Mary Ann Fairlie’s two favourite pastimes appear to have been drinking and breaking windows – and if she was denied the first the second would often follow. Newspapers and prison records from all over Britain recount her breaking windows of pub after pub when the landlord refused to serve her, often on account of her foul language – which was considered unseemly in a woman and therefore reported with gusto. These feisty and colourful brushes with the law give an impression of a woman who flew in the face of mid-Victorian propriety, and went through life on her own path. Drinking and window smashing are only a drop in the ocean of her career through the British courts, and her other charges were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.
She appears in available court records on numerous occasions – and in her native Yorkshire an account towards the end of her life says she was up in front of the judge there nearly 90 times (and more elsewhere) – on a variety of offences including larceny, obscene language, wilful damage, drunk and disorderly, stealing a weight, pilfering money, malicious wounding, pawning furniture that did not belong to her, spending war relief funds on drink, fighting in the workhouse, throwing pot bowls at men, and assaulting a police officer. She was also the victim in several cases, being wounded and assaulted herself, and occasionally deliberately committed offences to get a bed for the night. This chequered career takes place across several UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and although clearly painting her as a character of strength and spirit it 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 – although she is charged with stealing money from clients in brothels on a couple of occasions. The copious newspaper reports add colour to the rigid language of the official court documents, and Victorian reporters loved to add embellished language and sensationalised detail. She was often drunk and disorderly – at one time threatening to break the windows of a pub in Mansfield who refused to serve her, and being dragged through the streets on her back afterwards, only showing regret that she’d not finished the job when charged in court and swearing that she’d finish it when she was released – or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder in Hull gaol 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 with her elder brother 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. The first newspaper report has her drunk in Basingstoke at the age of 16 while of no fixed address. This distance from family may have led to her choice of lifestyle, 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 also working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Cardiff and Newport – 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. She does not appear on the 1881 census, probably on account of sleeping in a hedge while on the move and not being picked up by the enumerators.
As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter Rose was born in the mid-1890s, the pregnancy coinciding with an 8-month stay in Wormwood Scrubs for breaking yet more windows, which appears to have reduced 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 Rose 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.
She went north again, and having briefly reappeared in Hull next surfaces in Manchester jail, having got a further six month’s imprisonment while working as a factory hand in Dewsbury. Presumably Rose was left with family during this period. This prison record reports that she was quite tall for a woman of the time, dark haired, with a damaged right elbow and a previously broken jaw. She also had old boyfriend’s names tattooed on her arm and chest, along with a heart and a sailor’s symbol. Tattoos were not uncommon among the Victorian working classes, particularly in the communities surrounding the sea-faring industry, but may also have marked her out as property of these men, who may have acted as her pimps.
A couple of years later, after another court appearance for fighting in Hull workhouse, she had two further children (David and Lillian), 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 spending time in the workhouse too. Around 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 Lillian 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.
A newspaper article from 1905 has her charged with being drunk in charge of a child under seven years, while hawking flowers at a station just outside London. She says her husband is a sailor who has not paid maintenance to the children for two years, but this would appear to be a lie as there is no record of a marriage. She pleads her case and apologises profusely, and says that she will make up her debt to society providing that she is not separated from her children. However, that is exactly what happened as she was jailed for one calendar month.
By the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in Hull again. She had no children in her care – after she was jailed they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life, with Rose ending up in Canada with the British Home Children Scheme and David in an industrial school in Dartford – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.
The removal of her children appears to have been detrimental, and the court appearances continue. She was found guilty of spending war relief money on drink not long after the outbreak of the First World War.
Rather surprisingly, in 1915 she got married. This was to a dock labourer called Thomas, who was at least a decade younger than her if not more. This may have been more of necessity than love, however, as she spent most of the next three years in and out of hospital suffering from catarrh and a heart complaint and probably needed the help and extra support.
She died in late 1919, while sewing one Friday night in bed. Apparently she fell backwards and expired immediately – as dramatic an end to her life as it had been lived. She was buried in Hull.
This post originally appeared in 2017, but has been further researched and updated.