WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Stereotype”

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!

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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.

No honour among thieves?

From the earliest representations of offenders right up to the politically and socially charged documentaries that ‘uncover’ crime and disorder in the present day (Ch4’s “Benefits Street” being a prime example) offenders have been cast in a particular role. Offending is not merely portrayed as an illegal act but, more often than not, a set of values and behaviours that individuals who transgress the law possess. Offenders are not just people that flaunt the law, but instead, they are ‘criminals’ – a distinct subset of persons who share a lack of morality and social conscious in common. Media representations of offenders might often focus on elements of a case that allows the perpetrator to be portrayed in way of this popular stereotype: Uncaring, morally bankrupt, dishonest, scheming, thoughtless. The nature of surviving accounts, both historical and contemporary , that we are offered of crime and offenders more often than not helps to proliferate and reinforce these ideas. But on the rare occasions when we are offered the chance to see circumstances and events from a different perspective, an altogether different picture is presented.

One of the biggest benefits using the proceedings of the Old Bailey give us is the ability to engage with testimony of offenders themselves. The trial reports allow us to hear individuals offer a defence in their own words, or a fierce rejection of the testimony given against them, or perhaps a candid answer to a question. Although far from perfect – the OB, for example, rarely allows us to see what questions were asked of offenders – accounts such as these are the closest historians are able to get to hearing our subjects speak. Their priorities, wants, needs, and negotiations all laid out for us on the page. Sometimes it is through these encounters that we are given unexpected glimpses into the social codes, sense of right and wrong, and relationships that shaped their world.

In February 1788 Martha Cutler, Sarah Cowden, and Sarah Storer were brought up in the Old Bailey on a charge of  highway robbery. This crime was a most serious offence, not only for its distressing and violent nature, but also on account of its fearsome reputation.

Their victim, Henry  Solomons, maintained that he had being going about his business in Whitechapel , in June that year, when he was accosted by three or four women at the end of an ally.  Solomons testified that the women made use of obscene gestures and ‘very bad expressions’ and pushed him into a passage that led into a house. As Solomons was ushered into a small room and thrown down onto a bed, where with two women restraining him, a third took over fourteen guineas from his person. When the ordeal was over, he was let up and told to go about his business. Solomons and a number of other witnesses, including a policeman, were able to identify the three women on trial.

Despite all protesting their innocence and claiming police brutality all three women were found guilty. The sentence passed down to them was death.

Cutler, Cowden, and Storer were all returned to custody to await their fate. Over one year later, which the women would have passes in the cramped and unsanitary confines of the local gaol, they were bought back to court. Each woman was offered a pardon, granting her respite from the gallows on the condition that she submit to being transported to the new colonies in New South Wales – for the term of her natural life.

Such was their conviction that an injustice had occurred, all three women gave the same surprising answer – to choose death rather than to live on the other side of the world wrongly convicted.

Sarah Cowden replied:

‘No, I will die by the laws of my country; I am innocent, and so is Sarah Storer ; the people that had the money for which I was tried, are now at their liberty, therefore I will die by the laws of my country before ever I will go abroad for my life.’

Martha Cutler:

‘Before I will go abroad for my natural life, I will sooner die.’

And finally Sarah Storer:

‘I will not accept it; I am innocent.’

The women were again sent down. The irritated magistrate informed them that their lack of gratitude for the king’s mercy would result in immediate execution.

Yet, in June 1789, the women still sat imprisoned, awaiting the sentence. They were again bought up to the court. Once more the women were offered respite of the death sentence on the condition they be transported for life. Sensing her chances were running out Martha Cutler agreed to save her own life.  Sarah Stoner attempted to bargain. She would agree to go, but not for the term of her whole life. The court decreed this offer to be an insult to their mercy, and no agreement was reached. Eventually Storer consented to life. Sarah Cowden also attempted to bargain. Most surprisingly, this was not for her own life – but her friends.

She stated:

“I will tell you what; I am willing to accept of whatever sentence the King passes upon me, but Sarah Storer is innocent, I would not care whatever sentence I went through; I will accept it if that woman’s sentence is mitigated.”

“I will take any sentence, if that woman’s sentence is mitigated.”

After another several exchanges with the court, where it was explained that she would either humbly accept the pardon or die, her resolve was as firm as ever.

“I will never accept of it without this woman’s sentence is mitigated.”

All the women were removed from the court except for Cowden, who spoke freely:

“Gentlemen, I hope you will excuse me for being so bold to speak in the court, but this woman is as innocent as a child unborn; she happened to come into the place where this robbery was done, she asked for the loan of a pair of bellows, and she was cast for death; and after being cast for death, I think to be cast for life is very hard; if this woman’s sentence is not mitigated I will freely die with her, I am but a young girl, I am but one and twenty years of age”

Further reports from the court indicate that all three women were eventually set to be transported, although they do not appear in the British Convict Transport Registers. One scholarly article suggests that Cowden later escaped the Lady Juliana convict vessel shortly before it sailed for New South Wales. She returned to London, and was discovered and brought back to the Old Bailey two years later, only to successfully win her freedom after pleading her belly.

This episode allows us to see Sarah Cowden not just as a serious property offender, but as a more three dimensional human being. By seeing her speak, we are offered a glimpse of a young woman with her own thoughts, motivation, and moral code. It would appear that Sarah Cowden was not devoid of feeling or sentiment, but instead a woman for whom the bonds of friendship and loyalty were worth risking life and limb for. A woman for whom, perhaps, justice and a sense of honour meant something. Even if we do not share the same understanding. Certainly I think we can discern that Sarah Cowden was, at the very least, a young woman brave enough to challenge authority in the courtroom and pursue her own agenda even though her status and gender both worked against her.

Instances when we can engage with female offenders exhibiting emotions and behaviours we ourselves might possess or recognise are, rather sadly, desperately rare.  However when we are lucky enough to find them it is a vital reminder that not only could there be honour amongst thieves, but also decency, bravery, and friendship too.

Well behaved women seldom make history . . .

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s popular adage “well behaved women seldom make history” (sadly often attributed to Marilyn Munroe) has been used in a multitude of places and forms to express the need for women to be more subversive of social expectations if they are to truly put their stamp upon the world, and to secure their place in the annals of time. Yet this would suggest that subversion is all that is needed to mark a woman’s place in history, and that being ‘badly behaved’ is a sure way to make an impact and ensure a lasting legacy.

Alas, this is rarely the case. The WaywardWomen  that fill the pages of this blog have clearly been badly behaved enough to ensure a  mention in the footnotes of history, and sure enough in recent decades, as subjects, they have been sought out, identified, and explored more than ever before. But ultimately, it is their illegal activities that are remembered, both in histories and the bulk of primary materials that those histories are drawn from, rather than the women themselves or the more general interactions they experienced and contributions they made to life.

Academics and popular historians alike are starting to flesh out the profiles and activities of such female offenders. But still, little is known about the social and economic contributions that these women must have been making when not committing an offence, standing in court, or serving time in an institution. The entry of data in the nineteenth century census, parish records or birth, marriage and death registers is no better for female offenders than law-abiding women, they were after all created by men, for the use of men, the consideration of women is secondary. And so, often, wayward women are consigned to the same hazy and ultimately forgettable side-lines of history as their ‘well behaved’ sisters.

In fact, contrary to the above well-circulated quote, much of the time it would seem that we do nothing but remember the well behaved, the ideal model of women. Those who were recorded, accepted, presented as the acceptable norm for their period. For example, not just the wives and mothers, but also independent women and young girls, educators, servants, and dutiful factory workers of the past have for some time appeared regularly in a variety of histories – not always as individuals, but certainly as a present mass. These women might often struggle ( in popular representations certainly)  to be afforded the same time, attention or depth of enquiry as their male counterparts, but here is usually no denying that throughout most major developments and moments in history, women were at least there . . . somewhere.

In their excellent 1993 work Women’s Work and the Family Economy Pat Hudson and Robert Lee commented ‘Much of the history of women’s work has been written from a male perspective. This has resulted in a preoccupation with the ways in which women have ‘participated’ in social processes, including work, which are defined in terms of male experience’.[1] These scholars were quite right to lament the continued evaluation of women’s worth and contribution through male dominated definitions and systems, and to highlight the on-going need to integrate women’s experiences into more general social and economic explorations of the past.  In the intervening twenty years since their book was published, there has of course been a wave of works that have really pushed the boundaries in terms of our understanding and acknowledgement of women’s contribution to social, cultural and economic life throughout history – Works by June Purvis, Selina Todd, Kathryn Gleadle, and Ellen Ross to name just a few. But many of the women included in these histories, were ‘good women’, the well behaved sisters of those wayward and subversive individuals that we know must have been present, but yet we remain neglectful of fully documenting their role.

Despite several fascinating works examining female offending and offenders, the picture of the wider contribution these women made to economic life remains clouded. For some, most embarrassingly myself in particular, patriarchal control remains so embedded that we can often find ourselves producing histories that still use a categorisation of women’s lives and behaviours based on a male-dominated systems. That might be categorising a pick pocket that during the majority of her life looked after her own children or carried out domestic labour in her own home as ‘predominantly unemployed’. Or perhaps neglecting to acknowledge that the street prostitute was as self-employed a worker as the casual dock labourer or builder.

Even now, in 2013, whether the subject be ‘well behaved’ or wayward, it seems that few regular women really ever make it into history at all – not properly.  What is a history of Female offending if not, first and foremost, a history of women. One of the main objectives therefore must be to ensure that any woman’s inclusion in the pages of such a history is not measured by conformity, or subversion, nor great and good deeds, or headline grabbing wrongs, but solely by the very fact that she was possessed of agency, present, and contributing to the world. The same privilege that has been (and remains) afforded to her male counterpart without a second thought.


[1] P. Hudson and W. R. Lee, ‘Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective’, in P. Hudson and W. R. Lee (eds)  Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective (Manchester University Press, 1990), p . 2.

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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