AD’s story

A farm labourer’s daughter, AD had an illegitimate daughter at the age of 27, as the twentieth century began. Rather than being ostracised, her large family supported her and her child, and the illegitimate son that followed five years later.

Aged 36, she married a widower who had been working as a game keeper. He was much older than her, and does not appear to have been the father of either of her children. There had been five children of his first marriage, all of whom had grown up and left home, so AD brought her two children into this new family.

Her husband began a job working as a stockman on a farm, and together they had five further children, including two sets of twins. However, two of these children died at under a year old.

Eight years after her marriage, her husband died, leaving her with five children who still needed care. It is unknown what happened to AD at this time, but the three youngest did not continue in her care – two reached adulthood in Barnardos homes, and another was sent to Canada as part of the British Home Children scheme of child migration. It is likely that AD, who – from the fact that she made a mark instead of signing her name on her wedding certificate – was probably illiterate, and was unable to support her family after the death of her husband.

She lived on for several more years, however, possibly dying at the age of 55. It is unknown how she supported herself in her later years.


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Amy H’s story

Amy H was the youngest of seven children born to a Bristol-based currier – a leather working specialist – and his wife in the mid-19th century. She lost her mother around the age of five, and she and her siblings were brought up by relatives rather than her father, even after he remarried.

As a young woman she lived with her widowed aunt in the fashionable Clifton area of the city. Her aunt had no profession, and was instead an itinerant, and the household had one servant.

Her aunt died when she was 30, and Amy was the sole executor and heir of her will, inheriting a great deal of money. She never married, and with this money remained of independent means for the rest of her life.

Family legend holds that she was a suffragette in the early 20th century. There is no documentary evidence to support this – no prison or court records show her having been involved in civil action – but as an unmarried, independent woman of means in this period she would have been ideally placed to support this cause. She also had several different forms of her name, which may indicate that she was known by different groups of society in separate ways.

In the early part of the 20th century she lived with her widowed sister, supporting and helping her with her young family. Her sister registered no profession on the census records, perhaps an indication that Amy’s inherited money was helping to support the family.

As women gained the vote in 1918, Amy bought property on the outskirts of the city, thus enabling her to take her place on the first electoral roll that women were allowed to appear on. This action may also have labelled her as a suffragette – or at the very least a supporter of women’s rights – in the collective family memory.

She remained in that property until she died, a couple of years after the Second World War, leaving a still considerable amount of money to a builder’s merchant.

Ann O’s story

The daughter of a yeoman farmer, Ann O came from a Quaker family and therefore enjoyed a more equal standing with the men in her own community than other mid-Victorian women. Quaker women were allowed to speak in their worship meetings, and their opinions held weight. They were included as witnesses on Society of Friends birth records, and were allowed to publish and to travel alone.

She married a commercial traveller and chocolate manufacturer, another Quaker who had links to the Fry chocolate business in Bristol. In fact, one of the prominent Fry family members witnesses her marriage and later another acts as executor on her will – so they were almost certainly moving in well-connected Quaker circles, and perhaps working with the Fry family.

She travelled the country with her husband as he conducted his business, a long and arduous process even as the railway network boomed in the mid-19th century. They lived in a succession of grand houses in affluent areas of major cities. Sometimes she employed an unmarried sister as a servant, taking her with them perhaps as much for companionship as work. They never had any children.

When her husband died she was well provided for by dividends of his business, and joined two of her unmarried sisters back in the Somerset area where she’d grown up. Together they raised a young niece.


(Picture reproduced by kind permission of family)

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Elizabeth E’s story

Elizabeth E lived in London at the tail end of the 17th century, in the period directly following the activities of noted bawdy house keeper Elizabeth Cresswell. She appears in the Old Bailey records of the time, being indicted for keeping a “house of evil repute”, or in modern day parlance a brothel. This was in Flower-de-Luce Court – a name now standardised at Fleur-de-Lys – which was off Fetter Lane in the modern-day City of London. Near-contemporary records give this area as a not particularly desirable locality, with a reputation for lewd behaviour.

The Old Bailey reports say that:

“The Evidence Swore that oftentimes there was Swearing, Roaring and Damning all the Night long, drinking to such a pitch, that they would fall out, and cry out Murder. Her House is in Flower-de-luce Court in Fetter-Lane, where there have been several Lewd Women seen to resort, which did great damage not only to the Youth of this City, but to their Masters also; for the Witness Swore that there was a Mercer’s Apprentice in the Town that used to bring his Master’s Goods to the Prisoners, and give them to her, and other Lewd and Wicked Women; she was found guilty.”

As the owner of the bawdy house, with several women working for her, it is probable that Elizabeth was running a successful business, with a reasonable income – which was one way, albeit immoral in the accepted society of the day, for women to stay afloat. The fact that Elizabeth’s house was well known for corrupting local youth – aka apprentices – and their masters may mean that she and her companions were good at their job.

On being found guilty, Elizabeth was fined twenty pounds – a considerable amount of money in those days – and to find sureties for her good behaviour for a calendar year past the trial. She was also made to remain in prison until she had paid the money.

There is no further entry for Elizabeth in the Old Bailey proceedings. She may have paid her fine, served her time, and kept her house in a more discrete manner. However, a prisoner with a similar surname – variations in 17th century spelling precludes an exact match – was buried at a nearby church about five years later. This may also be her, if she was unable to pay her fine and remained in prison.

Elizabeth W’s story

Born into the family of a prosperous Scottish fine art merchant in the earlier part of the 19th century, Elizabeth W did not marry, unlike many of her siblings. While referred to as a spinster by the age of 25, there was enough money in the family for her to continue a life of leisure with her parents in their large Edinburgh property, supported by several servants.

At the age of 43, however, her life changed entirely. Her older widowed sister died, quite suddenly, and left her nine children in her care. These children, two girls and seven boys, ranged in age from six to nineteen – with the eldest at university, and the youngest almost certainly needing a great amount of support. All required loving care and a stable environment. While their parents had left more than enough money to support their children, Elizabeth was suddenly a single parent – albeit one who could afford servants to take on the hard work of the day-to-day care with such a large family.

For the early part of her guardianship, Elizabeth remained in Edinburgh with the children – one became an engineer, another a lawyer. A religious family, it was left to her to continue to instil the values and beliefs of the parents in their children.

Once the older of the girls was married, and the rest of the boys were growing up, several of them took up financial jobs in London. As they initially remained unmarried, and the family wished to remain together, it became pertinent for Elizabeth and the younger children to take up residence in Kent, 400 miles to the south.

The family was based in a large house in the London suburbs, close to the residences of some of the boys. This again had several servants to support their lifestyle. But their comfortable life did not lead to immunity from problems. At least two of Elizabeth’s charges suffered from alcoholism, which in some cases led to family rifts and ostracisms.

In her later years, Elizabeth lived with the younger of her nieces and her husband, in the suburbs of London. This niece did not have children of her own, so the family gently aged together. On dying in Kent in the first decade of the 20th century, Elizabeth left her remaining money to her niece.

Elsie W’s story

Born in rural Devon, Elsie W was the eldest of three children born to a former bootmaker who had taken to agricultural labouring.

In the 1880s, in her early teens, she lost her mother and her father remarried twice, producing more siblings. She spent a little time as a domestic servant in Devon, working for a naval engineer. She then followed her father and newest stepmother to the Bristol area, where he had established a shoemaking business.

At the age of 25 she married a man nearly fifty years her senior, who had been widowed by his first wife only two years previously. He was a Chelsea pensioner, and had run coffee shops among other professions in Bristol throughout the 19th century, but with a wife to support and a new clutch of children appearing, he took to working in a ropemaking establishment to provide money for his family.

Elsie’s first child, a daughter, followed well over a year after their wedding. The next, a boy, died within six months of birth. And a third, a daughter, was born a couple of years later, when her husband had reached the age of 79.

She was widowed at 36, with two daughters to support, and took to running a pub in central Bristol – with a boarder in the house to make ends meet. Her daughters helped run the pub. This pub also operated as an off licence, and she ran it until 1931, when her youngest daughter took over the business.

She died in 1941, at the height of the Bristol Blitz, but was not a victim of any of the bombing raids that destroyed the city at that time.

Sovay’s story

Oral history accounts for a great deal of the women’s experience. This can be handed down to us via family gossip, with these small details adding extra colour to names on paper that would otherwise just be accompanied by dates and lists of children. Another form of oral history is the folk song, which really acts as an amalgam of people’s experiences rather than definite historical fact, but still can give clues to the lives of people in a time when documentation was rare.

The history available to us in folk song may be less specific, but it can give details about assumptions, attitudes and expectations for people’s lives – offering a different glimpse of women and their lives to the one offered by portraits and history books.

Take, for example, the song and story of Sovay, (or Sovai, or Sophie, or Sylvie), the highwaywoman.

Sovay Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array
With a brace of pistols all by her side
To meet her true love, to meet her true love, away did ride

As she was riding over the plain
She met her true love and bid him on his hand
“Stand and deliver, come sir, ” she said
“And If an you do not, and if an you do not, I’ll shoot you dead”

He delivered up his golden store
And still she craved for one thing more
“That diamond ring, that diamond ring that I see you wear
Oh hand it over, oh hand it over, and your life I’ll spare”

“That diamond ring I wouldn’t part
For it’s a token from me sweetheart
You shoot and be damned you rogue” said he
“And you’ll be hanged and you’ll be hanged for murdering me”

Next morning in the garden green
Young Sophie and her love were seen
He spied his watch hanging by her clothes
Which made him blush lads, which made him blush lads like any rose

“Why do you blush you silly thing
I thought to have that diamond ring
T’was I who robbed you all on the plain
So here’s your gold, so here’s your gold and your watch again”
“I only did it for to know
If you were be a man or no
If you had given me that ring she said
I’d have pulled the trigger I’d pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”

A recording of the song can be found here,  performed by Jacqui McShee and The Pentangle, but the song features in the repertoire of many English-language folk singers.

A second folk song (technically a broadside ballad) covering highwaywomen also survives, though is less performed – The Female Frollick, published c1690. This appears to be more focused on satirising unpopular people of the time, giving them the stigma of having been robbed by a woman – and therefore implying that they were somehow weaker than those robbed by a man – and ends in rape when a victim discovers the robber’s sex, again emphasising a power imbalance in this situation. There is also an implication of prostitution, another criminal profession for those women who may have found themselves in need of work without other means of support.

The song of Sovay is often referred to as The Female Highwayman, which the use of “man” is a clue in itself to the fact that highway robbery was not usual for women. The highwayman, for example Dick Turpin, was often a romantic figure, in ballads and other literature of the time (a key period was the later 17th century), and still often seen so today. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the few women who took up the job and lifestyle – for example Mary Frith (aka Moll Cutpurse), Joan Bracey, Ann Meders, Nan Hereford, Margaret Matthews, and Lady Katherine Ferrers (whose portrait illustrates this article) – are remembered in song. Folk song survives by being memorable, so the subject matter – which clearly was unusual for a woman – goes some way to preserving that oral history.

Sovay behaves in a similar way to many of these women: she disguises herself a man (perhaps extra protection for a woman in this business, since a gender swop might confuse the authorities, but there are no tales of highwaymen dressing as women), arms herself, saddles her horse, and robs someone of his gold.

However, where the tale of Sovay differs from Katherine Ferrers et al is motive. Rather than the acquisition of money, which appears to have been a motivating factor on the part of all accounts of highway robbery, Sovay’s motive appears to be insecurity in her relationship. In a world where the punishment for violent robbery was death by hanging, testing the strength of your lover’s feelings for you by going to these lengths seems a bit of a drastic measure, and perhaps there were easier ways to get the same answers. This could be an instance where the oral history gained from folk song falls down slightly in terms of detail. The likes of Moll Cutpurse and her contemporaries took to highway robbery partly for survival, but a romantic motive may have sat better in the minds of the song’s audience than the idea that a woman might be desperate enough to take up a life of crime, and therefore this difference may be a reason why the words of the song survive in folk memory where others do not.

Unlike The Female Frollick, there is no hint of unmanliness on the part of her victim in Sovay. It is more that he proves himself worthy by his actions – which is a more universal trait rather than a political one, and again perhaps a reason that this song still resonates with a modern audience.

However, while we have received these words from history, we have no way of hearing them from a 17th century ear and perspective – and any derogatory or weakness that might have been implied at the time is lost on a more modern audience – and instead we see a woman doing what the men did, albeit for a different reason.

In terms of women’s history, what can we take from the experiences that combined to form Sovay’s story?

That women did turn to a life of crime in terms of need. That disguising your gender was a way of protecting yourself from justice. That women who took up crime were still vulnerable. And that people – whether male or female – will always feel the need to test relationships, even if they don’t go to the dangerous lengths that Sovay did to do so.