WaywardWomen

Victorian England's Female Offenders

Archive for the tag “Women’s History”

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?

Advertisements

Women’s work and ‘working girls’: Inspiration for International Women’s Day

Earlier today I was delighted to give a talk on the subject of ‘Inspirational women from Liverpool’ at the Museum of Liverpool in honour of International Women’s Day 2016.

Liverpool Is a city with a long history of inspirational women who have changed the lives of others and the world around them. With so much to choose from, the history of crime might not seem like the most obvious place to start a story of inspirational women in the city. However, its as good as any place for a day  originally titled ‘international working women’s day’. A day which gives us an opportunity to celebrate the social, political, and economic contributions that women have made to the world -through hard work and perseverance.

We are used to thinking about women in the history of crime in two ways: of victims of crime – sexual and other violence in particular troubling women through history to the present day – or as victims of the legal process. The case of Florence Maybrick, has gone down in Liverpool’s history as a famed miscarriage of justice. We are also conditioned to think of women who  break the law as villains. Not only on account of their criminal acts, but because so often breaking the law requires women to break gendered codes of expectation too. Criminal women can be so ‘unwomanly’. They harm children, can be lascivious or violent, or abandon their homes and duties for the pursuit financial gain. Liverpool’s Black Widows were immortalised in the popular press as inhuman, masculine, monsters. However, crime  is not always black and white. There can be stories of success as well as despair. Light as well as darkness. Many suffragettes, who less than a century ago won the right of universal suffrage that we all now enjoy, were incarcerated as criminals . In history they are heroes, but in their day they were considered violent militants and disturbers of the peace.

One crime in particular  has a long significance in the history of both women and Liverpool: prostitution. Prostitution is, as we might suppose, the battleground on which so many feminist and social issues have been fought. Consent, abuse, exploitation, and gender inequality to name but a few. Yet prostitution can also be a prism through which we can view the struggles, triumphs, and extraordinary stories of ordinary women. Prostitution can even be a place, somewhat surprisingly, where inspiration can be found.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, Liverpool was not only a flourishing site of world trade, it was also a desperate place where many working class women struggled to survive. It was a city in which prostitution thrived.

Researcher David Beckingham estimated that ‘on the basis of criminal statistics, Liverpool was by some distance the capital of prostitution in Victorian England’. It also had one of the highest prosecution rates for prostitution in the UK, outstripping cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle many times the size. 

Life as a prostitute in Victorian England was a hard and unenviable one. By the 1860s life for prostitutes  became even harder  as the government moved to legislate against those working the streets with the Contagious Diseases Acts.

The first Contagious Diseases Act (CDA) was passed in 1864, and the acts were amended and expanded again in 1866 and 1869. They made provision for the apprehension,  detention, and forceful medical examination of any woman suspected of being a common prostitute and suspected of having venereal disease in the port and garrison towns of England and Ireland. These acts gave the police the power to apprehend women they suspected of working as ‘common prostitutes’ and to take them before a magistrate who could  order them to be detained in a lock hospital for invasive internal examination. If  found to have a ‘contagious disease’ to be detailed for a course of mandatory treatment – up to six months long, before releasing them with a certificate of clean health. Women could be further required to report for fortnightly check-ups. If a woman refused to cooperate at any stage she could be convicted of an offence and imprisoned. If a brothel was found to be employing infected women they could be fined up to £20. The legislation gave already vulnerable women little place to hide.

The Acts were an unmitigated failure. Not only do we know that the horrendous and invasive treatments they forced on women had little medical affect, they also ignored the obvious reality that the spread of infection could not be stopped by only treating half of the sexually active population.

What  these acts did achieve was to breach what we would now consider basic human rights – such as that to liberty and the right for women to control their own bodies.The CDAs persecuted and discriminated against women. Laying the blame for the sex trade and all of its perceived evils at the feet of the women who worked in the trade.

Josephine Butler moved to Liverpool in 1866, just as the acts were being amended – so that her husband could take up the post of principal of Liverpool College.

Josephine_Butler_-_portrait

She had been raised in rural Northumberland, a world away from the wretched streets and Brothels of Liverpool. Yet almost immediately upon arrival in the city she began work with women and young girls who she met in the course of visiting the streets, hospitals, and workhouses of the city. Butler wrote to her Son that she felt compelled to help those who were so much less fortunate than herself.

Butler letter 1866

Her work began almost immediately, turning her own home into a house for dying women rescued from the streets and workhouses. Later, she rented premises near her home to run as a house of rest and industrial home. Butler’s institution was the first of its kind in the city. The home offered care for women who had once walked the streets and aimed to combat what she saw as some of the primary causes of women’s ruination. The poor level of education, training, and employment available to them in the city that saw the poorest and most vulnerable with little other option for survival than to sell themselves. Her industrial home took women from the street and gave them a small income in return for learning ‘honest occupations’ that might help them to live a ‘sin-free’ life in the future.

By 1869 when the final and largest extension of the contagious diseased acts were passed into law, Butler began writing powerful public papers rallying against the hypocricy of the acts, and the double standard which saw male promiscuity as natural, and female sexuality as a perversion, yet one that should be  exploited ‘to serve the requirements of men’. She wrote of the acts, ‘their system is to obtain prostitution plus slavery for women and vice minus disease for men. In her paper the Moral Reclamability of Prostitutes she wrote that the acts rendered women ‘no longer women but only bits of numbers, inspected, and ticketed human flesh, flung by government into public market’.

She founded the Ladies Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1869, and campaigned through writings, speeches, and public tours for the next decade – despite battling with severe exhaustion. The association fought against the established acts on an eight point premise, and also fought against a counter-campaign which aimed to extend the acts throughout Britain.

Handbill pontefract

 

The acts were repealed in 1886. But by 1882, when Josephine and her family left Liverpool she had written over forty books, pamphlets and speeches for the cause. She made a huge contribution to the campaign for the acts to be repealed, and doubtlessly impacted for the better the quality of life of women working the streets in Liverpool and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, only too often , International Women’s day is a time when we celebrate just the achievements of the great and the good. The Butlers, the  Pankhursts, the Nightingales of the world. When it comes to prostitutes – still one of the most vulnerable groups of women anywhere – history remembers the men and women who advocated on their behalf but forgets the ordinary women who overcame appalling and extraordinary circumstances just to survive.

Minnie Wright

Minnie Wright was a contemporary of Josephine Butler’s but only in the very loosest sense of the term. Her life could not have been more different from Josephine’s, yet both women found their lives shaped by Liverpool’s sex trade during the period of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Minnie was born in Swansea prison in 1851 where her mother maria, a prostitute and thief was serving a six month sentence for theft. Minnie’s mother was a twenty-six year old famine migrant from cork, and her father was a fifty seven year old thief, abusive drunk, and pimp with a criminal record stretching back to before Minnie, her mother, and Josephine Butler were even born. Minnie grew up in a home where sexual and other violence by her father against her mother and others was common. By the age of six she was living with her family in a brothel in Liverpool. It is hard to fully comprehend what life was like for Minnie, living side by side with sexual exploitation and violence on a daily basis. She was married at sixteen but continued living at the brothel even as her children were born. Minnie gave birth to ten children, although only her son John and daughter Mary Ann survived into adulthood. In her early twenties, after the incarceration of both of her parents for running a house of ill-fame and death of her father, Minnie was left to run the brothel – her home and only source of income – alone.

As the ladies Association were campaigning to repeal the CDAs in 1873, and the zealous policing of prostitution and brothels in the city was at its height, Minnie too was arrested and imprisoned for running a disorderly house. In the years that followed more prosecutions came as a string of new criminal activities – illegal drinking, gambling, and fencing of stolen goods – took place at the brothel. While Minnie must be viewed as responsible for the exploitation which occurred at the brothel, it must be acknowledged too that her options to make any other living were extremely limited.

Minnie was the daughter of a prostitute, and a pimp. She had grown up witnessing in all its detail and horror the Victorian sex trade. Minnie lived in Liverpool’s notorious red-light district in which brothels and prostitution must have been normalised for many local inhabitants. She had no education, no training, and no prospect (with her reputation and background ) of obtaining any but the most poorly paying and casual work in the city. Work outside the brothel for Minnie, if not prostitution, would have involved street selling (hawking) or charring. During this period street work for women in Liverpool came with its own drawbacks and dangers.

Little HellA Map of Liverpool’s ‘Little Hell where Minnie and her family lived. The red lines illustrate locations of one or more known brothels  1860-1880.

The year after Josephine Butler left Liverpool, Minnie was convicted of receiving stolen goods from her twelve year old son. Minnie was sentenced to five years in one of London’s convict prisons, and John spent five years in a reformatory. Minnie was released from Prison in 1886 – the year that the CDAs were finally repealed. Something – very possibly the long separation from her family – had changed for Minnie. Despite the considerable social barriers in her way Minnie changed her life dramatically. She took the money she had earned from her years at the brothel and moved with her family to the Wirral. there they began a legitimate business – a butchers. Run by Joseph, and joined, when he was released from the reformatory, by John. Minnie even managed to secure her daughter Mary Ann a domestic service position. While this might seem perfectly ordinary, for Mary Ann it was remarkable not only because she was born in a brothel, but also because her mother, uncle, and grandparents had all spent time in prison for offences related to prostitution or violence.

1901-census

Given the overwhelming odds against it, it really is extraordinary that both of Minnie’s children lived stable , law abiding lives. Especially that her daughter, and her granddaughters, and great-granddaughters all lived respectable, law abiding lives – untouched by the misery of sexual exploitation into which three successive generation of women in Minnie’s family had been born. Minnie died at the age of eighty-eight. She had not changed the world, but in the face of real adversity – of personal tragedy and social restriction- she transformed her own life and the fortunes and opportunities of the women around her.

When we think of how women from the past might inspire us, there is room to draw from the small as well as the great, the  pioneers who fought for all women, and even the ones that had only the means to fight for themselves.

Josephine Butler and Minnie Wright never met one another. They were women of vastly different family backgrounds, educational levels and social classes. Yet the lived in the very same city and their lives were connected by the injustice and sexual inequality of prostitution in Victorian Liverpool. Both women, through this unique moment in history, have something to teach us about women’s abilities and agency to shape their own lives, and the wider world.

Josephine Butler’s story is well known. She turned privilege and position into a opportunity to advocate against the injustices suffered by women with little social or political power to do so themselves. By contributing to the repeal of laws which persecuted and discriminated against women, Butler will have changed the quality, and probably the course of many lives. Minnie Wright’s life is not the stuff of history books, and rarely the stuff of talks, she had, you might think, little impact on the wider social and political lot of women in Liverpool. Yet should we consider her struggle any less difficult, and the repercussions any less monuments?  Successive generations of the Wright family, Mary Ann’s children, and her children’s children lived ordinary lives, which is rather extraordinary when you think of what could have come to be. It is not just the great and the good like Josephine Butler, but the ordinary and every day women of Liverpool who have struggled against injustice, fought for every opportunity, and made the choices, that have changed the lives of women in the city, and in many instances their relationship with crime too.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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!

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.

‘Murder by a Midwife at Manchester’

For every crime, and every offender traced to the streets of sprawling Victorian cities, we capture a few moments of life unfolding before us on the page. In these instances we are offered a snapshot of a time, a place, and an individual.

Writing histories like these can be a complicated and difficult process. There are days of immense reward when a problem is solved or when a disparate trail of evidence comes together, like pieces of a jigsaw, allowing us to form a pleasing narrative for a long-pondered story. Then there are times when a sea of documents, names, dates, and events make us realise that even the best investigations can barely scratch the surface of the intricate web of ideas and experiences that shaped life in the past.

Recently the discovery of a long forgotten crime, by a long forgotten offender, was a stark reminder of just how fleeting our interactions with those in the past can be.

Ann Cartledge was the kind of woman who rarely takes centre stage in history. She wouldn’t be out of place in a Gustave Doré painting, although she would never be the subject. Many of us have probably read dozens of descriptions of her, and those like her, in the work of Dickens or Mayhew. Ann was old and poor, and to her social ‘betters’ (not to mention her observers in the 21st century), she was unremarkable.

Image

Born in Stockport, in the 1820s, she married Thomas Cartledge, an engine fitter, and together the pair had four surviving children. Ann worked as a midwife. Unlike the modern profession, this occupation was not subject to formal training and practiced by local women for a network of their friends and neighbours. Knowledge of the services she offered was built up over time, and word of mouth was how she secured work. Like many other midwives, her duties could range from helping women give birth, to caring for women and helping around their homes after the birth of children, to the tending of sick children.

Other than census entries Ann would be virtually absent in the historical record, tending silently to poor women in the inner-city slums of Manchester, except for a seemingly out of place conviction cluttering her narrative – a murder.

In 1877, for a period of three weeks, Ann had been attending a thirty-four year old widow named Elizabeth Coleman. Whilst Elizabeth had been acting as a housekeeper for a man named Crompton the two formed a relationship and Elizabeth became pregnant. Ann was called to perform one of her little advertised but clearly well practiced trades – procuring abortion. Witnesses testified that Ann gave Elizabeth a ‘potion’ to bring on a miscarriage and then went upstairs with her to procure a miscarriage by ‘other means’. In this case that involved the use of a feather quill and a long piece of wire. Soon after, Elizabeth miscarried her child.  Although little evidence remains for historians of such medical procedures and the women who went through them, we can broadly assume that this is in part because of the common nature of such events, the coming and goings of the midwife must have been a regular feature of life.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth Coleman her ordeal did not end there. From the time of her miscarriage Elizabeth was reported to be in ‘great pain’ and suffering from abdominal pains, and symptoms like that of scarlet fever. She died just a short time later. A post-mortem of her body found her womb to be in a ‘very disorganised state’. Inflammation and gangrene made it difficult for the examining doctor to be sure of the severity of violence inflicted. Shortly before her death, Elizabeth had testified to her experience in front of a policeman. Ann Cartledge was quickly identified and arrested. Ann was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Her sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, and she was released after serving six and a half years in prison.

As historians, we can understand that the frightening and painful death of Elizabeth Coleman was a tragedy for both victim and offender. For Elizabeth Coleman (and sadly too many women like her) contemporary gender ideals placed unrealistic expectations upon her, and restricted her rights – in this case to her own body. For Ann Cartledge, Elizabeth’s death resulted in the loss of her home and her liberty. Thomas Cartledge died whilst she was in prison and upon her release the widowed Ann spent the remainder of her life living on the support of her children. Ann, in her own words, made plain whilst in prison that she ‘was innocent of any bad intention’ towards Elizabeth.  Women who carried out the services of midwives mostly did so to earn a living, and to help women for whom there was legally or financially no other option. Although the records to prove Ann was not only a one time offender do not exist, and never have, it is only too likely that this was not her only offence.

The practice which led to Elizabeth Coleman’s death was just another day at work for Ann Cartledge. Not only can we assume that over the years that she practiced that Ann was responsible for procuring many miscarriages (an offence in itself during this period) but also that Elizabeth was unlikely to be the first or only of her patients that died from this unsafe and unsanitary procedure.  However, the length of time Ann worked this way, how many women Ann saw, how many deaths Ann caused – and the impact all of this had on her relationship with her peers, her community and her neighbours, are avenues of inquiry that remain forever blocked to us. It is instances such as this that we are offered a prudent reminder that most of us are, at best, repeat tourists to the past, barely aware of the lives risked and lost, property traded, and secrets buried all around us in the slums we think we know so well.

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.

Post Navigation