food, or at retailers for cloth or clothing. The trick to successful uttering was in exchanging little an often – not requiring too much change, or carrying out the same transaction too often.

Victorian PubForgeries were easily missed in the bustle of busy Victorian pubs

Caroline Crick, however, was a rare example of an utterer willing to take bigger risks for better pay. Employing a clever double bluff, Caroline would accuse retailers and tradesmen of attempting to con her with false-coin, while passing off her own and making away with their good coins.

Caroline spent twenty years in and out of prison for various coining offences in the mid nineteenth century. Yet when it comes to personal details about Caroline, as with many female habitual offenders, are hard to track down. She was possibly born Caroline Jones, in London, around 1823. She lived in Lambeth and had two children with William Crick, and although they were never formally married, Caroline took Crick’s surname. Caroline also operated, in the early years of her uttering, under the name of Jane Banister.

Even Caroline’s earliest offences were much bigger and bolder than the average utterer’s. At the beginning of a two day spree in 1848, with one prison term already behind her, Caroline and her accomplice Rachel Levy visited a perfumer in Oxford Street just before closing-time. Caroline picked out a piece of sponge, priced at half a crown, and produced a five pound note to pay for it. The note was true currency, and the shopkeeper duly began counting out more than four sovereigns worth of change. Caroline was busy placing the change in her purse when her companion, Levy, spoke up, asking the shopkeeper the price of the sponge again. Levy remarked that she happened to have the right coin in her purse and she would pay for it. The five pound note was duly handed back to Caroline, and she returned the change. Levy paid the half crown and the two women left the shop with the sponge. It was only after the women were out of sight that the shopkeeper noticed that one of the returned sovereigns was not the original, but a false coin. The next day Caroline and Levy used the same five pound note to buy half a sovereign’s worth of wine. Caroline had received more than four sovereigns in change, but she called the barmaid back and rang one of the sovereigns on the bar saying she thought it sounded like a fake. She returned all of her change, reclaimed the note, and left the inn.

Next the two women visited a a confectioners  and again, handed over the five pound note in exchange for goods and change, before finding the right coinage and returning the change for the original note, substituting a good sovereign for the bad. However, this time the shopkeeper noticed that one of the returned coins was a bad substitute and held the women while the police were called. Caroline and Levy were apprehended and brought to trial. Both were sent to prison for eighteen months. Had they been successful, the pair would have earned three pounds in two days, and very possibly more in shops that did not notice the deception or give evidence at the trial.

great_britain_sovereign_counterfeit A counterfeit gold sovereign

Shorty after her release from prison, Caroline went back to uttering. With a new accomplice, she no longer had the use of a five pound note, but instead a good sovereign, which she would ask shopkeepers to change the large coin for smaller currency, substituting one of the larger silver coins for a bad replica, and requesting a new one when she ‘did not like the look of it’.

Unfortunately Caroline was by then renowned as a coiner, she was being followed by the police. Officer Spittle went into the shop directly after her, and took the coin as evidence. Caroline, who had been known to the officer for two or three years, took on, he noted, a character while she worked. Dressed up in respectable clothing she would walk about the town gazing at the buildings and shops as if she were a visitor from the country. After conducting the same trick with at least one other retailer, Caroline and her female accomplice were taken into custody. As they headed away an officer nearby heard them shout to two men, who rapidly made away to Whitechapel. Caroline, it would seem, was part of a larger network of smashers circulating false coin in this way.

Each time Caroline was apprehended, the future materials with which she was supplied grew worse. Those further up the chain seemed unwilling to risk the loss of large amounts of legitimate currency (like the five pound note) or the loss of good counterfeits on an utterer who was so well known to the police. The amounts Caroline could deal in became smaller, and the quality of her forgeries poorer. She worked with cracked and chipped coins, those that could be snapped in half, and those for which the weight easily gave them away. This led to more frequent convictions and longer spells in prison.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.19.54 Caroline Crick’s penal record

As Caroline slipped further down the coining hierarchy, her offences became more common place. In her final trail at the Old Bailey in 1860, she was convicted, like so many women before her, of simply trying to buy goods with bad coin. Trading only in bad half sovereigns. Why Caroline had stuck for so long to a trade for which she was no longer profiting was answered in her statement of defence: ‘I hope you will have mercy on me on account of my poor dying husband and my helpless children. This shall be the last time I will ever commit a like offence; spare me this time from a severe sentence’. She was sentenced to ten years of penal servitude.

Caroline’s case is fascinating for two reasons. Her first offences give a hint of all there is still to learn about the practice of coining. Having looked at numerous cases of female coiners, hers is the first I have seen in which large quantities of money were exchanged, and in which slight of hand and deception were more complex than simply trading bad coins for goods and change. It is likely that Caroline’s case is rare precisely because those entrusted with changing high denomination good quality fakes had to be good enough so as to be untraceable. The materials and other people involved in this case -accomplices both male and female on the street, and those that made and provided the good and bad currency to work with – are very much on the periphery of Caroline’s story. However, they suggest a broader network of offenders at play, and a hierarchy which offenders could slip down as they gained convictions – and supposedly climb up if they succeeded too.

Cases like Caroline Crick’s are rare. However, when they surface not only do they add another vibrant thread to the rich tapestry of female offending, they are also a welcome reminder that even one hundred and fifty years later, one old dog can still teach another new tricks.

This post is with special thanks to Richard Ward who pointed out Caroline’s case while working with the Digital Panopticon’s new record-linkage interface.

 

Crime at Christmas.

Christmas is a time of year that feels inescapably Victorian. Some of our most loved traditions and most familiar images of the festive season were made during this time. From prince Albert’s pioneering of the decorated Christmas tree, classic music such as ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ or ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, to our favourite stories such as Charles Dickens’ unforgettable A Christmas Carol. Although modern Christmas has had many welcome modern additions, at its heart, it’s still inescapably Victorian. One Victorian staple, however, is often far from our thoughts when we envision that crackling log fire, the stockings hanging on the mantelpiece, and the pulling crackers and a eating of a festive feast: Crime.

Victorian christmas Tree

The ghost of Christmas Present

Twenty-eight year old Rebecca Porter began working as a domestic servant for a Mr and Mrs Harris in July 1864. Mrs Harris began to suspect that Rebecca was pregnant in October that year because she wore such a large crinoline (structured petticoat) to try and disguise her changing figure. Rebecca refused not to wear her crinoline, stating she would rather leave employment than to do so. On Christmas day Rebecca refused to join the other servants of the house in for morning chores due to what she called a ‘billious attack’. Rebecca was, in truth, giving birth to her illegitimate son, alone in her room.  Immediately after delivering her child, Rebecca went downstairs to eat Christmas dinner with her fellow servants ‘in a desperate endeavour to avert suspicion’. Unfortunately, a court herd from witnesses, her agony was only too evident and the truth was discovered.

Rebecca had strangled her son almost immediately after birth but then attempted to wash her child, and wrapped it in cloth placing it in one of her storage boxes. Rebecca begged her mistress to be allowed to bury her child and to return to work for Mr and Mrs Harris but, unsurprisingly, Mrs Harris refused and sent instead for the police. Rebecca underwent two trials at the Old Bailey. One for  murder, and the other for concealing a birth (a common lesser charge, often favoured for cases of infanticide). However, despite significant evidence to suggest Rebecca had purposely concealed her pregnancy, that she had made no provisions for the child’s life intending for some time to kill it, and the very obvious evidence of the injury to her son, she was found not guilty, and set free from court.

An almost identical case was brought against Martha Rogers, who on Christmas-eve. Martha 1850 left her employer’s house in Surrey, looking ‘very unwell’. She took with her nothing but a box and a few other personal effects. The box contained the body of her deceased illegitimate child that she had given birth to in secret in her master’s home. Martha then attempted to dispose of the child’s body by mailing the box to an unknown address. The package was traced back to her, but at trial, she, like Rebecca, was also acquitted of murder.

These Christmases, and these crimes, were not exceptional. Every Christmas in the decades both before and after, women up and down the country found themselves at odds with the law. Women driven to violence and murder. Those who used the opportunity of festive cheer to con their way into houses and shops so they might steal, and those who over indulged in festive frivolities and found themselves arrested as drunkards or a public nuisance. Ordinary women like Sarah Kelly, arrested in 1889 as a drunk, whilst sitting out on a step in Holloway on Christmas day, with her young children sat crying beside her. Or like Frances Gallimore, Agnes Martien, and Mary Lilly, all separately charged on Christmas day 1879 with running disorderly houses – brothels and lodging houses in which scores of women spent Christmas working as prostitutes.

The crimes committed by female offenders throughout the festive season, and even on Christmas day itself, were no more remarkable than any other time of year. Christmas crime was not special or particularly significant. But viewed through the warm and sparkling lens of our own celebrations, crime at Christmas often makes us dwell, more than any other time of year, on the causes and circumstances of offending which saw some have the worst time of their lives, even at the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.

All Aboard the Amphitrite

Penal transportation to Australia is a fascinating subject for anyone interested in England’s history of crime and punishment. What we should make of transportation, and how we should perceive it as both a system of punishment and a human experience is something that divides historians. Few accounts of transportation to Australia would deny the horrors undergone by convicts who awaited transportation in hulks or prisons, or the terrifying and treacherous journeys facing those who sailed to Australia. When they arrived in Australia convicts could face back-breaking labour and a brutal system of secondary punishments which kept them under control.

However, some have also highlighted the benefits that transportation offered convicts. Prisoners under sentence could marry, they could take employment and earn money. Once a convict was issued their ‘ticket-of-leave’ they were essentially free to take advantage of the opportunities that the colony had to offer.  They could find work, acquire land, and prosper. Freedom in Australia could bring a life *and climate* the likes of which many English convicts had never known. Digital Panopticon Ph.D student Emma Watkins recently spoke about the success of Mary Reiby, transported to New South Wales at the age of fourteen, who built a family and a successful business after the expiration of her seven year sentence. So remarkable was Mary’s contribution to the colony that since 1994 her face has graced the Australian $20 Bill.

Australian $20

Of course, not every convict story was as happy as Mary’s. It would only be too easy to view transportation through the rose-tinted lens of history, forgetting the immense psychological damage that could be done to those forcefully separated from everything and everyone they knew, transported across the world in bondage, never to return. Or the physical dangers that awaited those who sailed to Australia and toiled on its unfamiliar shores. Nonetheless, we have enough evidence to suggest that not all convicts looked to the colonies with terror. Some viewed the opportunities available to convicts in Australia as preferable to undergoing English punishment. Particularly in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s when the horrors of initial settlement were largely over and two successful colonies in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s land were established. Some have even suggested that the end of penal transportation in 1868 was due, at least in part, to it no longer providing sufficient deterrent to convicts. Not all offenders were as opposed to life in Australia as we might expect.

Much of the history of transportation continues to interrogate these ideas. What was life really like for convicts in Australia? Who was selected for transportation and how? Did transportation offer a better prospect of reform, a better chance of offenders going on to have a ‘successful’ life? Did transportation work better than imprisonment? These are just some of the questions being considered by the Digital Panopticon’s Penal Outcomes theme.

In our haste to measure and chart the lives of convicts landing in Australia, we can often lose sight of the individual human journeys that were taking place. The great injustice befalling those sent unwillingly miles from home as property of the state, or the hopes and heartbreak of those who begged to go but never began a new life in Australia. Sometimes a single voyage, like that of the Amphitrite, gives us pause to think about the people behind the penal outcomes, and the multiple tragedies revealed by transportation.

In late August 1833 the convict ship Amphitrite set out from Woolwich, bound for New South Wales. Officially on board were 101 female convicts (historical accounts also suggest that there were seven other convict women, and twelve of the convict’s children between the age of two and twelve). The female convicts came predominantly from London and Scotland although there were a scattering of women from other areas of the UK. Unlike many of their peers who could wait upwards of two years to board a convict ship, all of those on the Amphitrite had been tried in 1833 and waited just a few months before departure. The women aboard the Amphitrite were in many ways indistinguishable from the majority of other nineteenth century female convicts. All were between the ages of sixteen and forty. Those from Scotland were reportedly notorious recidivists, and from the details available of the women sentenced at London’s Old Bailey, a good proportion of them were prostitutes. Women like Mary Stuart and Charlotte Rogers convicted of picking their customer’s pockets and sentenced to fourteen years transportation. We know some by their own admission were guilty, and others like Mary Hamilton, sentenced to a term of fourteen years, may have been innocent. In Hamilton’s case even the victim of a robbery, Williams Carter, admitted ‘I cannot say the prisoner is the person’.

As a rule, female convicts on ships like the Amphitrite tend to leave very little in the way of evidence about how they felt about the sentences they were given. All we can do is imagine. Did women like Mary Brown, who ran a ‘house of ill fame’, and Charlotte Smith, a prostitute, who worked with her to rob a customer feel relief when their death sentences were commuted to life in Australia? Were the women terrified and devastated, or like Caroline Ellis, seemingly indifferent. Ellis was overheard by a policeman speaking to a fellow inmate at the local lockup, herself a returned transported, stating matter-of-factly that she supposed she ‘should be transported this time’.

There were others like Maria Hoskins, aged twenty-eight, who admitted in court that she wanted to be sent to Australia. Hoskins stole a watch from her land lady and pawned it. The landlady discovered the theft and asked for the pawn ticket so she might retrieve the property. Hoskins replied, ‘No. I will not do that; I did it with the intention of being transported’ Hoskins refused to say were the watch was pledged until her landlady fetched a police officer to arrest her. She told the arresting officer, ‘If you have any compassion on a female you will take me up – if you do not, I will do murder.’ Hoskins, impoverished and desperate, saw the potential for a better life in Australia. Police constable Richard Broderick testified, ‘I took the prisoner; she said if she was not transported for this, she would commit something more heinous that would send her out of the country – that she had applied to Covent-garden parish for relief, and had been refused, and if she came across Mr. Farmer, she would drive a knife into him, and hang for him.

Hoskins was given the desired sentence – seven years transportation. Hoskins even appealed to the authorities that she and her fellow convicts be granted new clothes for their fresh start in Australia, in which she stated she was ‘anxious to alter her way of living.’

Dublin Morning Register

Tragically, like the other 100 known convicts on the Amphitrite, she never reached her destination.

The Amphitrite was caught in a severe storm off the coast of France on August 31. The ship was completely destroyed, and every convict woman, every child, and all but three of the crew were drowned. The Amphitrite was the first convict vessel to be lost since the start of transportation to Australia, and the first loss of a female convict transport.

A Disaster at Sea ?c.1835 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
A Disaster at Sea ?c.1835 

The tragedy of the Amphitrite became scandal when it was revealed by observers and the three survivors that the captain had refused help offered by those close by on shore because there were female convicts aboard. The captain considered releasing the crew and children and leaving the convict women to their fate, and ultimately refused the help of rescuers lest the convicts made a bid for freedom.

LES 1833

The Amphitrite, subject of ballads and paintings for the rest of the nineteenth century has largely disappeared from modern histories of transportation. As has the convict vessel Neva, carrying 150 Irish female convicts and thirty three of their children, which sank of the coast of Australia less than two years later. However, their stories are a microcosm of transportation through which we can think about the very human experience – and cost of punishment. What did transportation mean for female convicts and the lives they left behind?  Was the prospect of a new beginning never entirely separated from the stain of conviction, or did the status of a convict follow some until their final moments? Voyages like the Amphitrite also remind us of the danger faced by convicts at every stage of the journey. As they waited in appalling conditions to sail, as they faced childbirth, disease, and rough seas, an as they worked through the convict system in Australia in the hope of freedom and a fresh start. There is something to learn from every voyage, every ship, and every convict –women like Mary Hoskins who was willing to go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of a future that would never arrive.

 

Mulling over the Muldoons

Even with the wealth of records at our finger tips for researching lives the dynamic between a women and men who were married, cohabiting, or even courting, is difficult to gage. For those that leave memoirs or are deemed important enough to have biographies written about them we may be lucky enough to get some small insight into their personal lives and the characters of those they loved. Female offenders are rarely so lucky. Researchers of ordinary (and extraordinary) men and women whose significance was not recorded for posterity find themselves in a difficult position. Personal relationships are a hugely important feature of the lives we study. Events, opportunities, and choices are all shaped by those around us – people in the past were no different. The stories of female offenders would not be complete without details of their families and loved ones. To an extent we are able to recapture family and friendship groups. Birth marriage and death records, the odd line in a newspaper report, or even matching conviction records might give us a little piece of information about the men with who female offenders made their lives. This can be recorded and even analysed. Questions like; were the majority of offenders married? How many ‘significant’ relationships might they have in their lives? Were their partners offenders? can all be quantified and analysed. Many intimate questions cannot. Good researchers do their best to draw conclusions only on the evidence they can gather and the ‘facts’ they can confirm. We are only human though. Just because we can’t substantiate ideas and about offenders personal lives, it doesn’t mean we don’t have them. Many researchers have theories about life events and people that they study which are considered in light of evidence very likely even if they can’t prove them. In subtle ways, maybe even without realising it, these ideas can colour how we tell the stories of our subjects. When new information comes to light, the smallest crumb of evidence can cause us to question some of the cases we are most familiar with. If you’ve followed my research, heard me talk, or come across the WaywardWomen site and twitter feed, no doubt the fearsome figure of Margaret Muldoon will be a little familiar. It was her story that first inspired me to blog the history of female offenders.

Margaret Muldoon

PCOM4; Piece: 59; Item: 6

The tale of the ‘Captain and leader of the rough women of Stockdale Street’ was the very first I uncovered, and Margaret’s story of hardship and loss, violence, persecution and redemption has continued to fascinate me. Her tale would not have been complete without the ominous figure of her husband, John, of whom I knew so little, lurking in the background. I knew almost nothing about John – only what the papers disclosed. He’d been sent to Prison just months after they married for an attack on a woman named Ann Hines. Margaret was pregnant with their first child and left to cope alone. Two years later she began her own five year sentence for an attack on the same woman. The pair did not correspond whilst in prison, not even in special circumstances when their son died. After they were both released in 1884 Margaret was never convicted again, seemingly turning her back on the violent life she had lived before. John did not. In 1891 was the victim of a violent attack which almost cost him his life when adversaries from his past caught up with him. He died a few years later at the age of just forty-five. With his death, Margaret was able to extricate herself from the dangerous and difficult community in which she and John had lived their whole lives. John Muldoon Although I was careful never to treat it as evidence, over the course of my research, I’d made some assumptions about John Muldoon that encouraged me to view Margaret’s story in a certain light. I’d imagined him as a domineering presence in her life, a bad influence perhaps. The John Muldoon of newspaper reports was a violent and unsympathetic character. Then, just days ago, Find My Past published a huge collection of criminal records for British including the PCOM 3 Male Licences.   For the first time I had the opportunity to fill in some of the last missing pieces of Margaret’s story – details about John The licences are not only a remarkable resource due to the in depth information they provide about offenders. They are also captivating in the sense that they allow researchers who deal in ‘criminal lives’ to come face to face with their subjects by looking at their mugshots. What I was unprepared for was that coming face to face with John would show me a man I never expected. John Muldoon was not the hulking brute that sources and my own imagination had led me to believe, but a rather diminutive man, just a few inches taller than his wife, who looked swamped by his prison uniform. John Muldoon 1880

PCOM3; Piece: 658

I was also surprised to see that he had fewer – by almost half – convictions for drunkenness and violence to people and property than his wife. Whereas Margaret’s most notable offence prior to her conviction for stabbing Ann Hines had been leading a rabble in an assault against the police, John’s had been to steal a newspaper at the age of thirteen. For that offence he was sentenced to ten days in an adult prison, and five years on the notorious Catholic reformatory ship, the Clarence. It was hard not to feel a little sympathy for a man who had been institutionalised as a child. What’s more, John claimed that he was wrongly convicted of the assault in 1880. This in itself was a normal petition for most convicts to make in a bid for freedom. There were few in convict prisons who openly admitted their guilt. What was more surprising was that John claimed he had been set up to take the fall for somebody else – Margaret’s sister. The validity of John’s claims are impossible to establish. However, his statements and a little more information on his history do provide a fascinating alternative perspective on the Muldoons. Was Margaret’s attack on Ann Hines motivated solely by revenge for her husband or was there a deeper more complex relationship between the two women now lost to history? Perhaps Margaret was not influenced by the violent world of her husband. If anything it would appear it may have been the other way round. Did John stop her leaving the area in later life, or had he been the one making it safe for her to stay? More records always mean more questions – but hold the promise of better and more thorough answers in the end.

Victorian gender norms made it common for newspaper reports and court testimony to paint male offenders as every inch the hardened and dangerous offenders that society held them to be. The sexual double standards of the nineteenth century suggested that if husband and wife were both embroiled in a world of vice and crime, the woman was immoral and weak, but the man was to blame. Criminal men were the seducers of women and the corrupters of their hapless female accessories. Often, with little evidence available to counteract these narratives old assumptions can seep through time and saturate, even unconsciously, our modern interpretation. In the rare cases where we have a chance to trace not only offenders but their partners – in life and in crime – it’s possible to challenge not only what contemporary witnesses and reporters said about them, but also the faulty picture we have formed in our own minds.

An anonymous letter to Annette

As any writer who deals in biography or biographic histories will no doubt tell you – it is only too easy to  easy to become emotionally caught up in the details of a subject’s life. The ups and downs and the twists and turns of an individual’s story are what makes them and their experiences human. The biography of female offenders has more than its fair share of heartbreak and outrage that speak to feelings as well as logic.The narrative of women that offended is littered with cases of illegitimate children, domestic violence, poverty, disadvantage and addiction.Even the coolest academic analysis probably, deep beneath the surface, had moments where sympathy or empathy clouded the bigger picture.

Occasionally a single piece of paper can return us poignantly and instantly to the people in our histories. A few words scratched in ink help us to remember that even for those how have left little behind there were whole lives full of complex friendships and chances taken or lost. A few lines have the power to transmit feelings of sympathy, sorrow, and hope across centuries.

 Annette Williams

Annette Williams was a female convict in London during the 1880s. She, like thousands of others, has left only the lightest footprint in history. She was born, so she told prison officials, in Reading, Berkshire in 1850. Although there are no records to support this. Williams wasn’t even her real name. It was the last name of someone she had once burgled. She had no family that we know of or can trace to her. Annette cohabited with a man named James Hastings for almost nine years. She took his last name and the two were to all intents and purposes married. James was also an offender. Their relationship broke down in 1877 when after a joint trial Annette was found guilty and James was not. Annette had five recorded convictions over the course of her life, the last being a five year sentence in 1880 after a trial at the Old Bailey for burglary.

These sentences are the sum of what history has to show for the life of Annette Williams. There are a few facts that can be useful here, and a pattern of offending that contributes to how we understand crime in the period but nothing that really gives a sense of who Annette was or what her life was like.

On the very last page of her penal record, however, there is a letter. Quite ordinary in appearance and fairly short. Yet in just a few lines it has the capacity to give a more intimate glimpse into the lives of Annette and her peers than can ever be found for most.

The author does not sign his name and gives no address. No doubt he was himself an ex-convict or wanted offender keen to avoid detection by the authorities. The letter gave me pause for thought as it illuminated in simple worlds a dark world in which many like Annette found themselves trapped, the hope many convicts carried for redemption and a new life, and alternate lives in which women like Annette were capable of being remembered for their good deeds as well as their bad ones.

For this alone, it is worth sharing.

Annette Williams Letter

6 January 1883

Annette Williams

It is only just lately that I have got to know were you was in prison and in what manner. You will  not know perhaps who writes this letter but you did me a good turn once and I will do the same by you. You know what the penalty for this is if it was found out. I am sick of this life and am leaving it for ever. I have got a wife and one little youngster who is the light of my life and I mean for her sake to struggle against myself and we sail for America next Wednesday. Are there no kind friends where you are that would give you a chance to begin afresh. For God’s sake do not go back to this wretched misery and in the old life but brave it for a new country if you possibly can. Don’t come back even for a day. You will break your heart if you do. I dare not put my name but we all wish you well.

God bless you.

I don’t know what became of Annette Williams after she entered the Female Preventative and Reformatory Institution on Euston Road the day she was discharged from prison in 1883. I don’t know if she travelled abroad, if she returned to her old life, or if she ever knew about this letter which was withheld from her whilst she was in prison. I know nothing about the man who felt compelled to write to her or what became of him. This letter offers far more questions than answers and has no real place in a more general history of female offenders.

However for all it lacks, the personal immediacy of the letter makes it powerful. I found myself wondering more about Annette and her life than I have for any offender in some time. I thought about her as a person with a story rather than a subject whose experience was to be reconciled as part of a sample of hundreds of others. Sat at my desk I was rooting for Annette. I found myself hoping that the rest of Annette’s life was a happy and successful one and fearing, like her anonymous letter writing friend, that if nothing changed it wouldn’t have been.

Inventing the Irish

Little secret has been made of the difficulties faced by Irish immigrants in Victorian England. More than a century and a half ago when England was a less diverse and cosmopolitan place than it is now, men and women of Irish decent were probably the largest and most visible minority group in the country. As such they experienced disadvantage, suspicion, and discrimination.

We know that Irish nationals were almost three times as likely to find themselves in court as their English counterparts. Contemporary commentators often sought to suggest that this reflected the innate criminality of the Irish as a nation. However, historical perspectives have shown that elevated rates of crime and prosecution amongst men and women of Irish decent was a combination of the overzealous policing of Irish neighbourhoods, official bias in court, and the fact that, at the bottom of the social ladder, Irish families were very likely to experience the socio-economic problems that are known to contribute to crime.

Histories of the Irish and crime in England have taught is lessons about the economic plight of immigrants and their dependants, the cultural issues that can see violence and gang membership flourish, and how crime relates to issues of social and material identity. Yet the history of Irish offenders and offending has other cultural lessons to teach us.

On St. Patrick’s day each year the same stereotypes of the Irish – their love for drink, revelry, and casual violence – make the rounds of print and on-line media. These ideas about Irishness have turned a saint’s day (once like any other) into a roaring commercial success. What many who celebrate don’t realise is that many of the ideas about drink and violence we connect with Irishness were either created by, or substantially reinforced, the systematic way in which newspapers in Victorian England represented Irish offenders.

Irish 1

Female offenders of Irish descent were typically represented as figures of fun. They drank too much, they sang and danced when they should be ashamed, they were lazy and disorderly. It was only too common for Irish women to be cast by reporters as gin-drenched hags, wild religious zealots, or masculine-looking youths who would resort to violence at the slighted provocation.

Mary Ahearn ‘whose age it would be difficult to tell’ but who was suspected to be around forty, was prosecuted for the theft of a couple of kettles at the Thames Police court in London. Mary’s was a very common offence. Without doubt the same court heard dozens of others remarkably similar in nature each week. However, despite only being on trial for theft Mary was typified as a violent ‘Irish Virago’ because she had attempted to beat away the shopkeeper that apprehended her with a shoe. The newspaper described her thus:

The prisoner had rendered herself perfectly repulsive by strong drinks, dissipation, violence, and disease. Her nose was a perfect grog-blossom, her face was disfigured with contusions, her mouth was cut, and the remains of the few teeth in her mouth were black. In a voice husky with gin she kept up a running commentary on the evidence.

It was reported (and written phonetically for full effect) that after hearing the prosecution’s evidence Mary shouted ‘Och, you Murthering [murdering] villain. You wanted to take advantage of me weakness. He did yer hanner’s wertchip [your honours worship]’  to which the court could not contain their laughter. The last words it was reported Mary said were ‘be me sowl [by my soul], I must have Gin’.

Mary was by no means the only Irish women to receive short shrift in the court reports of the day. Whilst accounts portrayed Irishwomen as disgraceful and criminal, details were included that encouraged readers to laugh at the exploits and lives of the feckless Irish poor. Even in cases were women were quite clearly living chaotic and difficult lives, their misfortune could provide comedy.  In Northampton, Elizabeth Robinson was of no fixed abode when stole a single mop. She was characterised by the authorities as a disorderly drunk and an ‘Irish amazon’ with cheeks that ‘resembled thumping red potatoes’. Bridget Hagan from Leeds also described as a ‘red faced’ amazon, was actually the wounded party in a case of assault but the papers wasted no time reporting that she appeared to be drunk in court ‘unable to stand’. Despite having severe injuries to her head and face probably caused, the court found, by a blow from a knuckle-duster. Bridget’s character did not fare well in court and somehow she managed to herself receive a sentence of one month’s imprisonment.  Johanna Rafferty a woman decorated with ‘a huge bunch of green ribbon in her button-hole’ was charged with a fairly unremarkable case of drunk and disorderly behaviour. She was given fourteen days in prison and ‘after expressing her gratification in a few sarcastic remarks’ and before she could be taken down to the cells she attempted to execute and Irish jig’. Margaret Sullivan, a woman with no money or possessions appeared at court in Sussex with a nose that ‘indicated an abrupt contact with something harder’ (her nose had been forcefully broken). The state of Margaret’s face was a by-line to a charge of drunken disorderly, or as the report phrased matters ‘walking out of the town, having had a drop, no doubt, when she unexpectedly found herself safe in the arms of a policeman’.

Irish 2

Day in and day out newspapers reported cases in which Irish women who were struggling with the very real problems of destitution, homelessness, violence, and alcohol addiction were arrested for thefts, disorderly conduct and assaults. The fact that Victorian authorities had little sympathy for offenders personal circumstances was no limited to the Irish. However the way in which such a high number of reports of Irish offending contained mockery, unflattering physical descriptions, and suggestions of drunkenness, limited intelligence, and impropriety seems to have been somewhat unique. They were representation so powerful that they have continued to influence the way we portray and celebrate Irishness even in the twenty-first century.

Finding a French Felon

Linking offenders to the fragments that their lives and offences have left behind has never been easier than it is now, in the digital age. Criminal records, census entries, newspapers and more are all at our disposal through a search box and the click of a mouse. Entering a name in a search engine can instantly reveal a lifetime of love, loss, family, and crime. However, whether we are family historians or academic researchers, we all recognise that some searches are easier than others. A Phillis Eastmond will be easier to identify as the one we search for than a Sarah smith. A uniquely named individual is easier to find in a sea of information than a common one.

Any database in which offenders can be found will reveal this, from the Old Bailey Online, to the newspapers and the census. For example, there were more than one hundred women with the name Mary Brown tried at the Central Criminal Court in London during the Victorian Period. A newspaper search for Margaret Jones will produce results that number in their thousands. In the same period, historical record will tell us, there was but one Florence Maybrick.

OB example

However, even the exceptional offender, with name and story to match, can prove problematic to trace. Whilst we can be more sure in their identity, it does not mean the search for them is always easier. We can still find ourselves left with nothing but a single flash of their offending and no way of tracing what came before, or how events unfolded afterwards.

I was recently captivated and frustrated by such a case when an unusual name caught my eye in a register of female licences for parole. These licences are often the endpoint of a wayward woman’s story. Paroled convicts have offended, been caught, tried, found guilty, served their time in prison, and been released by the time their name appears on such a list.

Amelie Decuypere was paroled from Fulham Prison in 1864 having served five years of a six year sentence. Her licence was not revoked, and no note was made of her having been returned to prison. From here we must assume, as for so many others, that she went on to live a normal life. But how, does a French woman find herself in an English prison?

Amelie, or Amelia as she was also known had been convicted alongside her husband Paul in 1859 for the theft of several articles worth upwards of £35 from the house of a man named Raymond Collins. This had, according to the court, been the latest in a long line of similar offences. Whilst they were on trial for this offence alone, the prosecutor suggested “at least a dozen could have been brought forward by the police”.

Amelie and Paul had a well-practiced scheme, they would take well furnished lodgings, and make off with the contended of the house at the first available opportunity.

The back story of two such uniquely named convicts, or at least some more information about them should have been relatively easy to find. Like many other offenders, they had many other names under which they worked, but each was more distinctive than the last. They might also be Amelie and Paul Thuillier, and a marriage licence signed by the mayor of Paris in 1849 revealed that in fact they might be Antoine Thuillier and Louise Claudine Margaret.

This pair of Parisians were also no ordinary house thieves. An inspector of the metropolitan police provided evidence that a year previously they had stolen, from the museum of Amsterdam, a painting of a religious scene, worth £2000 (around £90,000 today). They were apprehended in London, but due to no treaty of extradition existing between England and the Netherlands, there was no choice but to release them without charge.

Evidence was also found that in Paris a trial of both Amelie and Paul had been held, despite their absence, and they had been convicted of ‘swindling’ and ‘fraudulent bankruptcy’ and sentenced to 10 and 20 years hard labour respectively.

A document sent from the French government sent to England whilst the Decuyperes served their sentence here indicated that once released, they were to be deported to France so that their standing sentences of imprisonments could stat to be served. A special request was even made that Paul not be listed for transportation to Western Australia so that the French legal system could apprehend him.

AD french Letter

There are no census records of a couple who came only briefly to live freely in London in 1858 before their conviction the following year. Likewise there is no trace of Amelie after her release and, we must suppose, extradition back to France. For Amelie, we have at our disposal much more information than for many others. We know her name and aliases. We know those of her spouse and even her mother. We know the locations and natures of her previous crime. Yet just as national boundaries prevented her apprehension for some time, they continue to shield her from the prying eyes of history.

Amelie was a fine art thief, a notorious fraudster, an offender across Europe. She was a French woman, with a name unlike any other, but still no easier to find and follow than any Mary Smith.

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.

Blog picture 2

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:

Blog picture 1

‘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.

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