Mary F’s story

Mary F’s colourful brushes with the law were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.

She appears in court records on eight separate occasions, on offences including larceny (twice, one acquittal, one conviction), wilful damage (thrice, three convictions), drunk and disorderly (once, convicted) and assaulting a police officer (once, convicted). This chequered career takes place across three separate UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and seems at best chaotic, and at worst desperately sad that she – unlike many other women who only pop up in court reports once or twice (if at all, most court reports of the time pertain to men) – was living such an unsettled life.

A clue to what was going on for Mary can be found in the 1891 census, which coincided with one of her periods of imprisonment. She is described on the document as a prostitute, which perhaps puts the nature of some of her crimes into perspective, as working girls might often find themselves in difficult and violent situations. However, none of her criminal convictions are for soliciting. Newspaper reports have her often drunk and disorderly, or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder so badly that the woman needed a fortnight off work to recover.

Her life didn’t necessarily have to have taken that turn – she’d been born into a relatively stable, if clearly poor, family in the North of England, and had been brought up in the communities that supported the fishing trade on the coast. Her parents, both from Ireland, had emigrated at some point after the Great Famine. Around the time Mary reached early adulthood, a parental split occurred with her mother taking her younger sisters to Scotland – but not Mary – and her father remaining in the family home. He became a pauper, and spent time in and out of the workhouse, so Mary was almost certainly fending for herself. This may have led to her choice of career, but was not the only choice of employment open to her – her younger sister made a living making fishing nets, and did not bounce in and out of the courts.

During the time she was in and out of the justice system, Mary was working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Gwent – where she apparently threw herself into the River Usk under the influence of drink, and was escorted to the local workhouse. This was thought to be a suicide attempt.

As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter was born in the mid-1890s, which appears to have stopped the behaviour which led to spells in gaol. However, this did not stop the poverty which had led to Mary’s situation, and she and her daughter spent seven periods in a London workhouse during the first year of the child’s life. Mary gave her profession as a spinner on admission records, but finding work must have been difficult in a community away from home and family with a tiny baby to support.

A couple of years later she had two further children in the north of England, each of these also baring her surname so again out of respectable wedlock. She had clearly gone home, but around this time her mother died and her father was again in the workhouse, so in 1901 Mary and her three children were without support and ended up in the workhouse too. At this time she’d been working as a cotton stripper and grinder – a considerable step above prostitution, although possibly less lucrative.

Another profession is given a couple of years later again, after her youngest child – a girl – had passed away at the age of two, and Mary had brought her family back to London. Now working (when she could find employment) as a charwoman, she spent much of the mid-1900s in and out of three different London workhouses. Sometimes these admissions were just her children alone, as she would not have had the means to support them, but she often joined them. She also spent time in a workhouse hospital for rheumatism.

But by the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in the north again. She had no children in her care – it’s probable that they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

There is no further record of her. She may have married in later life, and been buried under another name.

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3 thoughts on “Mary F’s story

    1. Unfortunately, I don’t know if the photograph is of Mary or not – it’s an unidentified portrait of a malnourished woman and her children from London, taken at about the right time, which serves to illustrate but not identify. I think certain pictures were taken to illustrate social condition.
      In many cases, images of these women do not survive, so an unidentified woman of the right period stands in. If I am lucky, the family have a portrait I can publish.

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