Sarah B’s story

Stealing nine feather boas in Leeds landed Sarah B in the clink for nine months in the last year of the 19th century. This was not by far her only crime, but was in fair keeping with her misdemeanours – which all appeared to involve fabric or garments of some description. She may have found these items readily available to steal, but it may also have been that she had a “thing” for nice fabrics.

Over the course of her extensive criminal career, which took place over various communities in the north of England, she was landed in jail no less than 16 times. Each time she admitted her guilt, and each time she was sent down.

Born into a ship-building family, she initially worked as a servant in her teens. Prison records purport that her education was “improper”. Her lengthy list of thefts and penances seems to have begun at around the age of 30, when she stole a tablecloth and was jailed for fourteen days with hard labour.

This experience – hard labour was exactly as described, exhausting and unproductive – doesn’t appear to have affected her behaviour in the slightest. Two years later she stole 12 yards of linen, which got her four months in jail, and within a month of that release she stole a dress – which got her a further five months.

Upon release, she appears to get married. However, a definitive record of this marriage does not come to light in the records – it may be that it did not take place, or that one party did not use a name that they were later known by (Sarah at one point calls herself Emily Lacey, on one court appearance), but her surname now changes to a married one in court appearances.

For several years thereafter, her life continues in a pattern of theft, arrest, incarceration, and release. Next, she stole a jacket (14 days), stockings (one month), and a pair of boots (one month). The courts then appear to step up their punishments, but this does not stop her thievery. She got six months for a pair of trousers, another six months for stealing two pairs of boots, and another six months for having made off with a roll of shirting fabric.

In between sentences, it appears she was able to find some work on occasion. Court records sometimes say that she was married without a job, but others say that she was a servant or a housekeeper. This implies that she may have had a veneer of trustworthiness for prospective employers. However, since many of her crimes took place in different northern cities, it’s probable that she moved around a great deal to avoid her reputation following her.

Court appearances give us a description of what Sarah looked like. She was just four foot nine inches tall – short even in an era where nobody grew particularly tall – and had light brown curly hair. She also had a scar on her right forehead.

The punishments increased again. She was incarcerated for nine months for stealing both a pair of trousers and ten pocket knives. Then she got a year for stealing four black lead brushes – used for cleaning out fire grates. She then got another nine months for stealing two shawls.

She also has a few minor appearances in court for drunkenness and “frequenting” – presumably places where she was not supposed to be – but these are not offences that were given jail time.

Jail time was reduced for her next offense – stealing another pair of boots – as she merely received 28 days hard labour, but almost immediately on release she half-inched a skirt from a shop in Leeds and was given a full year sentence.

Again, practically on release, she stole again. This time was a pair of boots and a skirt, and she received 18 months in jail. The feather boas followed, for which she got nine months (one per boa), followed by another pair of boots (18 months).

The three years penal servitude she received for the umbrella she stole next put her in jail at the time of the 1901 census. For this crime, she was sent to a women’s prison unit about 160 miles from home. Most of Sarah’s companions were also doing time for theft and larceny.

On release, she received three months for stealing a dress lining (she gave her name as Emily Lacey for this crime), and then a further three months for stealing spoons.

It was at this point that her husband, who until now had remained elusive in the records, made an appearance. They were both convicted of stealing a bottle containing whisky from an acquaintance. Her husband pleaded guilty to larceny and received two months hard labour. Sarah, however, got a further three years of penal servitude.

It is unknown whether this slice of justice finally did the trick for Sarah, but she does not appear in prison records again. However, since the available records stop only a few years later it may just be that any further theft details are inaccessible. However, by this stage she was in her early sixties and was possibly too elderly and infirm to cope with the hard labour consequences of any more prison terms and decided to go straight. Her husband – who prison records identified as better educated – also appears to be more present at this time, and its possible that they supported each other more.

By the 1911 census they are back in the ship-building community in which Sarah grew up, and calling themselves travellers – perhaps a necessity due to the sheer number of communities that would have recognised Sarah as a bit of a bad egg.

Sadly, her married name and some discrepancies around her year of birth, and the fact that she moved around a great deal mean that pinpointing a year of death is a tricky task. It’s unlikely that she lasted much past the First World War, however.

 

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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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