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Victorian England's Female Offenders

How do you solve a problem like . . . Lydia Lloyd

Attempting to retrace and recover the lives of Victorian England’s female offenders is both a rewarding and challenging endeavour. This kind of research presents the opportunity to uncover new facts relating to offending,  more in-depth details with which to enrich current histories of crime and those who commit it, and ultimately it can offer a fuller picture of who offended, and why.

Unfortunately, the process of finding information – and particularly correct information – about Victorian offenders is not always as smooth as it might be. For a start most offenders in the past, as in fact now, often made a concerted effort to ensure that they left no incriminating evidence of, or record about their offending. When offenders were given no choice in the matter of having some evidence created (such as a court transcript, or a criminal record, or prison form), they could also seek to obscure real and relevant information being held for posterity. Quite simply, just because someone in authority asked a question of them, it did not guarantee a sensible of accurate answer.

Of all the female offenders that the Victorian city can offer for study, prostitutes are the group that most suffer from this lack of sufficient and useful evidence.  The case of Lydia Lloyd proves a fine example of this.

Lydia’s penal record, the first port of call for gathering information on her looks like this:

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Image: Home Office and Prison Commission: Female Licences; Class: PCOM4; Piece: 71; Item: 5; Page: 1.

From this record we can tell certain things about Lydia Lloyd – that she was repeatedly convicted on counts of larceny from 1867 – 1879, aged between twenty-five and thirty-six. Lydia Lloyd may not have even been her name – she had previously been convicted under the names Kate Howard, Emily Howard and Emily Cougdon.  She had moved around the country.  We can also tell that this offender worked as a ‘laundress’ in 1879, and sadly that no-one came to visit her during her ten year imprisonment. It seems that this offenders ‘mode of living’ for the majority of her life was what social investigators might term ‘irregular‘.

Newspaper articles can help to flesh out the details of ‘Lydia’s’ life:

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It would appear that her real name (or at least her original alias) was Emily Howard, which later changed to Kate Howard – Lydia Lloyd being an alias she took on when she moved to Oxford after she had already been offending for ten to fifteen years.  She was drunk, disorderly, light fingered, living a life of ‘no fixed’ address, and prostituting herself – from at least the age of seventeen. During this period her offences escalated from a few days remand for using obscene language in the street, to ten years in prison for burglary as a known offender.

With this extra information it is much easier to get a feel for Lydia, her offences, and her lifestyle. This makes it possible to track down other offences she may have committed – and perhaps to begin creating a narrative of the kind of existence she may have led.

The historian’s traditional method for doing this is to speculate on the most likely scenario by combining the information from this specific case with the wider historical knowledge and evidence existing on prostitutes as a group.

Unfortunately, where the Victorians are concerned, the discussion and documentation of prostitution and prostitutes posed some huge ideological problems. Whilst prostitution was considered by many as a necessary evil, prostitutes embodied antithesis of the period’s ‘ideal women’ (the meek, maternal and obedient middle-class wife and mother). The very existence of prostitutes such as Lydia Lloyd challenged ideas about the natural morality and sexual passivity of women – and thus Victorian commentators had to provide not just damnation of these abominable women, but more importantly an explanation for their existence.

This was most often done by employing a familiar and comforting narrative trope that soothed the sensibilities of England’s middle classes and protected the bastion of Victorian femininity. The explanation was a simple and concise story, familiar to many of us even today – a tale of seduction, corruption, and misery.  Examples of this could be found in fiction – such as Dickens’s tragic wretch Nancy – as well as in real life examples, such as that of London prostitute Lucy Brent:

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The same familiar trope of the tragedy of seduction and lost innocence, the cry for help, the lack of salvation, the steady decline into vice, and last – the sad reality of total personal and moral corruption.

Undoubtedly for some, this narrative would have been very close to the reality of their experience – yet surely for others it holds no more truth than the invention of a happy ending.

So should the historian even attempt to fill in the blanks, and attempt to solve a problem like Lydia Lloyd?  Is there more damage to be done in assigning someone a background that does not belong to them, than there is in not assigning them a background at all?

It would seem that by trying to locate Lydia Lloyd in the same past as ‘similar offenders’  from this period, thus defining her life by her offences rather than the other way round,  there is a real risk of offering her no more narrative justice than she received at the hands of her outraged contemporaries.

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One thought on “How do you solve a problem like . . . Lydia Lloyd

  1. Jamesie on said:

    Really great thought provoking stuff about how we ‘do’ history and write about the lives of others. More of the same please!

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