WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “punishment”

Prison: A punishment for the mind . . . and the body?

Convict prisons kept some of the best records about prisoners in the nineteenth century. They tell us where prisoners came from, what they did for a living and their record of previous convictions. But more than this, they detail how men and women spent months and years of their lives in prisons. The work assignments they undertook, who they wrote to and who wrote to them, the infractions they made against prison rules and the punishments they received. As well as their behaviour, prisoner’s bodies were strictly regulated and recorded during their time under sentence. Not only do prison dietaries show us what prisoners ate on a daily basis (even allowing us to calculate, down to the calorie, how much energy they imbibed and expended each day), they also show us the common health problems –and solutions- prisoners experienced.

Prison Dietary Berwick 1849Example of  prison dietary from Berwick Prison, 1849

Prison medical records are particularly fascinating in the case of female offenders because they constitute some of the only surviving health and medical data for working-class women until the formation of the National Health Service. I’ve blogged before on how some of the discipline records kept by convict prisons can hold the key to understanding how women’s mental health fared in prison, and how mental illness was dealt with by penal regimes. However, recently, my work with height and weight data has made me think about how women fared during imprisonment from a physical perspective too.

Medical history sheets give us a great ‘snapshot’ of women’s health and bodies as they entered prisons. We know  if they had suffered from common ailments such as smallpox, syphilis, or rheumatism. These records not only contextualise incidence of illness and care inside prison, they also give us fascinating context for women’s lives outside prison. For example, ‘descriptions’ of prisoners taken for identification purposes often detail missing body parts – such as teeth, fingers, and even eyes. They recorded the scars that women’s bodies bore, from burns, accidents, and incidence of interpersonal violence.

Physical descriptionPhysical description of  Mary Lynch, 1872. Text reads: ‘Nose Broken, Ears Pierced. Slight mark over right eye. Lost one top tooth.

Prisons also began to record the height and weight of their inmates which offers historians the potential to think about women’s nutrition and health inside and outside of the institution. Taking a random sample of fifty London offenders from the Digital Panopticon project (imprisoned between 1880-1885) we can measure that on average the women began a term in convict prison weighing 123.5 lbs, whereas they left prison weighing 129lbs, gaining around six pounds each over the course of their imprisonment. Of course, most women spent years in prison and while under sentence their weight could fluctuate hugely. How much weight a woman lost or gained was not only due to the diet and work requirements at a particular institution, but instances of illness too, so more comprehensive conclusions are a way off. Yet even having the opportunity to identify a general trend for weight gain (or, indeed, weight loss) is important evidence which helps us understand how women’s lives led them to prison, how penal regimes affected women. Those that left prison weighing more than they did on reception may have experienced poor nutrition or illness prior to their convictions. Essential pieces of information for contextualising women’s crimes within their broader lives and well-being.

Mary Lynch’s weight record 1872-1885

The relatively young age of female prisoners means that the few years they spent in prison was often fairly uneventful – from both a disciplinary and medical perspective. But prison records contain enough instances in which women did see the prison medical officer so that we can begin to see patterns in the common health problems they experienced.

Common medical problems amongst women at this time included Catarrh (bronchitis) which while sometimes caused by viruses could also be caused by exposure to irritating substances, such as tobacco smoke, fumes, and fibres, many of which were common place in the factories, furriers, and residential areas in which poor women lived and worked.  Women also suffered from ‘debility and diarrhoea’ – periods of weakness as their bodies adjusted to the change in diet and regime. One of the most interesting and widely spread complaints specific to women was dymenorrhoea (a blanket terms used for heavy or painful menstruation). Of course, its important not to make too many generalisations with limited information on this condition. However the commonness with which women reported dymenorrhoea, combined with a general trend for weight gain, might suggest that, for younger women especially, long terms of imprisonment were some of the first instances in life in which they were well-nourished enough to regularly menstruate – causing them to report unexpected instances of painful and ‘heavy’ bleeding.

Medical records also give us the opportunity to see how medical professionals treated the complaints of convict women. For many offenders, imprisonment was the first regular access to medical care they had every had experienced. Prison medical records contain evidence of both care for patients, and the dismissal of many women’s complaints as medical officers attempted to treat the sick and maintain the punitive element of their incarceration.

Medical record in prisonRecord of prisoner complaints and medical officer’s evaluation and action.

Information about prisoner’s health and medical treatment opens up so many opportunities to think about the experience of imprisonment, the impact prison had on women’s bodies, and the health of working class women outside of institutions. In what I hope is the first of several posts, I want to pose some questions, rather than offer any conclusions. We know that long terms of imprisonment could have detrimental effects on the mental health of prisoners, and we know that Victorian convict prisons made very little provision to deal with mental illness, or to protect the mental health of patients. Prisons broke the spirit, ground men good, and hoped to psychologically reform criminal characters. But what did they do to, and for, body? Was imprisonment more gruelling on women’s bodies than their lives outside prison, or did incarceration offer an opportunity for women’s health to improve? Was prison a punishment for the body as well as the mind?

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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!

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.

 

Prison Punishment Records: The Price of Penal Servitude

‘Life should mean life’ is a popular adage that you might overhear in a pub, on public transport, even in the queue at the supermarket. It is hard to judge how widely, or sincerely, held this belief is – but it is certainly one that most of us have come across whether it be in an abstract discussion with others, or in popular commentary of notorious legal cases. For example, each time the issue of paroled for famed offenders such as Myra Hindley has arisen most newspapers, politicians, and popular figures can be relied upon to take the stance ‘tough on crime, tough on criminals’. But who, in reality, does this benefit?

When an offender is sentenced to penal servitude they disappear largely from public consciousness. Most of us are content to know that offenders are ‘behind bars’ serving their sentences. If we hear about life inside prison walls it is rarely an informative and educational tour of the daily grind of prison life. More often than not our only insight comes from an expose of the failings of the prison system, the soft treatment and shameless privileges headed upon those that ‘should be doing hard time’. Whilst as a civilised society of the twenty-first century we like to pay lip-service to the idea of penal servitude as a reformative process, prison remains, primarily, the same institution it was in the nineteenth century – a place intended for punishment.

Numerous historical, criminological, and sociological studies have shown us that modern prisons and imprisonment have changed little since their creation in the mid-19th century.  Original buildings are still in use, costs are not reducing, and rates of recidivism are as high as ever. There is even talk of reintroducing the uniforms and marks systems that typified the penal system in the Victorian age.

But even the swiftest glance inside prison records from the period offer valuable lessons about the danger, and counter productive, nature of allowing prison to be little more than a space of despair and punishment where we place offenders and throw away the key.

Mary Lynch

Mary Lynch was sentenced to Life imprisonment in 1872 when she grievously wounded Susan Snellgrove. She was taken from her cell in Newgate where she had awaited trial and transferred to Millbank prison to begin a sentence that was set to last for the rest of her natural life.

The Victorian penal system was strictly regimented and highly repressive operating on a basis of privileges and punishments which controlled everything – what offenders ate, wore, if they could write letters and, most importantly of all, what money they would receive when they were eventually released. The message was simple: those who obeyed would serve less time and be better off when they left, those who did not would face physical and mental punishment.

However for Mary, and many like her on long-term or indefinite sentences, a system of marks and merits became meaningless. With no guarantee of release (Indeed Sarah Murray, the woman convicted alongside her, died in prison) it mattered little what marks she accrued or what she ate from one year to another. Penal servitude stretched before her like an endless wasteland and left little room to hope for the future. Incentive for her to conform was minimal. The product of this is well evidenced in her prison offences record. Mary’s problems began just a few months into her sentence and signified over a decade of mental instability, self-harm, and violent conduct.

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Between 1872 and her eventual parole in 1885 Mary attempted suicide three times, and threatened to do so on several more occasions. She damaged prison property (including smashing 24 panes of glass) on four occasions. Mary physically and verbally assaulted prison officers and management – shouting, kicking, striking, and even in one instance, dousing with excrement – more than ten times. Mary also had numerous altercations with other inmates. In one case she harassed and taunted a young woman who had been convicted of attempting to smother her newborn baby, and made several other attempts to induce prisoners in the exercise yard to fight with her.

Each time Mary broke the rules she was punished, the loss of marks, restriction of diet and privileges, even solitary confinement and physical restraints. But no sooner was her punishment over than she again became violent and uncontrollable. The simple fact was that heaping punishment on punishment for a clearly disturbed and violent inmate did nothing but reaffirm her cycle of destructive behaviour. Mary’s experience was by no means unique. Bridget Kelly – only serving five years – regularly attacked staff and fellow prisoners, in one incident giving:

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‘M McCarthy a blow on the face holding her head down on the ironing table beating her also kicking her in a most savage manner’

The desire to punish serious offenders and to create a cruel and unforgiving space for them to dwell in for the rest of their days has been long standing and is not difficult to understand. But it is an idea that has gone largely unchallenged for too long. Creating a place that is a catalyst for hate, despair, and violence is not only a failure of our own age. Victorian prison records evidence that it has never worked.  A ruthless environment is not only counterproductive for the prisoners most in need of change, but also highly dangerous for those that work with them or around them. Even more worryingly these kind of offenders and this kind of setting also poses a grave risk of brutalising lower-level offenders, the weak, and the vulnerable too – turning them out, back onto the streets, more damaged and desensitised then when they arrived. To change the cycle of offence, punishment, brutalisation, and recidivism, Penal servitude must become a time of support, rehabilitation, and hope. Which doesn’t sound much like a Victorian – or modern day – prison at all.

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