WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Criminal Justice System”

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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No Place for a Lady? Back to the Victorian Penal System

The reforms proposed by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling filled news headlines today. His objective is clear. To make prisons, tougher on inmates, and therefore no longer a ‘reward’ for those who break the law. The reforms that will come into effect later this year are predominantly aimed at male prisoners – the fate and consideration of their female counterparts left for another day. Historian Philip Priestley’s adage that ‘Prison was a man’s world; made for men, by men. Women in prison were seen as somehow anomalous: not foreseen and therefore not legislated for’ seems just as applicable in light of today’s announcement, as it does for the period he writes about – the Victorian. The reforms proposed today will in fact take place in many of the same institutions – and even buildings – created in the nineteenth century to tackle the very same problem ministers argue about today; Those most recognisable bastions of Victorian penal reform – Brixton, Pentonville, and Strangeways to name but a few.

The image of the Victorian convict prison has been enshrined in popular fiction and historical accounts alike. It is no doubt some of these representation that inform many of the ministerial decisions taking place today; A harsh unrelenting system of reform, punishment and self-reflection; An institution that brutalised the body to civilise the mind.

A short historical perspective has perhaps blinded many of us to the fact that when these institutions were created the early part of the Victorian period, the modern penal system (still in place today) was trying to make the experience of criminal justice, and undergoing punishment not more unpleasant for those at its mercy, but less so.

The ‘Bloody Code’ of the eighteenth century is a period in English criminal justice history that is in many ways more notorious than either its nineteenth or twentieth century equivalents. The iconic images of Tyburn’s gallows, of any local pillory, or the chaos of the infamous Newgate gaol help us to vividly imagine a brutal legal system so unlike our own.

Tyburn and pillory

The justice dispensed prior to the nineteenth century cared and catered little for the age, gender, or vulnerability of offenders, only for the perceived guilt or innocence of the accused. The corporal and (in some severe instances) capital punishment of children – for what in many cases could be subsistence level crimes  – is the most famed and unsettling legacy of this system. But perhaps more sinister even than that was the social and cultural experience of being incarcerated in a pre Victorian prison such a Negate or the transportation hulks. Gaols such as this acted not as institutions that dispensed punishment and strove to reform offenders, but instead of holding pens – a place to detain criminals until they could be brought before the court, or after their conviction until their sentence – to be whipped, transported or hung for example – could be carried out. These ‘lock-ups’ mixed men women and children together in a series of shared cells. The conditions of these places not only lacked basic hygiene standards, but ultimately left inmates vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and sexual violence. These were institution renowned for corruption, money rather than need determined an inmate’s experience.

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Developing Victorian social sensibilities – particularly those concerning gender – saw traditional processes of the legal system come under scrutiny, and the institutions prevalent during ‘the Bloody Code’ give way to those modern penal institutions that still service the justice system today. These institutions aimed not just to punish, but to civilise, humanise, and reform the prisoners within. Whilst Victorian society had labelled women the gentler, weaker sex, and fully acknowledged their inability to withstand the same interactions with the world that men undertook, the prison systems of Victorian England catered little for the difference between male and female prisoners.

Alongside some specialised regimes such as the separate and silent system – where prisoners were discouraged from communicating with one another, so as to encourage self-reflection, and deter the formation of criminal friendships – most prison operated a points and class based system dependent on notions of rights, responsibilities, and privileges, much like the ‘new system’ Chris Grayling is suggesting currently. This system held the key to a prison inmate’s experience – what diet they were permitted, how regularly they were allowed to write letters or receive visits, if and when they were permitted to socialise, what work they carried out, and what money they might receive on leaving prison.

ImageSarah Jane Swann’s penal record indicating she was in the ‘Star Class’

ImageSarah Jane Swann’s points record for 1881

Other commonalities of the prison regime were the use of uniform to strip prisoners of their former identity, and long days of laborious work, to punish the body and occupy the mind – for women, examples include fourteen to sixteen hour days in the prison laundry.

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Throughout the Victorian period, and well into the twentieth century, debates about Prison regimes, prison reform and the welfare of prisoners raged. With every gain made for better treatment of prisoners, staunch opposition was raised complaining of lessened deterrent for wrongdoers.

Yet the changes that did take place over the period were the real victories of the Victorian prison system.  Developments for female convicts included the education of prisoners, the provision of proper medical care, nurseries that allowed mothers to maintain contact with their children should they give birth in prison, and most importantly, refuges that acted as a stepping stone between incarceration and freedom  – striving to place women in employment once they were released.

It was the facilitation of a life outside of prison, that saw women (and men) most commonly cease to offend. It was by humanising them, not brutalising them, by offering hope, not despair, that prisoners could be turned back into people.

The Victorian prison system was far from perfect. Despite continuous reforms, it cannot have been a pleasant place to be – perhaps that is its appeal as a model for modern government policy.

Instead of looking back to the Victorian ‘golden age’ of penal reform and coveting some of the the worst aspects of this; the uniforms, the hard labour, the points systems, and the restrictive daily routines, perhaps it might be of more use to ministers to consider the wisdom of previous penal reformers and prison philanthropists instead. These individuals and organisations came to understand that it is by improving the quality of life and living for those most desperate and disenfranchised in society – those most likely to offend – that we reduce the rate of crime and most importantly, recidivism. No matter how unpleasant you make the experience of prison, until you improve opportunity and quality of life on the outside, there will always be inmates aplenty to fill the cells.

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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