WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Offending”

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!

Cover

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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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’.

Inventing the Irish

Little secret has been made of the difficulties faced by Irish immigrants in Victorian England. More than a century and a half ago when England was a less diverse and cosmopolitan place than it is now, men and women of Irish decent were probably the largest and most visible minority group in the country. As such they experienced disadvantage, suspicion, and discrimination.

We know that Irish nationals were almost three times as likely to find themselves in court as their English counterparts. Contemporary commentators often sought to suggest that this reflected the innate criminality of the Irish as a nation. However, historical perspectives have shown that elevated rates of crime and prosecution amongst men and women of Irish decent was a combination of the overzealous policing of Irish neighbourhoods, official bias in court, and the fact that, at the bottom of the social ladder, Irish families were very likely to experience the socio-economic problems that are known to contribute to crime.

Histories of the Irish and crime in England have taught is lessons about the economic plight of immigrants and their dependants, the cultural issues that can see violence and gang membership flourish, and how crime relates to issues of social and material identity. Yet the history of Irish offenders and offending has other cultural lessons to teach us.

On St. Patrick’s day each year the same stereotypes of the Irish – their love for drink, revelry, and casual violence – make the rounds of print and on-line media. These ideas about Irishness have turned a saint’s day (once like any other) into a roaring commercial success. What many who celebrate don’t realise is that many of the ideas about drink and violence we connect with Irishness were either created by, or substantially reinforced, the systematic way in which newspapers in Victorian England represented Irish offenders.

Irish 1

Female offenders of Irish descent were typically represented as figures of fun. They drank too much, they sang and danced when they should be ashamed, they were lazy and disorderly. It was only too common for Irish women to be cast by reporters as gin-drenched hags, wild religious zealots, or masculine-looking youths who would resort to violence at the slighted provocation.

Mary Ahearn ‘whose age it would be difficult to tell’ but who was suspected to be around forty, was prosecuted for the theft of a couple of kettles at the Thames Police court in London. Mary’s was a very common offence. Without doubt the same court heard dozens of others remarkably similar in nature each week. However, despite only being on trial for theft Mary was typified as a violent ‘Irish Virago’ because she had attempted to beat away the shopkeeper that apprehended her with a shoe. The newspaper described her thus:

The prisoner had rendered herself perfectly repulsive by strong drinks, dissipation, violence, and disease. Her nose was a perfect grog-blossom, her face was disfigured with contusions, her mouth was cut, and the remains of the few teeth in her mouth were black. In a voice husky with gin she kept up a running commentary on the evidence.

It was reported (and written phonetically for full effect) that after hearing the prosecution’s evidence Mary shouted ‘Och, you Murthering [murdering] villain. You wanted to take advantage of me weakness. He did yer hanner’s wertchip [your honours worship]’  to which the court could not contain their laughter. The last words it was reported Mary said were ‘be me sowl [by my soul], I must have Gin’.

Mary was by no means the only Irish women to receive short shrift in the court reports of the day. Whilst accounts portrayed Irishwomen as disgraceful and criminal, details were included that encouraged readers to laugh at the exploits and lives of the feckless Irish poor. Even in cases were women were quite clearly living chaotic and difficult lives, their misfortune could provide comedy.  In Northampton, Elizabeth Robinson was of no fixed abode when stole a single mop. She was characterised by the authorities as a disorderly drunk and an ‘Irish amazon’ with cheeks that ‘resembled thumping red potatoes’. Bridget Hagan from Leeds also described as a ‘red faced’ amazon, was actually the wounded party in a case of assault but the papers wasted no time reporting that she appeared to be drunk in court ‘unable to stand’. Despite having severe injuries to her head and face probably caused, the court found, by a blow from a knuckle-duster. Bridget’s character did not fare well in court and somehow she managed to herself receive a sentence of one month’s imprisonment.  Johanna Rafferty a woman decorated with ‘a huge bunch of green ribbon in her button-hole’ was charged with a fairly unremarkable case of drunk and disorderly behaviour. She was given fourteen days in prison and ‘after expressing her gratification in a few sarcastic remarks’ and before she could be taken down to the cells she attempted to execute and Irish jig’. Margaret Sullivan, a woman with no money or possessions appeared at court in Sussex with a nose that ‘indicated an abrupt contact with something harder’ (her nose had been forcefully broken). The state of Margaret’s face was a by-line to a charge of drunken disorderly, or as the report phrased matters ‘walking out of the town, having had a drop, no doubt, when she unexpectedly found herself safe in the arms of a policeman’.

Irish 2

Day in and day out newspapers reported cases in which Irish women who were struggling with the very real problems of destitution, homelessness, violence, and alcohol addiction were arrested for thefts, disorderly conduct and assaults. The fact that Victorian authorities had little sympathy for offenders personal circumstances was no limited to the Irish. However the way in which such a high number of reports of Irish offending contained mockery, unflattering physical descriptions, and suggestions of drunkenness, limited intelligence, and impropriety seems to have been somewhat unique. They were representation so powerful that they have continued to influence the way we portray and celebrate Irishness even in the twenty-first century.

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.

Well behaved women seldom make history . . .

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s popular adage “well behaved women seldom make history” (sadly often attributed to Marilyn Munroe) has been used in a multitude of places and forms to express the need for women to be more subversive of social expectations if they are to truly put their stamp upon the world, and to secure their place in the annals of time. Yet this would suggest that subversion is all that is needed to mark a woman’s place in history, and that being ‘badly behaved’ is a sure way to make an impact and ensure a lasting legacy.

Alas, this is rarely the case. The WaywardWomen  that fill the pages of this blog have clearly been badly behaved enough to ensure a  mention in the footnotes of history, and sure enough in recent decades, as subjects, they have been sought out, identified, and explored more than ever before. But ultimately, it is their illegal activities that are remembered, both in histories and the bulk of primary materials that those histories are drawn from, rather than the women themselves or the more general interactions they experienced and contributions they made to life.

Academics and popular historians alike are starting to flesh out the profiles and activities of such female offenders. But still, little is known about the social and economic contributions that these women must have been making when not committing an offence, standing in court, or serving time in an institution. The entry of data in the nineteenth century census, parish records or birth, marriage and death registers is no better for female offenders than law-abiding women, they were after all created by men, for the use of men, the consideration of women is secondary. And so, often, wayward women are consigned to the same hazy and ultimately forgettable side-lines of history as their ‘well behaved’ sisters.

In fact, contrary to the above well-circulated quote, much of the time it would seem that we do nothing but remember the well behaved, the ideal model of women. Those who were recorded, accepted, presented as the acceptable norm for their period. For example, not just the wives and mothers, but also independent women and young girls, educators, servants, and dutiful factory workers of the past have for some time appeared regularly in a variety of histories – not always as individuals, but certainly as a present mass. These women might often struggle ( in popular representations certainly)  to be afforded the same time, attention or depth of enquiry as their male counterparts, but here is usually no denying that throughout most major developments and moments in history, women were at least there . . . somewhere.

In their excellent 1993 work Women’s Work and the Family Economy Pat Hudson and Robert Lee commented ‘Much of the history of women’s work has been written from a male perspective. This has resulted in a preoccupation with the ways in which women have ‘participated’ in social processes, including work, which are defined in terms of male experience’.[1] These scholars were quite right to lament the continued evaluation of women’s worth and contribution through male dominated definitions and systems, and to highlight the on-going need to integrate women’s experiences into more general social and economic explorations of the past.  In the intervening twenty years since their book was published, there has of course been a wave of works that have really pushed the boundaries in terms of our understanding and acknowledgement of women’s contribution to social, cultural and economic life throughout history – Works by June Purvis, Selina Todd, Kathryn Gleadle, and Ellen Ross to name just a few. But many of the women included in these histories, were ‘good women’, the well behaved sisters of those wayward and subversive individuals that we know must have been present, but yet we remain neglectful of fully documenting their role.

Despite several fascinating works examining female offending and offenders, the picture of the wider contribution these women made to economic life remains clouded. For some, most embarrassingly myself in particular, patriarchal control remains so embedded that we can often find ourselves producing histories that still use a categorisation of women’s lives and behaviours based on a male-dominated systems. That might be categorising a pick pocket that during the majority of her life looked after her own children or carried out domestic labour in her own home as ‘predominantly unemployed’. Or perhaps neglecting to acknowledge that the street prostitute was as self-employed a worker as the casual dock labourer or builder.

Even now, in 2013, whether the subject be ‘well behaved’ or wayward, it seems that few regular women really ever make it into history at all – not properly.  What is a history of Female offending if not, first and foremost, a history of women. One of the main objectives therefore must be to ensure that any woman’s inclusion in the pages of such a history is not measured by conformity, or subversion, nor great and good deeds, or headline grabbing wrongs, but solely by the very fact that she was possessed of agency, present, and contributing to the world. The same privilege that has been (and remains) afforded to her male counterpart without a second thought.


[1] P. Hudson and W. R. Lee, ‘Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective’, in P. Hudson and W. R. Lee (eds)  Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective (Manchester University Press, 1990), p . 2.

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?

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ – Or perhaps they don’t.

The iconic opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go Between, has come to encapsulate the way many of us think and feel about the past. Whether it is the ninth or the nineteenth century that we look to, the same temptation confronts us; to explain the past as a place intrinsically different from our own, and its people as individuals fundamentally different to ourselves.

Whilst these sentiments may hold true for some of the most visible elements of any age – technology or social customs – other elements of the past often provide a striking mirror in which to examine our own lives and societies.

The history of offending and offenders is one such mirror. In some ways, Victorian England’s female offenders did live in a foreign country. One where employment opportunities, living standards, and state intervention took a very different form to those of the twenty-first century world. However, should their social and personal lives be assumed so very alien to our own?

Perhaps the uncomfortable truth historians must acknowledge is that, in the course of their lives, many wayward women and their families met with the same situations, difficulties, and discrimination that a number of vulnerable individuals and groups face in Britain in the present day.

Mary Brennan’s life and slide into offending offers one such example.

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Home Office and Prison Commission: Female Licences; Class: PCOM4; Piece: 61; Item: ;. Page: 40.

Mary Brennan was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1850, the daughter of John and Jane Brennan. The Brennan’s were originally from Scotland, but moved around England during Mary’s early life, due to John’s work as a travelling acrobat.

The Brennans were a large but close family. Mary was one of the youngest, only she and her brother John junior remained at home by 1861. John Brennan made money enough for the family to be solvent without his wife Jane having to work, and for his children to attend school.

This happy and stable life was shattered in the early 1860s. The family had been lodging in Westminster, London, when John unexpectedly died. The Brennans lost a father, husband, and head of the family. Even more devastatingly, they had lost an economic lifeline. Employment for unskilled women in London was not abundant.  Jane was only eligible for the lowest paying and most menial jobs, such as charring or laundering. On such a scant wage, in a period where the only state relief available was the workhouse, Jane was unable to sustain supporting her family. With some of Jane’s older children already moved on and married, and her oldest son off working as a travelling performer, the family unit crumbled. Fourteen year old Mary Brennan found herself cut adrift from her old way life. Like many young teens suddenly without an authority figure, Mary found herself immersed in a new way of existence, fraught with as much danger as there was opportunity.

By the age of fifteen, perhaps out of economic necessity, perhaps out of camaraderie for her new peers – a group of three or four ‘street girls’ of a similar age and economic stance to Mary – or simply out of a need for attention; Mary had been arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for loitering on the street, drinking and picking pockets.

Without  the money or  personal connections needed  to reinvent herself, Mary’s life course was irrevocably altered by the time of her release, aged just sixteen. After her months in prison, Mary did not return home to her mother, who was still living in London. Mary began cohabiting with a petty offender five years her senior – Francis Knight.  No doubt the older and independent Francis seemed an attractive proposition to a young girl with nothing.

Mary and Francis never married, but by the age of eighteen Mary had given birth to two of his illegitimate children – Jane in 1867 and Francis in 1868. These developments further solidified Mary Brennans transition into a life of offending. In the few years she spent  living with Francis Knight, Mary was frequently in the police courts, and in and out of prison several times for various street offences such as drinking, assault and theft. Mary had also gained the infamous label of prostitute.

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1869 was another turning point in Mary’s career of offending. By the age of nineteen she had become notorious with the police and magistrates, so when she was discovered stealing £10 in bank notes from a dwelling house in December that year, the court had no hesitation in handing down the maximum sentence for an ‘old’ offender. Seven years penal servitude.

Her relationship with Knight disintegrated during her sentence – imprisoned for seven years, she was no longer of any use to him. In the mid 1870s after her discharge from prison, Mary formed a new relationship with another offender, Thomas Lawrence.

Mary Brennan had been living a transient life of repeat offending for longer than she had spent as a member of a stable working family in the time before her father’s death. It is perhaps unsurprising that Mary was thoroughly entrenched in her current mode of life, and that on each release from prison her life of vice resumed.  In December 1881 Mary was again brought up at the Middlesex Sessions, charged with stealing £5 from the person, and sentenced to five more years penal servitude.

As Mary entered her late thirties and early forties, the cycle of offending, conviction, release and repetition resumed.

While some elements of Mary’s story are unique, and some of her difficulties and decisions were facilitated by social and cultural infrastructure that no longer exists, other aspects of her story highlight causes and contributions to a life of deviance and offending that are a product of the modern world; poverty, lack of early stage state support, and a punitive, ineffective, prison system.

The past is not a foreign country, but a neighbouring one. A place with which, it may be time to concede, we share a little too much socially, culturally, and politically. The people of the past still needed to eat and pay for housing, just as many struggle with today. Then, as now, people might find their lives spin out of control after life traumas such as bereavement and the disintegration of the family unit. Teenagers then, as now, still longed for independence, rebelled or were mislead by peers, often paying a high price for their transgressions. People in the past, just as now, were capable of making impulsive decisions – the consequences of which could last a life time.

When it comes to offending, perhaps it is most important to acknowledge that  the lack of understanding and level of stigmatisation we see so clearly ruining lives in the past, continues to do so today.

A Growing Class of Offenders?

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Image: Home Office and Prison Commission: Female Licences; Class: PCOM4; Piece: 59; Item: 6; Page: 2.

In 1882 Liverpool Echo published this article, lamenting the growing number of violent assaults committed by women, against women in the city.  In Liverpool, as elsewhere in the country, the ever present spectre of female deviance both upset the sensibilities, and captured the imagination of Victorian men, women, and children alike. Whether it was Charles Dickens’ fictional tragic moll Nancy at the beginning of the era, or the ghoulish real life serial killings of the ‘Black Widows’ towards the end of the century.

Those fascinated with crime, then as now, perceive a somewhat contradictory being when they call to imagination the idea of a Victorian female offender; Lascivious, immoral, scheming, lazy and dishonest – yet at the same time almost a victim, a weak and passive creature corrupted and invariably led into vice by their iniquitous male counterparts. The nineteenth century woman who committed crime was and is all too often represented as either the tragic heroine or dastardly villain of her own story. However, these melodramatic roles are very rarely ones occupied by real people navigating everyday life.

Rather than being a homogeneous ‘class of offenders’ that could be easily identified and profiled, Victorian female offenders were in reality a diverse collection of individuals. A fact reflected in both their backgrounds and their crimes. Some came from the depths of poverty, others from a world of luxury and privilege.  Some had immigrated to England in hope of a better life, whilst some had never ventured further that the street they were born in. To some, crime was a career and their offences numbered in the hundreds, others offended only once. Women experienced both reform and relapse at the hands of Victorian policing and punishment. Female offenders were thieves, housebreakers, pickpockets, fraudsters, coiners, prostitutes, brothel owners, drinkers, fighters, murderers, and more. Yet at the same time they occupied lives as workers, friends, outsiders, orphans, partners, daughters, mothers and sisters. They were women with hopes and aspirations, fears and responsibilities. Leading real lives and making real, and difficult decisions.

By combining the two worlds which many women straddled – the criminal and the personal – it is possible to get a better idea of the real women behind the Victorian myth of female crime, and to pursue the tantalising answers to the who, what, and why of offending.

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