WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Predudice”

Women’s work and ‘working girls’: Inspiration for International Women’s Day

Earlier today I was delighted to give a talk on the subject of ‘Inspirational women from Liverpool’ at the Museum of Liverpool in honour of International Women’s Day 2016.

Liverpool Is a city with a long history of inspirational women who have changed the lives of others and the world around them. With so much to choose from, the history of crime might not seem like the most obvious place to start a story of inspirational women in the city. However, its as good as any place for a day  originally titled ‘international working women’s day’. A day which gives us an opportunity to celebrate the social, political, and economic contributions that women have made to the world -through hard work and perseverance.

We are used to thinking about women in the history of crime in two ways: of victims of crime – sexual and other violence in particular troubling women through history to the present day – or as victims of the legal process. The case of Florence Maybrick, has gone down in Liverpool’s history as a famed miscarriage of justice. We are also conditioned to think of women who  break the law as villains. Not only on account of their criminal acts, but because so often breaking the law requires women to break gendered codes of expectation too. Criminal women can be so ‘unwomanly’. They harm children, can be lascivious or violent, or abandon their homes and duties for the pursuit financial gain. Liverpool’s Black Widows were immortalised in the popular press as inhuman, masculine, monsters. However, crime  is not always black and white. There can be stories of success as well as despair. Light as well as darkness. Many suffragettes, who less than a century ago won the right of universal suffrage that we all now enjoy, were incarcerated as criminals . In history they are heroes, but in their day they were considered violent militants and disturbers of the peace.

One crime in particular  has a long significance in the history of both women and Liverpool: prostitution. Prostitution is, as we might suppose, the battleground on which so many feminist and social issues have been fought. Consent, abuse, exploitation, and gender inequality to name but a few. Yet prostitution can also be a prism through which we can view the struggles, triumphs, and extraordinary stories of ordinary women. Prostitution can even be a place, somewhat surprisingly, where inspiration can be found.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, Liverpool was not only a flourishing site of world trade, it was also a desperate place where many working class women struggled to survive. It was a city in which prostitution thrived.

Researcher David Beckingham estimated that ‘on the basis of criminal statistics, Liverpool was by some distance the capital of prostitution in Victorian England’. It also had one of the highest prosecution rates for prostitution in the UK, outstripping cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle many times the size. 

Life as a prostitute in Victorian England was a hard and unenviable one. By the 1860s life for prostitutes  became even harder  as the government moved to legislate against those working the streets with the Contagious Diseases Acts.

The first Contagious Diseases Act (CDA) was passed in 1864, and the acts were amended and expanded again in 1866 and 1869. They made provision for the apprehension,  detention, and forceful medical examination of any woman suspected of being a common prostitute and suspected of having venereal disease in the port and garrison towns of England and Ireland. These acts gave the police the power to apprehend women they suspected of working as ‘common prostitutes’ and to take them before a magistrate who could  order them to be detained in a lock hospital for invasive internal examination. If  found to have a ‘contagious disease’ to be detailed for a course of mandatory treatment – up to six months long, before releasing them with a certificate of clean health. Women could be further required to report for fortnightly check-ups. If a woman refused to cooperate at any stage she could be convicted of an offence and imprisoned. If a brothel was found to be employing infected women they could be fined up to £20. The legislation gave already vulnerable women little place to hide.

The Acts were an unmitigated failure. Not only do we know that the horrendous and invasive treatments they forced on women had little medical affect, they also ignored the obvious reality that the spread of infection could not be stopped by only treating half of the sexually active population.

What  these acts did achieve was to breach what we would now consider basic human rights – such as that to liberty and the right for women to control their own bodies.The CDAs persecuted and discriminated against women. Laying the blame for the sex trade and all of its perceived evils at the feet of the women who worked in the trade.

Josephine Butler moved to Liverpool in 1866, just as the acts were being amended – so that her husband could take up the post of principal of Liverpool College.

Josephine_Butler_-_portrait

She had been raised in rural Northumberland, a world away from the wretched streets and Brothels of Liverpool. Yet almost immediately upon arrival in the city she began work with women and young girls who she met in the course of visiting the streets, hospitals, and workhouses of the city. Butler wrote to her Son that she felt compelled to help those who were so much less fortunate than herself.

Butler letter 1866

Her work began almost immediately, turning her own home into a house for dying women rescued from the streets and workhouses. Later, she rented premises near her home to run as a house of rest and industrial home. Butler’s institution was the first of its kind in the city. The home offered care for women who had once walked the streets and aimed to combat what she saw as some of the primary causes of women’s ruination. The poor level of education, training, and employment available to them in the city that saw the poorest and most vulnerable with little other option for survival than to sell themselves. Her industrial home took women from the street and gave them a small income in return for learning ‘honest occupations’ that might help them to live a ‘sin-free’ life in the future.

By 1869 when the final and largest extension of the contagious diseased acts were passed into law, Butler began writing powerful public papers rallying against the hypocricy of the acts, and the double standard which saw male promiscuity as natural, and female sexuality as a perversion, yet one that should be  exploited ‘to serve the requirements of men’. She wrote of the acts, ‘their system is to obtain prostitution plus slavery for women and vice minus disease for men. In her paper the Moral Reclamability of Prostitutes she wrote that the acts rendered women ‘no longer women but only bits of numbers, inspected, and ticketed human flesh, flung by government into public market’.

She founded the Ladies Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1869, and campaigned through writings, speeches, and public tours for the next decade – despite battling with severe exhaustion. The association fought against the established acts on an eight point premise, and also fought against a counter-campaign which aimed to extend the acts throughout Britain.

Handbill pontefract

 

The acts were repealed in 1886. But by 1882, when Josephine and her family left Liverpool she had written over forty books, pamphlets and speeches for the cause. She made a huge contribution to the campaign for the acts to be repealed, and doubtlessly impacted for the better the quality of life of women working the streets in Liverpool and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, only too often , International Women’s day is a time when we celebrate just the achievements of the great and the good. The Butlers, the  Pankhursts, the Nightingales of the world. When it comes to prostitutes – still one of the most vulnerable groups of women anywhere – history remembers the men and women who advocated on their behalf but forgets the ordinary women who overcame appalling and extraordinary circumstances just to survive.

Minnie Wright

Minnie Wright was a contemporary of Josephine Butler’s but only in the very loosest sense of the term. Her life could not have been more different from Josephine’s, yet both women found their lives shaped by Liverpool’s sex trade during the period of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Minnie was born in Swansea prison in 1851 where her mother maria, a prostitute and thief was serving a six month sentence for theft. Minnie’s mother was a twenty-six year old famine migrant from cork, and her father was a fifty seven year old thief, abusive drunk, and pimp with a criminal record stretching back to before Minnie, her mother, and Josephine Butler were even born. Minnie grew up in a home where sexual and other violence by her father against her mother and others was common. By the age of six she was living with her family in a brothel in Liverpool. It is hard to fully comprehend what life was like for Minnie, living side by side with sexual exploitation and violence on a daily basis. She was married at sixteen but continued living at the brothel even as her children were born. Minnie gave birth to ten children, although only her son John and daughter Mary Ann survived into adulthood. In her early twenties, after the incarceration of both of her parents for running a house of ill-fame and death of her father, Minnie was left to run the brothel – her home and only source of income – alone.

As the ladies Association were campaigning to repeal the CDAs in 1873, and the zealous policing of prostitution and brothels in the city was at its height, Minnie too was arrested and imprisoned for running a disorderly house. In the years that followed more prosecutions came as a string of new criminal activities – illegal drinking, gambling, and fencing of stolen goods – took place at the brothel. While Minnie must be viewed as responsible for the exploitation which occurred at the brothel, it must be acknowledged too that her options to make any other living were extremely limited.

Minnie was the daughter of a prostitute, and a pimp. She had grown up witnessing in all its detail and horror the Victorian sex trade. Minnie lived in Liverpool’s notorious red-light district in which brothels and prostitution must have been normalised for many local inhabitants. She had no education, no training, and no prospect (with her reputation and background ) of obtaining any but the most poorly paying and casual work in the city. Work outside the brothel for Minnie, if not prostitution, would have involved street selling (hawking) or charring. During this period street work for women in Liverpool came with its own drawbacks and dangers.

Little HellA Map of Liverpool’s ‘Little Hell where Minnie and her family lived. The red lines illustrate locations of one or more known brothels  1860-1880.

The year after Josephine Butler left Liverpool, Minnie was convicted of receiving stolen goods from her twelve year old son. Minnie was sentenced to five years in one of London’s convict prisons, and John spent five years in a reformatory. Minnie was released from Prison in 1886 – the year that the CDAs were finally repealed. Something – very possibly the long separation from her family – had changed for Minnie. Despite the considerable social barriers in her way Minnie changed her life dramatically. She took the money she had earned from her years at the brothel and moved with her family to the Wirral. there they began a legitimate business – a butchers. Run by Joseph, and joined, when he was released from the reformatory, by John. Minnie even managed to secure her daughter Mary Ann a domestic service position. While this might seem perfectly ordinary, for Mary Ann it was remarkable not only because she was born in a brothel, but also because her mother, uncle, and grandparents had all spent time in prison for offences related to prostitution or violence.

1901-census

Given the overwhelming odds against it, it really is extraordinary that both of Minnie’s children lived stable , law abiding lives. Especially that her daughter, and her granddaughters, and great-granddaughters all lived respectable, law abiding lives – untouched by the misery of sexual exploitation into which three successive generation of women in Minnie’s family had been born. Minnie died at the age of eighty-eight. She had not changed the world, but in the face of real adversity – of personal tragedy and social restriction- she transformed her own life and the fortunes and opportunities of the women around her.

When we think of how women from the past might inspire us, there is room to draw from the small as well as the great, the  pioneers who fought for all women, and even the ones that had only the means to fight for themselves.

Josephine Butler and Minnie Wright never met one another. They were women of vastly different family backgrounds, educational levels and social classes. Yet the lived in the very same city and their lives were connected by the injustice and sexual inequality of prostitution in Victorian Liverpool. Both women, through this unique moment in history, have something to teach us about women’s abilities and agency to shape their own lives, and the wider world.

Josephine Butler’s story is well known. She turned privilege and position into a opportunity to advocate against the injustices suffered by women with little social or political power to do so themselves. By contributing to the repeal of laws which persecuted and discriminated against women, Butler will have changed the quality, and probably the course of many lives. Minnie Wright’s life is not the stuff of history books, and rarely the stuff of talks, she had, you might think, little impact on the wider social and political lot of women in Liverpool. Yet should we consider her struggle any less difficult, and the repercussions any less monuments?  Successive generations of the Wright family, Mary Ann’s children, and her children’s children lived ordinary lives, which is rather extraordinary when you think of what could have come to be. It is not just the great and the good like Josephine Butler, but the ordinary and every day women of Liverpool who have struggled against injustice, fought for every opportunity, and made the choices, that have changed the lives of women in the city, and in many instances their relationship with crime too.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Advertisements

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.

Are they not women and sisters too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Navigation