WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “representation”

Madge and the Many Magistrates

Margaret Lamb was born in Lancashire in 1896.  Her Parents were Margaret and Edward Lamb, her father worked as a canal boatman. Margaret was the oldest of the Lamb’s five surviving children. In early life, Margaret was, in many respects, indistinguishable from the thousands of young women who lived in the still rural but ever industrialising north of England. Girls who would grow up to be a new generation of Lancashire factory workers, domestic servants, and farmer’s wives. By the time she was fifteen, in 1911, Margaret had left home. As was expected of many young women like her, Margaret had found work as a domestic servant near Bolton, allowing her to contribute the family coffers.

But the seemingly uninspiring circumstances of her birth and early life, even the meek and gentle image conjured by her very name, could not have been less fitting for Margaret Lamb, a woman who would become notorious in courts and newspapers half a world away as ‘Madge Foster’.

As the First world War approached, Margaret, like many young women in the early twentieth century, left England in search of a better life. Margaret travelled to Australia.  Lured perhaps by better prospects for work, or better prospects for marriage she eventually settling in Peth, the remote capital of the country’s western state where successive gold rushes in the late nineteenth century had left the area prosperous, and where men outnumbered women by some way. In 1916, she was married to Arthur Gorge Lamb, and became known by the Australian abbreviation of her name – Madge.

A lack of census and other civil records for Australia make it difficult to ascertain much about the foster’s marriage, but with no records to indicate the contrary, Madge and Arthur seem to have spent a relatively untroubled decade as man and wife. It was in 1927, after more than ten years of marriage, when Madge was thirty years old, that she first came to the attention of the courts.

In time, Madge became known as a habitual and prolific public order offender, but the seeds of her offending career grew slowly. Her first offences in 1927, 1928 and 1929, were for minor infractions, disorder and the use of obscene language in public. Whilst it is entirely possible that Madge’s marriage had already broken down, and that her problematic relationship with alcohol was well ingrained, the activities for which she was prosecuted in isolation indicate little – other than a momentary loss of decorum, or an incidence of over indulgence. Transgressions which were met with a rebuke from the courts and a small fine. However, by the early 1930s, Madge was becoming a more frequent visitor to court, and her offences began to include drunkenness, pubic disturbances, criminal damage, and assault, an she experienced her first custodial sentences.

MF penal record

A small section of Madge foster’s entry in a local prisoners register

On one such occasion in August 1931, Madge was sentenced to a month in prison for drunkenly fighting with another woman, Ray Munro, after Munro supposedly insulted her by calling her a ‘woman police man’. Just a few months later, Madge was knocked down by a car in Perth, taken to the local hospital, and subsequently arrested for being drunk. So began a cycle of almost monthly arrests, incarcerations, or fines which would last years. Although Madge’s offences were primarily against public order, as work and money became harder to come by, she occasionally turned to theft, which could entail spending several months at a time in prison.

Inside Freemantle Prison

A ward of Fremantle Prison (WA), where Madge spent many terms of imprisonment

As her list of convictions, and the time she spent in prison, grew, Madge’s network of respectable friends and acquaintances, and her social safety net drifted away. Life became both more precarious and more dangerous as Madge spent increasing amounts of time on the street, at the mercy of the elements and neglected by society.

In 1935, Madge had been drinking in a hotel in East Perth when a row erupted between her and a group of men over a pot of beer. Later that evening, as Madge left the hotel, she was set upon by the group, and subject to attempted rape by several of the men – a crime only prevented when the hotel owner alerted a nearby constable. Madge was badly beaten and shaken. Only one of the men responsible, Edward Tester, identified as the ringleader, was taken to court. The charge of attempted rape could carry a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment. The presiding judge, stated that Edward’s actions had been ‘attended by circumstances of very grave aggravation’ (namely that Madge had been requesting beer from the group in the evening) but that the attack made on the attending constable could not be borne, and sentenced him to four years imprisonment. None of the other men involved in the attack were ever apprehended, and Madge received no emotional support, help towards stable housing, or intervention for her alcoholism. After recovering physically from the assault, Madge’s cycle of offending resumed in Ernest.

Within months of Edward Tester’s conviction, Madge herself was imprisoned for an assault on a tram conductor in Perth. With several years of court appearances under her belt, Madge was becoming became more vocal in her defences and protests in court, quarrelling with police officers, insulting magistrates, and complaining about the criminal justice system which in her view, set people up to fail. She noted, in her first conviction of 1932 ‘If you send people to gaol, you are only making criminals of them’.

MF 1932 Souther Districts Advocate

The Southern Districts Advocate, March 16th 1936

On another occasion a few years later, a magistrate tried to explain Madge’s offending by suggesting that she was too drunk to know what she was doing. Madge, who had not denied the charge of theft but vehemently denied being drunk simply replied ‘possibly, but not probably’ before she was sentenced to another month in prison.

MF 1939 The Daily News

The Daily News, October 26th 1939

By 1940, Madge began to drift around the colony, wandering to Geraldton, more than 250 miles  from Perth. Even at such a distance, her record was well known and within three days of her arrival, she was brought before the local magistrate and warned that if she did not quit the town she wold be imprisoned as a vagrant. Madge failed to heed this warning, and less than a fortnight later was prosecuted for being idle and disorderly, and for having no visible means of support. She was sent to prison for four months.

After her release, she headed back to Perth, and was soon back in prison there for drunkenness and disorder.  Her frustration with the system evidently grew alongside her list of convictions. In April of 1942, when Madge was brought up in the Perth police court charged with drunkenness, a magistrate asked her the traditional ‘how to you plead’ to which Madge replied ‘I plead for mercy’. A lengthy debate then ensued between Madge and the magistrate about whether she had been drunk. In sentencing her to twenty days, he cautioned her, with no sense of irony, ‘If you continue like this, you’ll finish a habitual drunkard’. ‘That’ll be too bad’ was all Madge replied as she was led from the dock.

By the later 1940s, there was real evidence that Madge was trying her best to turn herself around. Although she spent Christmas of 1946 in prison, and the day after her release was given another 14 days in the new year of 1947, in the following two years she received just one conviction, and was not in court at all between November 1847 and January 1949. In recognition of her good efforts, when she appeared for drunkenness, early in 1949, she was released with just a caution. However, the rate of her convictions soon began to pick up again, with four more that year, three in 1950, and four in 1951.

MF 1947 Mirror

The Mirror, January 4th 1947

Her appearances in court came to an abrupt halt in January of 1952, when she was hit, for the second time in her life, by a car in Perth and admitted to hospital. Although she recovered from her injuries, Madge would not trouble the magistrates of Western Australia again. In December that year, Madge’s relatively short and troubled life came to an end when she threw herself in front of a train in Perth. The driver of the train testified at the coroner’s court ‘he had seen a white hared woman leap high into the air from the platform and fall crumpled up between the rails. She seemed to straighten her body as the engine came closer but made no attempt to save herself’.

During her lifetime Madge became well known in Western Australia’s courts and papers as a somewhat comical figure – always in trouble, but never lacking an imaginative excuse for her exploits or a witty reply for a local magistrate. However, the more than twenty years in which Madge travelled around and around the Australian criminal justice system, appearing more than a hundred times and gaining more than seventy-five convictions, the words she spoke there are testament to something more than frivolity. Madge’s outbursts, the cheek and humour shown to the court was indicative not that she was unconcerned by her situation, but rather that she considered the police, local magistrates, and the establishment to be. Going to court for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour, peppered with the odd theft, violent outburst, or criminal damage, was the only anyone seemed to take notice Madge Foster, her difficulties, and her very evident need for help. In a time when women were so often dismissed, undervalued, and underrepresented, it was the only venue in which her voice could, or would, be heard. Many of Madge’s offences, and her appearances in court, were cries for help in which she highlighted her problem with alcohol or the futility of her repeated incarcerations. Occasions in which she pushed against the system with all her might, hoping, surely, for a more adequate response to her plight than the system ever had to offer.

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Mulling over the Muldoons

Even with the wealth of records at our finger tips for researching lives the dynamic between a women and men who were married, cohabiting, or even courting, is difficult to gage. For those that leave memoirs or are deemed important enough to have biographies written about them we may be lucky enough to get some small insight into their personal lives and the characters of those they loved. Female offenders are rarely so lucky. Researchers of ordinary (and extraordinary) men and women whose significance was not recorded for posterity find themselves in a difficult position. Personal relationships are a hugely important feature of the lives we study. Events, opportunities, and choices are all shaped by those around us – people in the past were no different. The stories of female offenders would not be complete without details of their families and loved ones. To an extent we are able to recapture family and friendship groups. Birth marriage and death records, the odd line in a newspaper report, or even matching conviction records might give us a little piece of information about the men with who female offenders made their lives. This can be recorded and even analysed. Questions like; were the majority of offenders married? How many ‘significant’ relationships might they have in their lives? Were their partners offenders? can all be quantified and analysed. Many intimate questions cannot. Good researchers do their best to draw conclusions only on the evidence they can gather and the ‘facts’ they can confirm. We are only human though. Just because we can’t substantiate ideas and about offenders personal lives, it doesn’t mean we don’t have them. Many researchers have theories about life events and people that they study which are considered in light of evidence very likely even if they can’t prove them. In subtle ways, maybe even without realising it, these ideas can colour how we tell the stories of our subjects. When new information comes to light, the smallest crumb of evidence can cause us to question some of the cases we are most familiar with. If you’ve followed my research, heard me talk, or come across the WaywardWomen site and twitter feed, no doubt the fearsome figure of Margaret Muldoon will be a little familiar. It was her story that first inspired me to blog the history of female offenders.

Margaret Muldoon

PCOM4; Piece: 59; Item: 6

The tale of the ‘Captain and leader of the rough women of Stockdale Street’ was the very first I uncovered, and Margaret’s story of hardship and loss, violence, persecution and redemption has continued to fascinate me. Her tale would not have been complete without the ominous figure of her husband, John, of whom I knew so little, lurking in the background. I knew almost nothing about John – only what the papers disclosed. He’d been sent to Prison just months after they married for an attack on a woman named Ann Hines. Margaret was pregnant with their first child and left to cope alone. Two years later she began her own five year sentence for an attack on the same woman. The pair did not correspond whilst in prison, not even in special circumstances when their son died. After they were both released in 1884 Margaret was never convicted again, seemingly turning her back on the violent life she had lived before. John did not. In 1891 was the victim of a violent attack which almost cost him his life when adversaries from his past caught up with him. He died a few years later at the age of just forty-five. With his death, Margaret was able to extricate herself from the dangerous and difficult community in which she and John had lived their whole lives. John Muldoon Although I was careful never to treat it as evidence, over the course of my research, I’d made some assumptions about John Muldoon that encouraged me to view Margaret’s story in a certain light. I’d imagined him as a domineering presence in her life, a bad influence perhaps. The John Muldoon of newspaper reports was a violent and unsympathetic character. Then, just days ago, Find My Past published a huge collection of criminal records for British including the PCOM 3 Male Licences.   For the first time I had the opportunity to fill in some of the last missing pieces of Margaret’s story – details about John The licences are not only a remarkable resource due to the in depth information they provide about offenders. They are also captivating in the sense that they allow researchers who deal in ‘criminal lives’ to come face to face with their subjects by looking at their mugshots. What I was unprepared for was that coming face to face with John would show me a man I never expected. John Muldoon was not the hulking brute that sources and my own imagination had led me to believe, but a rather diminutive man, just a few inches taller than his wife, who looked swamped by his prison uniform. John Muldoon 1880

PCOM3; Piece: 658

I was also surprised to see that he had fewer – by almost half – convictions for drunkenness and violence to people and property than his wife. Whereas Margaret’s most notable offence prior to her conviction for stabbing Ann Hines had been leading a rabble in an assault against the police, John’s had been to steal a newspaper at the age of thirteen. For that offence he was sentenced to ten days in an adult prison, and five years on the notorious Catholic reformatory ship, the Clarence. It was hard not to feel a little sympathy for a man who had been institutionalised as a child. What’s more, John claimed that he was wrongly convicted of the assault in 1880. This in itself was a normal petition for most convicts to make in a bid for freedom. There were few in convict prisons who openly admitted their guilt. What was more surprising was that John claimed he had been set up to take the fall for somebody else – Margaret’s sister. The validity of John’s claims are impossible to establish. However, his statements and a little more information on his history do provide a fascinating alternative perspective on the Muldoons. Was Margaret’s attack on Ann Hines motivated solely by revenge for her husband or was there a deeper more complex relationship between the two women now lost to history? Perhaps Margaret was not influenced by the violent world of her husband. If anything it would appear it may have been the other way round. Did John stop her leaving the area in later life, or had he been the one making it safe for her to stay? More records always mean more questions – but hold the promise of better and more thorough answers in the end.

Victorian gender norms made it common for newspaper reports and court testimony to paint male offenders as every inch the hardened and dangerous offenders that society held them to be. The sexual double standards of the nineteenth century suggested that if husband and wife were both embroiled in a world of vice and crime, the woman was immoral and weak, but the man was to blame. Criminal men were the seducers of women and the corrupters of their hapless female accessories. Often, with little evidence available to counteract these narratives old assumptions can seep through time and saturate, even unconsciously, our modern interpretation. In the rare cases where we have a chance to trace not only offenders but their partners – in life and in crime – it’s possible to challenge not only what contemporary witnesses and reporters said about them, but also the faulty picture we have formed in our own minds.

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