Marion R’s story

Marion was a prison warden, who came off worst under the flying fists of serial offender and prostitute Mary Ann Fairlie in Hull Gaol in the 1880s. But 60 years earlier she probably wouldn’t have been in the job at all, and Mary and the other female prisoners would have been under the charge of a man.

The 19th century saw considerable prison reform across the board, with the reforms of Elizabeth Fry being realised in 1823 when women prisoners were granted the right to be guarded by women themselves. By the 1840s new thinking about prison accommodation separated men and women for much of the day – initialised by London’s Pentonville Prison new design, which had spokes and designate areas – and women were housed and guarded separately, with separate tasks to accomplish during the day. It was to this world that Marion came when she began work as a prison warden, alongside other women in every sizeable gaol in Britain.

She came from the Welsh island of Ynys Môn, or Anglesey, from a tiny community about seven miles inland from Holyhead, and was born to a farming family at the beginning of the 1840s. The only girl in the family, her parents lost two of her five siblings in infancy, and Marion’s father was dead himself before Marion was eight. Her mother, having lost her source of income as well as her husband, became a pauper. Marion’s remaining three brothers were brought up by their mother, while she appears to have spent the rest of her childhood elsewhere. She probably would have spoken Welsh in addition to English, at least at home with family – her brother, on a later census return, is Welsh speaking and it is highly likely that all the rest of the family were too.

By the early 1870s she had left Wales behind, and was working as an assistant matron in the Liverpool workhouse. Liverpool, with a big port as part of the city, was growing rapidly at the time, and many from North Wales moved there to take advantage of the economic opportunities that weren’t available in their mostly-rural communities. Like many big towns – it was not declared a city until 1880 – there was great wealth and great deprivation, and it was those suffering poverty that Marion would have helped on a daily basis.

In the workhouse system, the care of women inmates usually fell to the matron – often the wife of the workhouse master – and as her assistant Marion would have been quite high up in the administration of the institution. The Liverpool workhouse had a large hospital attached, with many nurses, and other supporting staff – wardmistresses, clothing store keepers, sewing mistresses, laundresses. She may have applied for a license to marry in Liverpool in the later part of the 1860s, but it appears that this marriage did not take place in the end.

It was through the workhouse system that Marion met her eventual husband William. He had been born in Dublin, and had grown up in the Birkenhead workhouse, across the river Mersey from Liverpool – but as the son of the workhouse master and not an inmate. He gave various jobs as his occupation around this time – including being a clerk and a groom – but these were probably attached to his workhouse duties. They were married in Liverpool in the summer of 1872, when she was in her mid-twenties.

Soon afterwards, however, William decided to take up a commission in the army. He joined the 7th Hussars, a cavalry regiment. It appears that Marion did not accompany her husband to the barracks as a dutiful army wife, despite the fact that he was deployed in England for eight years after signing up.

Instead, she appears to have continued working – despite the social stigma of a married woman going out to work. By the turn of the 1880s she was working as a prison matron at a gaol in Derby, and calling herself a widow – perhaps an indication that all was not happy in her marriage, or a way of protecting her reputation since she continued to work, as many of the women in this employ were older and single.

The prison regime for women was aimed at reforming criminals’ bad character – using domestic labour (for example a washhouse or a bakery), religious instruction and moral guidance. Matrons were expected to oversee all of this activity, under the direction of the prison governor – who, by this time, after a ruling in 1878, was employed by the government. In this role Marion would have lived at the prison, and been part of the strict regime for female prisoners. She would have enforced the rules, visited each of the prisoners daily, overseen the hard labour given as punishment, and inspected the food, clothing and bedding of her charges. She also would have had charge of other women workers in the prison.

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By 1883 Marion had moved to the prison at Hull. And the altercation with Mary Ann Fairlie occurred. Mary, who was serving a six-month term with hard labour, had been found in the prison washhouse talking to another prisoner – both breaches of the prison rules. Marion told her to go to her work, but Mary refused and another female warder came to help. Between Marion and the other warder they escorted Mary down the corridor to her cell. However, when Marion let go of Mary’s arm to unlock the cell Mary gave her a violent blow to the eye. Marion dropped her keys, and when she stooped to pick them up Mary continued to punch and hit her around the head and face.

The injuries were so severe that Marion had to be attended by the prison surgeon, and she needed a full two weeks to recover. Mary received a further prison sentence for this beating.

Whether it was this incident or something else, by the beginning of the 1890s Marion had given up her job in the prison and had settled into the army barracks as a military wife with her husband. In the intervening time he’d been sent to Natal – in modern-day South Africa – with his regiment, but had mainly been based in the UK. This cavalry depot was based in Canterbury, Kent, many miles away from where she’d grown up and worked, and full of wives and children alongside the consigned soldiers. Marion and William never had any children.

Unusually, there’s a second marriage record for Marion and William. Twenty one years after they first married, they appear to have married again – at least in the eyes of the British Army, who record their marriage (in Liverpool, not Canterbury) in 1893. This may be a peculiarity of army records, but equally may be an indication of their long separation.

William was posted on duty to India in 1893, but was pensioned out of the army in 1894 after suffering from dysentery and dyspepsia and returned to Marion in Canterbury.

In retirement, their income was William’s army pension. They moved to a farm on the English side of the lower Wye valley, and ran it as a going concern.

They remained there, with Marion taking the role of farmer’s wife – like her mother before her – for more than 20 years.

Marion died in February 1921, in her late 70s. But there is a sting in the tail/tale. By the following July, William had married again – his new wife having taken up residence in their house a while before the wedding.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. 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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One thought on “Marion R’s story

  1. Pingback: Mary Ann Fairlie’s story (v2.0) – The Women Who Made Me

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