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.

Susannah P’s story

Susannah was a ballet dancer, which means a very different thing in today’s culture than it did in the 1870s – when it basically equated to an immoral woman with connotations of prostitution, and she was treated accordingly. She ended up in a reform home.

Today we have a particular social and cultural view of ballet dancers – it’s high culture, an aspirational discipline characterised by hard work and sacrifice, and full of grace and beauty. Women who perform it are seen as wholesome and hardworking. This view – in the UK at least – really comes from the work of Dame Ninette De Valois and her ilk, founding the Royal Ballet School in the mid-1920s and bolstering the art form’s reputation and standing in society at that time.

In Susannah’s time as a ballet dancer – and you’d perhaps hesitate to call her a ballerina, as that word has many unspoken nuances that link it to the French and Russian traditions – the dance form and its connotations were very different. While she called herself a ballet dancer on one census return, ballet in the UK of the 1870s was more music hall and variety show dancing in a troupe, perhaps as part of a pantomime, than the crisp corps de ballet of Swan Lake or Coppélia. And while ballet of that form was still being performed on the continent, displays of it were rare in the UK – and instead the more popular view of a ballet dancer was a performer in an entertainment.

Britain had had some exposure to the high art form of ballet earlier in the 19th century. Indeed, by the 1840s the great romantic ballerinas of the age – Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler – had toured Europe, including the UK, and had been widely seen. However, while the Russian and French ballet traditions continued, interest dimmed in the UK – perhaps as the country did not produce its own great romantic ballerina (Clara Webster was prophesised to become this icon, but sadly died after a costume caught fire in 1844).

At the same time, middle- and high-class Victorian moralising was intensifying, and ballet and theatrical costumes often exposed far more female flesh than was considered proper for the time. Degas paintings, for example, had a titillating element to them that we might not recognise today, and were a form of pornography for their era.

Degas painting

It was against this background that Susannah went on the stage as a ballet dancer. It appears to have been a career that she fell into rather than deliberately chose.

She was born in London in the mid-1840s, and was one of six siblings – although an older sister had died before she was born. The family appear relatively well off. Her father, Edward, had been a confectioner when his oldest children were born and by the time Susannah arrived he gave his profession as a cook.

A male cook in this era was unusual. Domestic cooks were invariably women, employed and accommodated in bigger houses, whereas Susannah’s father appears to have lived at home. His prior occupation of confectioner gives more of a clue to his career. Male employed cooks were usually responsible for high end and intricate food – into which category confectionary fell – in very stately homes or hotels. In fact, Edward was employed by Judge Sir John Jervis, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and was cook to the household alongside another man. The job required some travelling – the 1851 census finds Edward at work in Norfolk, while Susannah and her mother and siblings are at home in London.

Vaughan Terrace Hoxton

Her father’s job was clearly a relatively lucrative one, and Susannah and her sisters and brother didn’t need to go out to work as they grew up. Although not rich, they would have enjoyed activities from the expanding middle class. Her older sister Sarah was educated until at least the age of 14, and it’s likely that Susannah and her sisters Louisa and Emma were included in that. It’s also likely that the girls of the family would have had some dancing instruction – although not from Marie Taglioni, who didn’t teach in the UK until the late 1870s – which would have stood them in good stead for later on.

Her father was clearly on the rise. The family began while he and his wife Sarah were living in the Barbican area, but they soon moved to a smart town house now on Shepherdess Walk in Hoxton, and then later they were in cottages in Caledonian Road, Barnsbury. Sir John Jervis died in 1856, but their lifestyle continued so it is probable that Edward found similar work.

Susannah’s next youngest sister Louisa married a wine merchant in 1864, although this did not work out (and is a subject for another blog), and her older sister Sarah appeared to leave the family – but whether this was marriage, death or work is unclear. However, things changed completely when Susannah’s father died in 1868.

Her mother suddenly lost her source of income and the lifestyle they had previously enjoyed. She moved the family to Drury Lane – the heart of London’s theatre district – and put Susannah, at this stage aged 27 and unmarried, and her younger sister Emma on the stage. The 1871 census describes Susannah and her sister as “performer”, although it is not specific which theatre they are working in. Their younger brother – Edward – is bringing in money as a fishing rod maker, so it is clear that all three children are supporting the family by whatever means possible. Susannah and Emma must have had enough talent and instruction from their more privileged former life to gain jobs as performers – and its Susannah’s later description of herself as a ballet dancer that leads to the assertation that they were probably taking part in the more music hall/pantomime productions of the era.

Pantomime and light entertainment ballet was flourishing at this time. Many new venues had opened in preceding years – Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, the Oxford near Tottenham Court Road, South London Palace near the Elephant and Castle, and the Adelphi Theatre. But Susannah and Emma were more likely employed at the Alhambra Theatre and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square. The Alhambra had a reputation for lavish ballet “spectaculars”, performed by vast numbers of dancers exhibiting entertainment that promoted patriotic pride and the culture of the day.

Three clowns 1870s

This was a precarious life, and not without its dangers. Gas lights in theatres and flammable fabrics used in costumes made burns a constant risk. The most famous victim of this was Emma Livry – who was burned after an accident with a gas lamp in a rehearsal at the Paris Opera in 1862, and died following the wounds in July 1863. However, an account of a fire during a pantomime of Richard Coeur de Lion, at the Surrey Theatre on Blackfriars Road in 1865, gives an impression of the sort of performance Susannah and her sister Emma would have been part of. The show’s clown, Rowella, was performing a burlesque solo on the trombone when the fire was noticed, and it was thanks to his efforts and other pantomime performers that the troupe of flimsily dressed ballet girls also appearing in the entertainment were saved. Thankfully, Susannah and Emma were not part of this world at the time, but the backstage world could be a risky place.

While Emma married in 1875, and left performing, Susannah continued. Her mother died in 1879, which may well have made her even more reliant on her income from the stage.

However, by the 1880s this stopped. The 1881 census finds her in the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution, the origins of which was explored in Hephzibah’s story. While this, by modern standards, may seem an odd place to find a ballet dancer, the moral background surrounding performers did not sit well with society’s improvers. Male theatre patrons would buy sexual favours from ballet dancers and actresses – this was part of the lifestyle and a way to make extra money. Therefore, Susannah was, whether she engaged in this practice or not, a fallen woman in terms of the society surrounding her.

As someone who had previously been of a good family, Susannah was ideally placed to be taken in by the ideals of the Female Preventive and Reformatory Institution. Those who ran the programme, who actively recruited women on the streets and around the theatre district, felt that those who had been brought up morally but had fallen into disrepute could be saved by their good work.

The work of the institution trained inmates for a new and moral life, offering them preparation for work as domestic servants and finding them good positions when they had reformed. Susannah, at this time, was 37 but claimed to be 30. It may be that she was getting tired from the rigors of performing, and was looking for a way out – so, whether she worked as a prostitute as well as a dancer or not, she may have felt that this was a chance at a new life.

After her retraining was over, she was supposed to be found a domestic placement to support her going onwards. Whether this happened or not isn’t clear – there are a couple of plain Susans (rather than the more flamboyant Susannah) on the 1891 census, working as cooks in big houses, but no one answering her exact name. It’s also possible that she was using her middle name – Elizabeth – for this new life, but there isn’t an exact fit for her here either. There is a reference to a Susannah of about the right age entering the workhouse in 1882, declared insane. This woman was removed after a while by “friends” – who, if this was our Susannah, could have been either from the theatre or the reformatory. But again, there is no definite proof this is Susannah the dancer.

What is certain, however, is that she lived to a great age and was buried under her own full name. She died in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, aged 92. And is buried in Greenwich.

Hephzibah C’s story

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a “fallen woman”.

Today we’d probably think of that term applying to a sex worker, or perhaps someone involved in drug dealing or organised crime.

To educated and aspirational social climbing Victorians however, with their drive to live godly and moral lives, the term had many different connotations. Fallen women were not necessarily prostitutes, but those women who had been “ruined” in some way – those who had lost their innocence (whether by accident or design) or virtue, or extreme poverty, and had therefore fallen from the grace of God. Fallen women were considered to have stepped outside the boundaries of what was socially and morally acceptable – therefore rape victims and those engaging in extra-marital affairs would also be included in that bracket. Just the women though. Not men who engaged in visiting prostitutes or extramarital sex. Which is a damning double standard. Theatre types – dancers and actresses, who would often perform in clothing that was more revealing and/or were known for entertaining patrons – were also included in the fallen women bracket.

Hephzibah was involved in the mid-Victorian drive to try to improve the lives of fallen women – or indeed eradicate this scourge from society. She was the youngest of several children – mostly girls – being brought up by non-conformist parents on the outskirts of London. Born in the late 1820s, her labourer father died when she was 17, and her widowed mother moved the family to West Ham. Hephzibah and her next oldest sister Betsy kept the family solvent by making dresses and hats, while their mother continued with her domestic duties. Neither of them ever married. With their mother, Hephzibah and Betsy helped to bring up their widowed brother’s children.

After their mother died at the tail end of the 1860s, Hephzibah moved in with their brother to keep house for him and continue to raise her nieces and nephews, while Betsy took her dressmaking business to her sister’s house.

During the 1870s the movement to improve society by rehabilitating women deemed fallen was gaining traction, and in London Hephzibah and Betsy – as virtuous unmarried women in their 40s with deep Christian faith – were well placed to become part of the process.

The midnight meeting movement, known for carrying out its work at night when those it was attempting to save, would hold events for fallen women in the less salubrious London districts. Street women would be invited to a lecture hall and then given food. Afterwards they would addressed by various gentlemen present in the hall in order to get them to repent and change their ways. One newspaper article at the time said that great emotion was shown on the part of some of the women, who had evidently been trained by Sunday Schools or brought up by Christian parents. If they were willing to be rescued they were sent to live in a premises belonging to the Female Preventative and Reformatory Institution. For each woman saved, the secretary of that organisation received £5 from the midnight meeting movement.

By 1881 Hephzibah was a housekeeper in charge of one of these homes for fallen women on Euston Square in London, rehabilitating women and training them to be placed in domestic service or other gainful employment. Her sister Betsy was the matron of the same institution. This was not unlike the Catholic system of penitentiaries at convents for young women and girls who had strayed away from the path of “good morals”, but was accessed by those of all denominations, and were seen more as social reform than purging evil from the spirit.

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The homes for fallen women were part of this educated Victorian drive to improve society – whether religion-driven, or based on social reform principles – by returning these women to a moral life. Some were reportedly stricter than others, while at least some appeared understanding as to the factors and needs that had driven their inmates to the place they had found themselves.

This was usually by strict, structural measures for living, with a good dose of Christianity, and very little wriggle room for inmates. There were many such establishments in cities of the time, particularly in London, and the most famous of these was Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, set up and run by Charles Dickens and Lady Burdett-Coutts, and was set up in the 1840s.

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This particular home in Euston Square had been founded in 1857, as one of five by 1863, as the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution. By this point the homes were run under Reverend Edward W Thomas, alongside his wife Maria, and were dependent on voluntary contributions from the public to keep going. Euston Square received and dealt with all the applications for the whole suite of homes, so part of Hephzibah and Betsy’s jobs would have been welcoming new inmates into the system. They employed a female registrar to help with the paperwork and placing.

Inmates at Euston Square were given “womanly” tasks to undertake – domestic work, laundry and needlework – during the day, then in the evening they were also taught to read and write. Hephzibah and Betsy would have been at the forefront of this drive for a moral pathway, exhibiting deep faith and “proper” behaviour for women, but also would have been involved in the care of women who had lived at the sharp end of poverty and neglect – so would have seen and known a great deal of what went on in the less-documented reaches of Victorian society. Once the inmates had been reformed and were considered to be back on a moral pathway, they were found suitable situations – usually domestic servant positions in the houses of the wealthy.

Initially the Euston Square home had been intended for “the unfallen”, so poor rather than immoral women, whereas the other four were designated as reformatories. It’s possible that this distinction had gone by 1881, however. Adverts portrayed the homes as for the “Friendless and Fallen”. “Nearly 200 poor young females are fed, lodged, clothed, and instructed, and, after probation, are provided with suitable situations,” says one of the adverts appealing for donations. More about the home and the institution as a whole can be found here: http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonLFPRI/

Under Hephzibah and Betsy’s care on the 1881 census there are 29 women. Most are training to be general servants, though there is one ballet dancer there. By 1891 the situation is very similar, as the inmates include an actress, but Hephzibah and Betsy have left the home and a Sarah Hamer has taken over instead. At this time there were at least six homes in the scheme, plus an all-night refuge that anyone could wander into. An advert asking for donations at Christmas in 1884 says that they had 192 women and girls in the homes at that point, and 5000 meals needed to be provided each week.

Hephzibah, after leaving the employ of the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution, founded a lodging house in Lewisham – putting her considerable housekeeping skills to good use, but perhaps with less troublesome boarders. However, most of her residents were her sisters – Betsy, widowed Eliza, and Susannah who had worked as a servant and never married.

As she aged, Hephzibah’s deep faith and Christian good works meant that she was an ideal candidate for an alms house. She moved into the Bethel Asylum, a set of twelve dwellings intended for aged women, on Havil Street in Camberwell. Though called an asylum, it was actually just a more comfortable place for women like her to spend their final years. The building, now private housing, is two storeys high and grade II listed. She lived with a group of other elderly women together in the building.

Hephzibah died in 1918, aged 89. She was still living at the Bethel Asylum at the time. Betsy had predeceased her in 1912.

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.

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 available court records on at least 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. Copious newspaper reports have her often drunk and disorderly – at one time threatening to break the windows of a pub who refused to serve her, and only showing regret that she’d not finished the job when charged in court – 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, Cardiff 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. She does not appear on the 1881 census, probably as she was sleeping in a hedge while on the move and did not get picked up by the enumerators.

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.

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. 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 the north again. She had no children in her care – it’s probable that after she was jailed 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. Or she may have died on the road while hawking, and her body and name went unidentified.

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.