Being charged with child neglect is bad enough in this day and age, but being penalised for that crime when you were already locked up and therefore couldn’t physically care for your children seems particularly harsh. This was the case for Margaret, but as someone clearly scratching a living from hawking and possessing a chequered criminal past, perhaps the support and upkeep of her children during this incarceration could have been handled in another manner – even in an era where children and their rights were treated very differently to today.
The trouble with habitual criminals in the Victorian age is that often they gave false names at conviction, and could falsify other details too, so keeping track of them and their misdemeanours through documents can often be a tricky prospect. Thankfully, some were up in front of the courts often enough for judges to recognise them, and correct their names alongside their assumed moniker in the record.
Margaret appears to have been born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, in the early 1850s, the second child of Catholic immigrants from Galway, Ireland. Her father had found work in the city as a mason’s labourer, and she grew up in a family of at least four children. She didn’t receive a great deal of education, and it’s likely that her first employment was around the city’s heavy industry.
By 21, she was pregnant with an illegitimate daughter, and a son followed swiftly afterwards. The 1891 census for Sheffield shows her having taken up with a man, who may or may not have been the children’s father – they’re listed under her surname, not his – and living crammed into one room in a house of multiple occupation. Around them are a file striker, a plumber, bill hanger, general gardener, fancy case maker, brass turner, and spoon fork buffer, all with several people to a room. Her man worked as a ironworks labourer, and was nearly 10 years her senior. He’d had no education whatsoever, was a Church of England worshipper – which may have caused problems among her catholic relatives – and already had had a brush with the law at the age of 19, for threatening another man, and had served six months.
Margaret’s first brush with the justice system happened between the births of her first and second child, when she was fined for stealing clothes. She then received 28 days hard labour for stealing five shirts, when her son was only a few months old. Her children would have been left in the care of her man at this time, and perhaps looked after by someone else in one of the house’s other rooms while he was at work.
However, both Margaret and her partner were in trouble again shortly after this – having together stolen a coat and a vest. Margaret was sentenced to two calendar months in jail, while her partner received four months in the same institution – however, these sentences appear not to have occurred at the same time, as her partner was incarcerated as she was released, presumably to provide consistent childcare.
This pattern continued for Margaret, with a succession of convictions throughout the early 1890s. She stole a coat and hat, and got three months hard labour for that. Another coat only a few months later got her a further three months in the clink, and then she was charged with being drunk and disorderly and was locked up for a week. In between convictions she worked – as a tin worker, and then as a mill hand. She then stole 47 ½ yards of Holland cloth, and received a further four months hard labour.
Her partner appears to have stayed on the straight and narrow through this, but during this last period that Margaret was detained something appears to have changed. He was convicted of cruelty to two children – presumably Margaret’s daughter and son, who may or may not have been his own – while living in Barnsley, and received a month’s hard labour. Cruelty to children – in an era where children were often beaten and repressed as a matter of course in the name of instilling “good” behaviour – appears have been a much lesser crime than stealing clothing, given the more lenient sentence he received.
Despite this conviction, a year after his release Margaret married him. Her son died shortly afterwards, at the age of five. A year or so later two further daughters were born, and she appears to have been better behaved, or at least not been caught. However, there are two more minor convictions – one for assault, one for damaging glass – at the tail end of the 1890s that show that she wasn’t completely on the straight and narrow. She received a calendar month of hard labour for each offence. Another daughter was born just at the turn of the 20th century.
The 1901 census finds the family still crammed into one room in a Sheffield house, with her husband still employed as a furnaceman at the ironworks. Margaret, at this time, was unable to work as she has a very small baby. However, over the next couple of years she is charged with being drunk twice – once while being in charge of a child – and for using obscene language.
She then received six months in Wakefield prison for malicious wounding, and six months after that got a further half year – this time in Sheffield jail – for stealing a suit of clothes. By this stage she was giving her profession as a hawker. She gave birth to a son during this time in prison.
At the time of the conviction for neglecting her children, Margaret was in Derby prison. It’s unclear what she did to end up there – the prison records for Derbyshire at that time are unavailable – but the neglect took place over several dates over six months, so it’s probable that she received a six-month sentence for similar clothes-stealing crimes. The children should by rights have been in the care of their father while she was incarcerated, but in practice – as was seen in his earlier conviction – his care appears to have been minimal at best. He also died very shortly after Margaret was convicted of neglect, so may well have been ill and unable to provide adequate care – hence the blame for the children’s condition falling squarely on her shoulders. Margaret’s charges were that she “unlawfully did wilfully neglect them in a manner likely to cause them unnecessary suffering to their person at Sheffield”. She was discharged, to serve for this crime once her sentence in Derby had come to an end.
Unsurprisingly, with their father dead and their mother incarcerated, the four children were removed from Sheffield and placed in an orphanage in Sussex. Here they would have followed quite a harsh regime, but would been educated and trained, clothed and looked after – which may have seemed settled after their earlier life.
Margaret, once out of prison, still worked as a hawker. The 1911 census records her as a rag and bone hawker, who would have roamed the streets finding useful scrap and selling it on. She lodged with her married sister and family, still in Sheffield, in their tiny lodgings. Her sister worked as a fruit and vegetable hawker, so may well have roamed the streets together.
There are no further convictions, and she lived on in Sheffield until the beginning of the second world war. At least one of her daughters came back to the city once she had grown up.
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.