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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Maud R’s story

Born in India, to an English family, Maud R spent her earliest years in a military camp and then underwent a long sea voyage back home before she was three. She was her parents’ fourth daughter, but only three survived to adulthood.

Settling in Yorkshire during the 1880s, initially both parents were involved in her upbringing, but when she was three her father committed a serious crime and was sent away. Her mother subsequently moved the family, and started taking in boarders to make ends meet. Maud and her siblings went into work when they had finished school, in order to help family finances – Maud went into domestic service, and her two surviving sisters became elementary school teachers.

During the first years of the 20th century, Maud travelled across the Atlantic Ocean. She was initially bound for New York, but ended up in French-speaking Québec, Canada. There, a year or so later, she met and married a soldier of Irish descent, and settled in Québec City, on the banks of the St Lawrence River.

A month later, their first son was born. Two further sons followed over the next five years.

Her husband gave up his job as a soldier, and became a labourer, which would have meant a difference in family finances.

Maud died in Québec, in the months before the start of the First World War. She was 27 years old.

Eliza W’s story

Born in Brighton on the south coast of the UK, Eliza’s father died when she was in her teens. Her mother, a skilled dressmaker, went into clothes making to support the family and taught Eliza and her siblings supporting skills to enhance the business. Eliza learnt to be a milliner, and her elder sister became a fancy girdle maker – all items that a well-dressed woman of the 1850s would require, and between them the women were able to offer a full garments service.

At 19 she met and married a Londoner, who had been working in the printing industry. They had three daughters while living in Brighton, then moved to London. Her husband continued to work as a printer – sometimes lithographic, sometimes music – and Eliza continued to work as a milliner, even while caring for their family, which gradually expanded to ten children.

By the 1880s, their combined earnings had enabled the family to acquire extra property, and Eliza set up two boarding houses in new middle class areas. One of these was run in her family home, by her, and the other was run about a mile away by her second oldest daughter – who also took care of all of her younger sisters at the same time. Their boarders included actresses, German businessmen and travelling Americans, all of whom would have been part of London life at this time.

However, by the turn of the next decade, Eliza’s husband had been incarcerated as a lunatic in an asylum, and she and their children were left without his earnings. As her mother had done several forty years before, Eliza made sure that her children all contributed to the household finances. She stepped up her millinery, and expanded her skills to include dressmaking. One daughter became a milliner too, and others became saleswomen – probably for Eliza’s dresses – and her sons gained employment.

Her husband was never released from the asylum, dying there just before the turn of the century, and Eliza and several of her daughters then moved to the Kent coast to run a boarding house in the popular seaside resorts. This house had twenty rooms, and would have brought in a considerable income during high season. They lived under an assumed name, the reasons for which remain obscure.

The boarding house remained a going concern for at least a decade. Eliza died there, in Kent, in the run up to the First World War.

Rose F’s story

Rose F spent the first months of her life, at the tail end of the 19th century, going in and out of workhouses. Her single mother, who had moved from Yorkshire to London, had no family around to support her, and struggled to survive and find work.

After the first year of her life, these workhouse admissions stop, as her mother’s life clearly became more stable. However, they begin again in when Rose was around 5, when she was joined by a younger brother and sister. Another brief period of stability was shattered when her sister died at the age of two, and again she and her brother bounced in and out of workhouses, both in Yorkshire and London. They were usually accompanied by their mother, who sometimes had work as a charwoman or a spinner or a hawker, but sometimes they were placed in the institutions alone.

Rose was often released from the workhouse “to school”, indicating that despite this instability she was being educated.

At some point in the first decade of the 20th century, Rose ceased to be cared for by her mother. It is probable that her brother did too, but there is no further record of him. She appears on the list of a ship known to regularly transport children to Canada as part of the British Home Children scheme, sending under-privileged children abroad to work as migrant and domestic labour to give them purpose and a better life. Several years were shaved off Rose’s age when she travelled, perhaps indicating that she was small enough to pass for a child of 11 and therefore eligible for the scheme.

Just three years later, she married a Canadian machinist in Ontario, claiming to be 20 years old. She also denied all knowledge of who her mother was on the marriage certificate, which suggests that she had not been in her mother’s care for a good long while.

By the 1921 census of Canada, Rose and her husband had a daughter of their own and were still living in Ontario. There is no further available record of the family.

Mary F’s story

Mary F’s colourful brushes with the law were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.

She appears in court records on eight separate occasions, on offences including larceny (twice, one acquittal, one conviction), wilful damage (thrice, three convictions), drunk and disorderly (once, convicted) and assaulting a police officer (once, convicted). This chequered career takes place across three separate UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and 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. Newspaper reports have her often drunk and disorderly, or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder 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 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. This may have led to her choice of career, 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 working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Gwent – 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.

As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter was born in the mid-1890s, which appears to have stopped 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 her daughter 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.

A couple of years later she had two further children in the north of England, 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 ended up in the workhouse too. At 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 – a girl – 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.

But by the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in the north again. She had no children in her care – it’s probable that they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

There is no further record of her. She may have married in later life, and been buried under another name.

Ellen J’s story

Ellen J was the middle of three daughters, brought up in Gloucestershire in the second half of the 19th century.

Her childhood appears to have been relatively stable, but as an adult she struggled to find work and raise herself from poverty. She appears to have worked as a charwoman when she could find the employment, but spent periods living in the workhouse when work was scarce.

At the age of 43 she was charged with stealing a gold broach, probably from an employer. She was found guilty, and sentenced to 21 days hard labour in jail. It is unknown what form this labour took, but it probably would have been a treadmill or crank, or something equally unconstructive.

On release, she continues to work as a charwoman and spends periods in and out of the workhouse as before.

Seven years later, however, she was again brought before the court – this time for being drunk and disorderly. She was given the choice of a fine of five shillings and threepence, or seven further days hard labour. Her finances clearly being the way they were, it comes as no surprise that she served the sentence.

On release, she returned to the workhouse and occasional charring work. She never married, and died single aged 68.

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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