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Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Australia”

Madge and the Many Magistrates

Margaret Lamb was born in Lancashire in 1896.  Her Parents were Margaret and Edward Lamb, her father worked as a canal boatman. Margaret was the oldest of the Lamb’s five surviving children. In early life, Margaret was, in many respects, indistinguishable from the thousands of young women who lived in the still rural but ever industrialising north of England. Girls who would grow up to be a new generation of Lancashire factory workers, domestic servants, and farmer’s wives. By the time she was fifteen, in 1911, Margaret had left home. As was expected of many young women like her, Margaret had found work as a domestic servant near Bolton, allowing her to contribute the family coffers.

But the seemingly uninspiring circumstances of her birth and early life, even the meek and gentle image conjured by her very name, could not have been less fitting for Margaret Lamb, a woman who would become notorious in courts and newspapers half a world away as ‘Madge Foster’.

As the First world War approached, Margaret, like many young women in the early twentieth century, left England in search of a better life. Margaret travelled to Australia.  Lured perhaps by better prospects for work, or better prospects for marriage she eventually settling in Peth, the remote capital of the country’s western state where successive gold rushes in the late nineteenth century had left the area prosperous, and where men outnumbered women by some way. In 1916, she was married to Arthur Gorge Lamb, and became known by the Australian abbreviation of her name – Madge.

A lack of census and other civil records for Australia make it difficult to ascertain much about the foster’s marriage, but with no records to indicate the contrary, Madge and Arthur seem to have spent a relatively untroubled decade as man and wife. It was in 1927, after more than ten years of marriage, when Madge was thirty years old, that she first came to the attention of the courts.

In time, Madge became known as a habitual and prolific public order offender, but the seeds of her offending career grew slowly. Her first offences in 1927, 1928 and 1929, were for minor infractions, disorder and the use of obscene language in public. Whilst it is entirely possible that Madge’s marriage had already broken down, and that her problematic relationship with alcohol was well ingrained, the activities for which she was prosecuted in isolation indicate little – other than a momentary loss of decorum, or an incidence of over indulgence. Transgressions which were met with a rebuke from the courts and a small fine. However, by the early 1930s, Madge was becoming a more frequent visitor to court, and her offences began to include drunkenness, pubic disturbances, criminal damage, and assault, an she experienced her first custodial sentences.

MF penal record

A small section of Madge foster’s entry in a local prisoners register

On one such occasion in August 1931, Madge was sentenced to a month in prison for drunkenly fighting with another woman, Ray Munro, after Munro supposedly insulted her by calling her a ‘woman police man’. Just a few months later, Madge was knocked down by a car in Perth, taken to the local hospital, and subsequently arrested for being drunk. So began a cycle of almost monthly arrests, incarcerations, or fines which would last years. Although Madge’s offences were primarily against public order, as work and money became harder to come by, she occasionally turned to theft, which could entail spending several months at a time in prison.

Inside Freemantle Prison

A ward of Fremantle Prison (WA), where Madge spent many terms of imprisonment

As her list of convictions, and the time she spent in prison, grew, Madge’s network of respectable friends and acquaintances, and her social safety net drifted away. Life became both more precarious and more dangerous as Madge spent increasing amounts of time on the street, at the mercy of the elements and neglected by society.

In 1935, Madge had been drinking in a hotel in East Perth when a row erupted between her and a group of men over a pot of beer. Later that evening, as Madge left the hotel, she was set upon by the group, and subject to attempted rape by several of the men – a crime only prevented when the hotel owner alerted a nearby constable. Madge was badly beaten and shaken. Only one of the men responsible, Edward Tester, identified as the ringleader, was taken to court. The charge of attempted rape could carry a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment. The presiding judge, stated that Edward’s actions had been ‘attended by circumstances of very grave aggravation’ (namely that Madge had been requesting beer from the group in the evening) but that the attack made on the attending constable could not be borne, and sentenced him to four years imprisonment. None of the other men involved in the attack were ever apprehended, and Madge received no emotional support, help towards stable housing, or intervention for her alcoholism. After recovering physically from the assault, Madge’s cycle of offending resumed in Ernest.

Within months of Edward Tester’s conviction, Madge herself was imprisoned for an assault on a tram conductor in Perth. With several years of court appearances under her belt, Madge was becoming became more vocal in her defences and protests in court, quarrelling with police officers, insulting magistrates, and complaining about the criminal justice system which in her view, set people up to fail. She noted, in her first conviction of 1932 ‘If you send people to gaol, you are only making criminals of them’.

MF 1932 Souther Districts Advocate

The Southern Districts Advocate, March 16th 1936

On another occasion a few years later, a magistrate tried to explain Madge’s offending by suggesting that she was too drunk to know what she was doing. Madge, who had not denied the charge of theft but vehemently denied being drunk simply replied ‘possibly, but not probably’ before she was sentenced to another month in prison.

MF 1939 The Daily News

The Daily News, October 26th 1939

By 1940, Madge began to drift around the colony, wandering to Geraldton, more than 250 miles  from Perth. Even at such a distance, her record was well known and within three days of her arrival, she was brought before the local magistrate and warned that if she did not quit the town she wold be imprisoned as a vagrant. Madge failed to heed this warning, and less than a fortnight later was prosecuted for being idle and disorderly, and for having no visible means of support. She was sent to prison for four months.

After her release, she headed back to Perth, and was soon back in prison there for drunkenness and disorder.  Her frustration with the system evidently grew alongside her list of convictions. In April of 1942, when Madge was brought up in the Perth police court charged with drunkenness, a magistrate asked her the traditional ‘how to you plead’ to which Madge replied ‘I plead for mercy’. A lengthy debate then ensued between Madge and the magistrate about whether she had been drunk. In sentencing her to twenty days, he cautioned her, with no sense of irony, ‘If you continue like this, you’ll finish a habitual drunkard’. ‘That’ll be too bad’ was all Madge replied as she was led from the dock.

By the later 1940s, there was real evidence that Madge was trying her best to turn herself around. Although she spent Christmas of 1946 in prison, and the day after her release was given another 14 days in the new year of 1947, in the following two years she received just one conviction, and was not in court at all between November 1847 and January 1949. In recognition of her good efforts, when she appeared for drunkenness, early in 1949, she was released with just a caution. However, the rate of her convictions soon began to pick up again, with four more that year, three in 1950, and four in 1951.

MF 1947 Mirror

The Mirror, January 4th 1947

Her appearances in court came to an abrupt halt in January of 1952, when she was hit, for the second time in her life, by a car in Perth and admitted to hospital. Although she recovered from her injuries, Madge would not trouble the magistrates of Western Australia again. In December that year, Madge’s relatively short and troubled life came to an end when she threw herself in front of a train in Perth. The driver of the train testified at the coroner’s court ‘he had seen a white hared woman leap high into the air from the platform and fall crumpled up between the rails. She seemed to straighten her body as the engine came closer but made no attempt to save herself’.

During her lifetime Madge became well known in Western Australia’s courts and papers as a somewhat comical figure – always in trouble, but never lacking an imaginative excuse for her exploits or a witty reply for a local magistrate. However, the more than twenty years in which Madge travelled around and around the Australian criminal justice system, appearing more than a hundred times and gaining more than seventy-five convictions, the words she spoke there are testament to something more than frivolity. Madge’s outbursts, the cheek and humour shown to the court was indicative not that she was unconcerned by her situation, but rather that she considered the police, local magistrates, and the establishment to be. Going to court for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour, peppered with the odd theft, violent outburst, or criminal damage, was the only anyone seemed to take notice Madge Foster, her difficulties, and her very evident need for help. In a time when women were so often dismissed, undervalued, and underrepresented, it was the only venue in which her voice could, or would, be heard. Many of Madge’s offences, and her appearances in court, were cries for help in which she highlighted her problem with alcohol or the futility of her repeated incarcerations. Occasions in which she pushed against the system with all her might, hoping, surely, for a more adequate response to her plight than the system ever had to offer.

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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.

 

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