Emma P’s story

A woman turning the air blue today is commonplace, and is rarely remarked upon past a tut or a raised eyebrow. Not so in the 1890s, as evidenced by the case of Emma P, who was jailed for seven days in 1894 for “using obscene language”.

A laundress by trade, with a husband and two dependent children (a third had died just two years before), she did not have the money to pay the alternative fine of seven shillings and nine pence. Therefore, she spent a week in the cells for daring to utter words that by today’s standards were probably quite tame.

This was her only jailed offence, but other members of her family also had brushes with the law – her 12-year-old son and his friend for obstruction in the street (five days imprisonment – they could not afford the alternative fine), and her husband served ten days hard labour for stealing a rabbit when their children were very young. He worked as a bricklayer and plasterer, and – as evidenced by the fact that Emma worked as a laundress throughout her life – keeping themselves above the breadline was clearly an issue.

Another grey area in her life is that she may not have technically married her husband. A marriage record for them does not come to light, although it’s possible that this was due to the fact that he was an army deserter who perhaps did not want to draw the authorities’ attention to himself, rather than anything more underhand. Claiming to be married when you were merely living with your partner was not unheard of at this time, particularly if you had moved away from your birthplace and were living surrounded by strangers. Much information was taken at face value, and there were few systems in place to check claims.

Towards the end of her life Emma was incarcerated again, but this time in a lunatic asylum rather than a prison cell. She was declared a lunatic, but by the standards of the day this illness could have been anything from depression to living a life regarded as immoral, for which use of obscene language and subsequent jail time may have been a factor. She may also have struggled to cope with the effort required to stay out of poverty as her children moved away and she entered her 60s. Outside the asylum, her husband was unable to support himself and ended up placed in the union workhouse.

Emma almost certainly died in the asylum, but was probably buried under her maiden name, which remains elusive.

 

To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

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