Victorian England's Female Offenders

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.

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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.


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.

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