Mary Ann Hopkins’ story

The latest exhibition at Chippenham Museum is a display on 180 years of Wiltshire Police. One of the exhibit is a prison record book, open to a page on Mary Ann Hopkins. She’d committed larceny in 1864, had been locked up for seven years, and was released in 1869.

Basic maths will tell you that 1864 to 1869 is five years, not seven, so who was she, why was she a criminal, and why did she get an early release?

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Mary Ann was born in Lewes, Sussex, in around 1844. Her father, William, worked as agricultural labourer but had served as a soldier – he was made a Chelsea Pensioner in 1836, at the age of 43. Her mother, Sarah, had been born local to Chippenham at Bremhill, and it appears held a desire to come home – while Mary and her older siblings William, Jane, George and John were all born elsewhere, the 1851 census has the family settled in Reybridge, between Lacock and Chippenham.

Reybridge_c.1900

Reybridge in c1900

Mary Ann at this point was just six. Her elder sister had been sent out to work at 13 as a nursemaid to a local baker, while her eldest brother – just a year older – was working the local fields. This paints a background of a family just about surviving on her father’s pension and the little money her siblings were able to bring in.

chelsea pensioners

Mary Ann’s father was a Chelsea Pensioner

Unfortunately, her father – who was twenty years older than her mother – died in the early spring of 1852, which would have thrown the family’s finances into dire straits. Most of her brothers went back to Sussex, presumably to receive some support from their father’s family, and its unknown exactly what happened to her mother. Sarah definitely didn’t die around this time, but completely disappears from records – so it may be that she remarried, or moved away.

What is certain is that Mary Ann remained in the Chippenham area. By 1861 she claims to be 18, when she was actually nearer 16, and was resident in the town’s union workhouse. She had previously been working as a domestic servant.

It’s after this that Mary Ann’s trouble began. If she was in the workhouse she would have been desperate for money. So desperate that she would steal it to keep herself going. And that’s what happened.

In the summer of 1863 she was convicted of larceny from a person, and was imprisoned for six months. A year later she was in the courts again for an identical charge, but on this one was found not guilty. And then later in 1864, in the early autumn, she was tried again for larceny and found guilty – this time receiving the seven-year stint in gaol.

The local newspapers, reporting the case, described her as a “prostitute” – which didn’t necessarily mean that she was selling sex for money, but more that she was considered a fallen women in the eyes of the sort of educated and moralising people who were able to read the newspapers, and who had the potential to act as a sex worker. However, she had stolen 7 shillings and 6d from a labourer called Mr Pinnegar that she had been associating with in Chippenham, so it may have been that this was what she’d been given for her services but she hadn’t fulfilled the deal. Whatever the circumstances, Mary Ann was locked up.

The records describe her as five foot six-and-a-half inches in height, quite tall for a woman of this time, with a fresh complexion, light brown hair, large grey eyes, and long fingers and nails. She was sent to prison – at Winchester, over in Hampshire – from the Marlborough courts. And as we said before, served five years of a seven-year sentence.

winchester prison

Winchester Prison, where Mary Ann was held.

Being released for good behaviour was unheard of at this time. If you were convicted, you served the full sentence unless you were let out on licence. And this is what happened to Mary Ann. Exactly why she was given a licence to be released becomes clearer in the month following her release. She was released on June 21 1869. On July 17 1864, she married a brickmaker called John Griffin in Chippenham’s St Andrew’s Church. This was after banns, so she would have had to be present to hear them read in the three weeks prior to the ceremony. Effectively, she had been released to allow her to get married, as she would therefore be under her husband’s correctional influence rather than the judicial system’s. It’s probable that she knew John, who lived at Englands or Wood Lane, before she was incarcerated, and he probably stood by her while she was in prison.

Tellingly, on her marriage certificate, Mary Ann did not give her father’s name or profession. It may have been that she was too young when he died to know them, and it gives more weight to the theory that she was the only one of her immediate family left in the area.

They moved to Swindon together – probably as much for John’s brickmaking work, as the construction of the new town was booming, as to escape her local notoriety. Their first daughter Mary Elizabeth was born in 1872, and another – Emily – followed in 1874. They returned to Chippenham to have both girls baptised in St Andrew’s Church.

Thereafter, Mary Ann had several more children – three boys and three girls. However, only one of these six children survived more than a few months, and she would have experienced a great deal of sorrow. John kept his work as a labourer, but it is unlikely that it brought in a great deal to live on. Beatrice Ellen, born in 1883, was the only other child of Mary’s to live to adulthood.

Her last child, Edgar, died in the later part of 1885. And within a few months Mary was dead herself – it may be that she was pregnant again and experienced complications, as she was only 39 years old, or it may be that her health was suffering from all the repeated pregnancies and she wasn’t strong enough to fight off winter ailments.

Mary Elizabeth and Emily found work, while Beatrice was brought back to Chippenham to be raised by her father’s brother on Wood Lane. John Griffin continued to work as a brickmaker in various places, and did not remarry.

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