WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the category “London”

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’.

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.

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.

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.

Are they not women and sisters too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Navigation