WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Class”

Like the blog? Buy the book!

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

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

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

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

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Birmingham’s Brewery Blacklist

So much of the history of crime focusses upon the interaction between the legal apparatus of the state – the police, the court room, the prison- and the behaviours of those acting outside of social and legal norms. For historians and enthusiasts of crime history alike, it can be refreshing and rewarding in equal measure to take a brief diversion and consider some of the extra-legal methods used to control and counteract offenders and deviants.

An intriguing collection recently released on the genealogy website ancestry.com The Holt Brewery Co. Ltd., Black List at the turn of the century shifts our focus briefly from the capital and ‘second city’ of Victorian England’s thriving empire, to another no less bustling but often historically neglected industrial hub of the country – Birmingham.

The 1902 amendment to the Licencing Act made it an offence for those identified as ‘habitual drunkards’ (those with three or more convictions for habitual drunkenness) to attempt to purchase, or to consume intoxicating liquids.  At the same time, this legislation left licenced premises and individuals liable to prosecution if they served alcohol to such individuals. Documents like the Holt Brewery’s Black list were created by local committees with the help of local authorities to assist publicans and licensed individuals identify and refuse service to local habitual drunkards.Image

This particular issue, created around the turn of the century contained the records of eighty-three individuals. Despite the abundance of Victorian rhetoric about the values of the fairer sex, thirty seven of these individuals were women. There are a great number of uses for a source such as this, and the information contained within its pages offers a historian a number of avenues of inquiries. The first and most simple of these may at the same time be one of the most interesting. What type of women might find herself upon the pages of a Birmingham brewery’s little black book?

Contrary to what we might expect of Victorian habitual drunkards – all of the women save two were employed – alcohol abuse affecting not just the down and out, but an addiction that could plight the life of regular members of a community. The women worked predominantly as factory workers  (metal polishers, press operators and the like) charwomen, but others worked as street sellers, dressmakers or laundresses.  The women on the brewery’s blacklist are of course all working class – this is not to say that Birmingham was unique in having no middle-class or upper-class women that over-indulged in alcohol, but then, much as now,  working class drunkenness took place in more public locations and spaces, than the middle-class equivalents who’s drunkenness took place more privately.

Eight of the habitual drunkards also worked as prostitutes. These were women who did not obtain their sole living through prostitution, but relied upon the trade as a strategy during  times of financial hardship to supplement their earnings, or as Judith Walkowitz detailed, as a way obtaining money that allowed them to be more active consumers – or quite simply, to provide ‘spending money’, be that on alcohol, entertainments or fashion.  Sarah Henson or Elizabeth Thompson (pictured below) may well have been such individuals.

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Overwhelmingly, the women were in their thirties and forties, with only five offenders being over the age of fifty, and just two offenders being twenty-five or under. A real contrast to the modern day perception that it is youth drunkenness that blights towns and cities nation-wide.  Given that the majority of women were of an age where we might  expect them to have a stable domestic setup, it is perhaps surprising that eight of the women could give no place of abode, the reset inhabited either court dwellings, or lodging houses – where they would pay by the night to stay. Less than five of the women were listed as married.

All but ten of the women were listed as having aliases, most used one or two, but a minority had four or five. This is significant only in the link that can be drawn between the use of aliases as a sign of not only repeat convictions, but also perhaps a wider criminal career than just drunkenness. Similarly to this, thirty-one of the women had scars or disfigurements –the most sever of which was Kate Kibble who had lost an eye, or a minority of offenders who had severe scaring or had lost fingers. In general the women had mild facial scarring such as cut marks on the forehead or cheeks, and several had scars from broken noses. Such a predominance of facial scarring amongst the women would suggest that most had been involved in several violent episodes, be this street fighting, or as the victim of attacks.

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Only three of the women had tattoos – amongst them the youngest offenders. The most interesting of these was twenty-five year old Alice Tatlow who not only had the initials (of family members of previous paramours) on her hands, but also pictures which may have related to either specific experiences, or more likely gang membership – such as clasped hands, a star, and the Prince of Wales feathers.

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However, some were quite ordinary, Like Forty-six year old Mary Bayliss or thirty-nine year old Susannah Booton – who had few scars, no  tattoos, or disfigurements, who somewhere to live, and who worked as a charwomen. In fact, unless you got close enough to inspect many of the women in detail, as they went to work or passed in and out of their lodgings they were unremarkable and in many ways indistinguishable from their law abiding peers – That is until they tried to enter a pub, and that unfortunate page in the brewery’s blacklist reared its ugly head.

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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?

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