WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Social Mobility”

The Journey of Julia Rigby

Julia Rigby was born at sea in 1829 and grew up in Lambeth, South London. Julia would next step foot on a boat twenty years after her birth when, once again, a new life would begin. Little is known about Julia’s early years. She was likely from a poor family, and while her mother, Ellen, and brothers, William, James, and Edward, are all listed as her next of kin on official records, there is no mention of Julia’s father. There is no record of Julia’s employment, only of the living she made by picking pockets, or stealing from shops. Julia was only a young woman when she pleaded guilty to stealing a watch from the person of Frederick Armytage at the Old Bailey in August of 1850.

Julia was seen by several people clinging to her victim before the robbery, asking if he wanted to buy her a drink (a common tactic of both prostitutes and thieves, looking for easy prey in the evenings). Although Julia was only twenty-one, she had reason to be fearful of facing a severe punishment at a trial, which would almost certainly go against her. There were other convictions known by the court against her. Cumulatively, Julia had served several years in prison. She spent ten days in prison for her first offence as a teenager after stealing gingham (fabric). Then she served fifteen months for stealing a watch and chain, another two years for stealing another watch, and three months with hard labour in Brixton prison in 1848 for the theft of twenty shillings’ worth of flannel. Prior to her latest offence, Julia had been convicted just months before, in March 1850, for receiving stolen goods, for which she served another three months.

Julia’s criminal career stretched back to her mid-teens and she had only been out of prison two months when indicted for the theft from Fred Armytage. To the court there would have been little doubt as to her ‘bad’ character, and she could probably have expected to be punished with the full force the law would allow. Julia chose not to go to trial and pleaded guilty to the offence. Saving the court the time and money of a trial in this way often meant an offender could expect a more favourable sentence. Julia may have been hoping for this. There is also evidence to suggest that she pleaded guilty in an attempt to save her lover, William, who was accused alongside her.

By pleading guilty and avoiding a trial, Julia took responsibility for the theft and was dealt with swiftly. She was sentenced to be transported for seven years. William Jones, with whom she lived ‘as man and wife’, had been with her that evening, likely picking out victims for her to target and receiving the stolen items when she was done. In court he denied all knowledge of the crime, and even association with Julia. He was found guilty in taking part in the robbery, but given just twelve months imprisonment for his role. The two would never see each other again.

Four months later, Julia sailed for Van Diemen’s Land aboard the Emma Eugenia. By the time she arrived in the colony in March 1851, her accomplice had less than six months of his sentence left to serve. On arrival in Australia, Julia claimed to be a housemaid, although this was unlikely to be true, due to her repeated spells in prison throughout her working-age life. She was five feet tall, fresh faced, with dark brown eyes, and a string of letters and numbers tattooed on her left forearm, commemorating the initials of loved ones, and her criminal history. The most recent were two characters ‘7 Y’ denoting the journey she had just begun.

After bad behaviour throughout the journey, Julia was taken to Cascades Female Factory, where she spent three months under supervision. She was assigned labour in the summer of 1851, but returned to the factory to undertake three months of hard labour later that year for insolence. After being re-assigned following her punishment, Julia was relatively well behaved during her time in the convict system. She was returned to hard labour for a month on just one occasion, in 1852, after being found to have money concealed on her person.

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Cascades Female Factory

While on work assignment, Julia met Joseph Lodge, a fellow convict, and the pair were granted permission to marry in 1853. Joseph, a Yorkshireman, had been transported to the colony in 1842 aboard the Marquis of Hastings for a term of fifteen years for murder. Joseph had a wife and children back in Yorkshire, whose fate at the time he married Julia is not known. Julia was granted her Ticket-of-Leave in 1854, three years before the expiration of her sentence. Her Conditional Pardon followed in 1856 (Joseph had received his in 1851). The pair went on to have seven children in the next fourteen years, and eventually settled on land they were granted in Tunbridge, roughly sixty miles each way between the major settlements of Hobart and Launceston.

Julia’s record read like that of a convict who would easily slip back into reoffending after the expiration of her sentence. She had a significant record of offending before transportation, had exhibited troublesome behaviour under sentence and had married a fellow convict, a murderer and a bigamist. Yet despite their criminal pasts, Julia and Joseph built good lives together. Tunbridge was a busy coaching town, providing accommodation and supplies for those travelling between two major settlements. The Lodges were a testament to the penal ideals of transportation; that by displacing convicts from their former lives, rather than just disciplining them and turning them loose at home, they were given the chance for a new start. An opportunity to build new, law-abiding lives.

It certainly seems that Julia and Joseph seized this chance. They were, by all accounts, respected members of their community. Joseph’s testimony on the drunk misconduct of a local police officer was key in his removal from post, Julia acted as witness in a case for theft, and Joseph was well known in the district as a fair employer and a reliable workman. They created lives simply out of reach of many British convicts rebuilding their lives on home soil.

Julia only ever came to the attention of the authorities again once, in 1870, when she visited an old friend from her convict days, Ann Reed, back in Hobart. Reed, like Julia, was now an innkeeper. After a couple of drinks together at Reed’s establishment, the Tasmania Arms, a fight took place between the two women in a dispute over money, which Julia said that Ann Reed and her husband had stolen. The case dragged on in court for over a week, with Reed prosecuting Julia for assault, and Julia bringing a counter-suit. The case was quickly and mysteriously settled when Reed agreed to pay Julia compensation to the sum of sixteen pounds. Julia returned to Tunbridge, her business, her family, and her law-abiding life.

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Julia Rigby in later life

Julia lived the last years of her life in peace and obscurity. She died at the age of forty-seven at her inn in Tunbridge in 1878, after a short illness. She was respectably buried in Tunbridge and mourned by family and friends.

Julia’s life was a story of two halves, each beginning at sea. She had been a thief and pickpocket, a fallen woman living with a man outside the bonds of marriage, and would have undoubtedly been seen as part of the feared ‘criminal class’ at home in England. Julia would have seemed like a prime candidate for recidivism and a disorderly life in the colonies. Yet after her transportation Julia formed a family, became a property holder, a businesswoman, and pillar of her community. Julia’s penal, physical, and personal journey was remarkable, but not in its length or hardship nor particularly its impact on history. Her journey was remarkable because she travelled from poverty to prosperity, and from ruin to lasting respectability – much more than many of the girls raised in London’s slums could ever have expected.

You can read more about convicts like Julia and the journeys that took men, women, and children from the streets of Britain to the other side of the world in my new book Convicts in the Colonies.

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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.

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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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