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.

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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.

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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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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.

Mary Ann Fairlie’s story (v2.0)

Mary Ann Fairlie’s two favourite pastimes appear to have been drinking and breaking windows – and if she was denied the first the second would often follow. Newspapers and prison records from all over Britain recount her breaking windows of pub after pub when the landlord refused to serve her, often on account of her foul language – which was considered unseemly in a woman and therefore reported with gusto. These feisty and colourful brushes with the law give an impression of a woman who flew in the face of mid-Victorian propriety, and went through life on her own path. Drinking and window smashing are only a drop in the ocean of her career through the British courts, and her other charges were as varied as the different jobs she held, and as many as the different places she lived.

She appears in available court records on numerous occasions – and in her native Yorkshire an account towards the end of her life says she was up in front of the judge there nearly 90 times (and more elsewhere) – on a variety of offences including larceny, obscene language, wilful damage, drunk and disorderly, stealing a weight, pilfering money, malicious wounding, pawning furniture that did not belong to her, spending war relief funds on drink, fighting in the workhouse, throwing pot bowls at men, and assaulting a police officer. She was also the victim in several cases, being wounded and assaulted herself, and occasionally deliberately committed offences to get a bed for the night. This chequered career takes place across several UK counties in the 1880s and 90s, when Mary was in her twenties and early thirties, and although clearly painting her as a character of strength and spirit it 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 – although she is charged with stealing money from clients in brothels on a couple of occasions. The copious newspaper reports add colour to the rigid language of the official court documents, and Victorian reporters loved to add embellished language and sensationalised detail. She was often drunk and disorderly – at one time threatening to break the windows of a pub in Mansfield who refused to serve her, and being dragged through the streets on her back afterwards, only showing regret that she’d not finished the job when charged in court and swearing that she’d finish it when she was released – or breaking prison cell windows, and once assaulting a prison warder in Hull gaol 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 with her elder brother 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. The first newspaper report has her drunk in Basingstoke at the age of 16 while of no fixed address. This distance from family may have led to her choice of lifestyle, 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 also working as a hawker – but what she was hawking is open to question. This took her to Bath, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Cardiff and Newport – 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. She does not appear on the 1881 census, probably on account of sleeping in a hedge while on the move and not being picked up by the enumerators.

As she entered her thirties, she moved to London and one of the consequences of prostitution followed. Her daughter Rose was born in the mid-1890s, the pregnancy coinciding with an 8-month stay in Wormwood Scrubs for breaking yet more windows, which appears to have reduced 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 Rose 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.

She went north again, and having briefly reappeared in Hull next surfaces in Manchester jail, having got a further six month’s imprisonment while working as a factory hand in Dewsbury. Presumably Rose was left with family during this period. This prison record reports that she was quite tall for a woman of the time, dark haired, with a damaged right elbow and a previously broken jaw. She also had old boyfriend’s names tattooed on her arm and chest, along with a heart and a sailor’s symbol. Tattoos were not uncommon among the Victorian working classes, particularly in the communities surrounding the sea-faring industry, but may also have marked her out as property of these men, who may have acted as her pimps.

A couple of years later, after another court appearance for fighting in Hull workhouse, she had two further children (David and Lillian), 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 spending time in the workhouse too. Around 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 Lillian 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.

A newspaper article from 1905 has her charged with being drunk in charge of a child under seven years, while hawking flowers at a station just outside London. She says her husband is a sailor who has not paid maintenance to the children for two years, but this would appear to be a lie as there is no record of a marriage. She pleads her case and apologises profusely, and says that she will make up her debt to society providing that she is not separated from her children. However, that is exactly what happened as she was jailed for one calendar month.

By the end of that decade, Mary was alone and living back in Hull again. She had no children in her care – after she was jailed they’d gone into children’s homes for a “better” life, with Rose ending up in Canada with the British Home Children Scheme and David in an industrial school in Dartford – and was living in one room and working again as a hawker.

The removal of her children appears to have been detrimental, and the court appearances continue. She was found guilty of spending war relief money on drink not long after the outbreak of the First World War.

Rather surprisingly, in 1915 she got married. This was to a dock labourer called Thomas, who was at least a decade younger than her if not more. This may have been more of necessity than love, however, as she spent most of the next three years in and out of hospital suffering from catarrh and a heart complaint and probably needed the help and extra support.

She died in late 1919, while sewing one Friday night in bed. Apparently she fell backwards and expired immediately – as dramatic an end to her life as it had been lived. She was buried in Hull.

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This post originally appeared in 2017, but has been further researched and updated.