WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Reform”

An anonymous letter to Annette

As any writer who deals in biography or biographic histories will no doubt tell you – it is only too easy to  easy to become emotionally caught up in the details of a subject’s life. The ups and downs and the twists and turns of an individual’s story are what makes them and their experiences human. The biography of female offenders has more than its fair share of heartbreak and outrage that speak to feelings as well as logic.The narrative of women that offended is littered with cases of illegitimate children, domestic violence, poverty, disadvantage and addiction.Even the coolest academic analysis probably, deep beneath the surface, had moments where sympathy or empathy clouded the bigger picture.

Occasionally a single piece of paper can return us poignantly and instantly to the people in our histories. A few words scratched in ink help us to remember that even for those how have left little behind there were whole lives full of complex friendships and chances taken or lost. A few lines have the power to transmit feelings of sympathy, sorrow, and hope across centuries.

 Annette Williams

Annette Williams was a female convict in London during the 1880s. She, like thousands of others, has left only the lightest footprint in history. She was born, so she told prison officials, in Reading, Berkshire in 1850. Although there are no records to support this. Williams wasn’t even her real name. It was the last name of someone she had once burgled. She had no family that we know of or can trace to her. Annette cohabited with a man named James Hastings for almost nine years. She took his last name and the two were to all intents and purposes married. James was also an offender. Their relationship broke down in 1877 when after a joint trial Annette was found guilty and James was not. Annette had five recorded convictions over the course of her life, the last being a five year sentence in 1880 after a trial at the Old Bailey for burglary.

These sentences are the sum of what history has to show for the life of Annette Williams. There are a few facts that can be useful here, and a pattern of offending that contributes to how we understand crime in the period but nothing that really gives a sense of who Annette was or what her life was like.

On the very last page of her penal record, however, there is a letter. Quite ordinary in appearance and fairly short. Yet in just a few lines it has the capacity to give a more intimate glimpse into the lives of Annette and her peers than can ever be found for most.

The author does not sign his name and gives no address. No doubt he was himself an ex-convict or wanted offender keen to avoid detection by the authorities. The letter gave me pause for thought as it illuminated in simple worlds a dark world in which many like Annette found themselves trapped, the hope many convicts carried for redemption and a new life, and alternate lives in which women like Annette were capable of being remembered for their good deeds as well as their bad ones.

For this alone, it is worth sharing.

Annette Williams Letter

6 January 1883

Annette Williams

It is only just lately that I have got to know were you was in prison and in what manner. You will  not know perhaps who writes this letter but you did me a good turn once and I will do the same by you. You know what the penalty for this is if it was found out. I am sick of this life and am leaving it for ever. I have got a wife and one little youngster who is the light of my life and I mean for her sake to struggle against myself and we sail for America next Wednesday. Are there no kind friends where you are that would give you a chance to begin afresh. For God’s sake do not go back to this wretched misery and in the old life but brave it for a new country if you possibly can. Don’t come back even for a day. You will break your heart if you do. I dare not put my name but we all wish you well.

God bless you.

I don’t know what became of Annette Williams after she entered the Female Preventative and Reformatory Institution on Euston Road the day she was discharged from prison in 1883. I don’t know if she travelled abroad, if she returned to her old life, or if she ever knew about this letter which was withheld from her whilst she was in prison. I know nothing about the man who felt compelled to write to her or what became of him. This letter offers far more questions than answers and has no real place in a more general history of female offenders.

However for all it lacks, the personal immediacy of the letter makes it powerful. I found myself wondering more about Annette and her life than I have for any offender in some time. I thought about her as a person with a story rather than a subject whose experience was to be reconciled as part of a sample of hundreds of others. Sat at my desk I was rooting for Annette. I found myself hoping that the rest of Annette’s life was a happy and successful one and fearing, like her anonymous letter writing friend, that if nothing changed it wouldn’t have been.

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

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

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

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

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

Tyburn and pillory

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

Image

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

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

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

ImageSarah Jane Swann’s points record for 1881

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

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

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

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

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

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

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