Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Remaking The Victorian Slum

Earlier this month, I gave a talk on life in a Victorian slum at the British Crime Historians Symposium, where I looked at how the press depicted those who lived in a particular Welsh slum at the end of the 19th century.

Reportage relating to the London slums, from the Aberdeen Journal, 2 January 1894 (via British Newspaper Archive)

Reportage relating to the London slums, from the Aberdeen Journal, 2 January 1894 (via British Newspaper Archive)

The Victorian press increasingly, as the century progressed, looked at slum life in very black and white terms, and this was particularly noticeable when newspapers discussed the female residents.

They were either domestic angels – fighting their grim surroundings by trying to present as clean a face to the world as possible (both in terms of their own looks, and those of their house, whitewashing walls, keeping their rooms tidy, and so on) – or slatterns, unfeminine women with their sleeves rolled up, exposing – the horror – bare arms and fighting in the street with other women, whilst their children roamed around with local animals, both kids and animals being hungry and neglected.

This black and white depiction of slum dwellers, its reliance on generalisations rather than the individual experience, has also been evident in two contemporary media items this week.

Firstly, we had the opening episode of The Victorian Slum on BBC2. This ‘reality’ series, fronted, rather oddly, not by a historian but by a scientist, recreates a Victorian slum (apparently a set) and fills it with 21st century residents, in order to show them coping with the trials of life as a member of the 19th century underclass.

The series is arranged in a chronological fashion, so the opening episode was, apparently, the 1860s. We had the familiar tropes of Victorian working-class depictions, so a shared tenement, doss house, outdoor privy, and so on. A range of occupations were shown, including the doss house keeper and matchbox makers.

So far, so good; but the episode was full of sweeping generalisations that failed to show the wide range of experiences of Victorian life.  It’s a drawback of limited time that such programmes assume that our ancestors lived a far more hegemonous life than we do today – yet they had an individual experience, just as we do now.

Not everyone in a doss house slept standing up over ropes, because doss houses were different. Not everyone failed to make a living sufficient to keep their families going, even if they never managed to move out of their working-class area. But this episode of The Victorian Slum made it look like everyone went through the same experience, thus making Victorian history (or this version of it) both simplistic and misleading.

We also had incredibly clean faces and clothes on these individuals; the watercress sellers were sent to Covent Garden, where, unsurprisingly, the tourists were keen to give the strangely dressed people with a TV crew accompanying them lots of money. The money was also modern rather than the 19th century equivalent, which made modern life intrude rather strangely into the programme.

A view of the courtyard at the National Trust's Birmingham back-to-backs (image by NotFromUtrecht, on Wikimedia Commons)

A view of the courtyard at the National Trust’s Birmingham back-to-backs (image by NotFromUtrecht, on Wikimedia Commons)

It’s also very much a London-based programme. Life in the Manchester slums, as Engels described in the 1840s, could be particularly grim; my research into the slums of Birmingham and Newport has revealed differences to the London experience. Therefore, the series provides a generalised, simplistic view of one particular region, rather than a more nuanced account of how life in the slums could vary from place to place – not just form the 1860s to 1870s, for example.

Meanwhile, on the BBC’s online Magazine site today, we had The Victorian Slum‘s presenter, Michael Mosley, give us his guide to ‘how to eat like a Victorian‘. Unsurprisingly, this was a similarly generalised perspective – ‘slum dwellers…lived mainly on bread, gruel and broth’, and ‘the children of the slums were undernourished, anaemic, rickety and very short’ (what, ALL of them?).

Then we are told that ‘most people’ had physically demanding jobs that meant ‘they were active for 50 to 60 hours a week’, and later, that ‘many Victorians’ worked a 12 hour, six day week (so 72 hours a week). Does he mean ‘most people’ or most working class people, or most working class men, or simply, SOME people?

food poisoning in the Victorian era

A Victorian family eating – from Paul Townsend’s Flickr stream

The meals are described as though everyone from a certain class would have eaten the same way, regardless of their job, their location (what about differences between rural agricultural workers and urban workers?), their age, or health.

So although it’s great that there is this continued interest in the press and on television about life for our Victorian ancestors, the generalisations and simplistic recreations of Victorian life actually risk distorting what life was really like, creating a false history that becomes, like Chinese whispers, gradually accepted.

And the biggest disappointment, for me, is the failure to recognise the individuality of life and existence, and to assume, instead, that what life was like for one man or woman was fundamentally identical to others, because of their shared class.



The second episode of The Victorian Slum is on Monday 17 October at 9pm on BBC2.

BCHS5 review: A Coven of Crime Historians

I’m not sure what you call a group of crime historians meeting together. My first suggestion on Twitter was this:

Edinburgh University's Old College, location for this year's BCHS

Edinburgh University’s Old College, location for this year’s BCHS

Although Helen Rogers then suggested ‘a trouble’ (also good); but despite us not being remotely witch-like, I’ve finally gone with ‘coven’ – a word meaning a meeting that was first recorded in writing in 16th century Scotland. And this Scots link is particularly relevant.

For last weekend saw the fifth British Crime Historians Symposium (BCHS) take place in the rather grand surroundings of the Old College of the University of Edinburgh.

BCHS is an event that takes place every two years, where crime historians can gather to discuss their latest research, to debate history and crime, and to just generally socialise with others with similar interests!

We’re all a grim lot, I suppose, being interested in crime and deviance over a wide timespan and geographical scope. Yet BCHS has always shown how friendly crime historians are – from my experience, it’s one of the most enjoyable conferences to attend, with a really good atmosphere.

Generally, crime historians are very supportive to others, and therefore the questions after individual papers and panels tend to be more interesting and less combative (or insecure, depending on how you read it) than at some other conferences.

The Digital Panopticon homepage - BCHS attendees got to play with its data

The Digital Panopticon homepage – BCHS attendees got to play with its data

It must be good, for this is the third BCHS event I’ve attended; at my first, in Milton Keynes in 2012, I was on a panel with the ace Lucy Williams. Both of us were doing our PhDs at the time; of course, we’ve both finished now, and she is now working on the Digital Panopticon project – a truly collaborative project between several universities – which was represented by several members of the team this year, presenting various aspects of the research they’ve conducted, as well as detailing what the project is up to.

We were also able to take part in a workshop with access to the Digital Panopticon beta website, and it was good to be able to see what the project will eventually be able to offer not just crime historians, but anyone trying to research their family history, too.

What was particularly enjoyable this year was the increasing number of historians and papers looking at visual evidence – from newspaper illustrations to crime scene photographs, the visual can give us evidence about people’s lives just as well as text can. One of the most interesting panels for me was on photography, science and medicine.

Alexa Neale presenting her paper on crime scene photography

Alexa Neale presenting her paper on crime scene photography

Alexa Neale‘s paper on the evidence left by mid-20th century crime scene photographs was fascinating; not only because such photographs document lifestyles in west London slums – areas that are now far beyond gentrification to being locations where only the riches members of society can live. But they also show the minutiae of people’s lives, as well as marking the location where they died.

Alexa’s paper was followed by Amy Bell‘s on the crime scene photography of illegal abortion sites. Again looking at London in the mid-20th century, prior to the legalisation of abortion, and again utilising photographs really well in her presentation, these looked at the juxtaposition of domestic scenes with the medical paraphernalia of abortion tables, rubber sheets and buckets.

Perhaps the most striking image, though, was of the grim flat where one woman was given an illegal abortion by her friends – a dirty, grimy, cluttered space where, in the tiny kitchen, a cereal packet advertising a competition to win a new home was left on a surface. Again, the juxtaposition of this woman’s life with the promise of a new one – set against her own, awful, death – was moving.

Finally, we moved back to the 19th century, and Kelly Ann Couzens‘ paper on a rape case that came before the Scottish courts. This again focused on people from the lowest rung of society – those living in tiny, multiple-occupancy flats where there was precious little privacy, and where victims of crime faced difficulties in getting those in positions of authority to believe them.

Entrance to the Old College's Playfair Library

Entrance to the Old College’s Playfair Library

But this was just one great panel of many; from murder narratives (Clare Sandford-Couch and Helen Rutherford) to juvenile sex offenders (Yorick Smaal), transportation to policing (Clive Emsley, Chris Williams, Haia Shpayer-Makov), baby farming (Jim Hinks) to corruption in horse racing (Vivien Miller), it was all here, with participants attending from all over the world, from Scotland to Australia.

Julia Laite deserves special mention for her excellent plenary paper, which looked at the difficulties (or frustrations) in trying to construct a micro-history that has transatlantic elements – from dealing with archives in different countries (and the attendant language issues), to working out why a picture of an Australian town features a camel strutting down the high street! There were several heads nodding, as other historians clearly related to Julia’s experiences.

And that’s why we all come together for BCHS. It’s an opportunity to talk to others, to hear about their experiences, and to relate to them – we’re part of a community of historians who are all undertaking our own research yet are fascinated by, and supportive, of others’.

It was great to hear from some new and fairly new research students undertaking some really interesting work – and by the time of BCHS6 in 2018 (due to be held at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk), who knows what else they will have to tell us?

These tweets really sum up the weekend for me…

The evidence of Annie McCann

A Glasgow slum, from the special collections of Glasgow University, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

A Glasgow slum, from the special collections of Glasgow University, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The Farrells had only lived upstairs for the past few months – only a wee while, since the beginning of 1905, I’d say, so I did nae really know them well; but they made their presence clear by their noise and their arguments. She? She liked a wee dram – well, more than that, for she was a drinker all right. But if I were married to him, I’d need a drink too. And he was no saint, neither, for he had a drink or too on occasion, and when he’d had a drink, he liked to use his fists. At least she wasn’t like that.

I talked to Mary Ann Winters after what happened. She’s just 13, one of the lasses from the courts off Cowgate. On the night it happened, she said she was playing with Mary Gorman in Hall’s Court, and heard quarrelling coming from the window of the Farrells’ tenement. To be honest, we all heard it; it was a regular thing at the weekend for the Farrells to fight. But then Mary Ann said she heard Annie shout, “Police!” and “Murder!” – and then she moaned, as if someone was in pain.

Did she try and find out what was going on? No, of course she didn’t. That’s life round here – there are fights, shouts for the police… When the men get paid on a Friday eve, they go and buy whisky, get drunk, pick fights. It doesn’t matter who they’re with – workmates, relatives, wives, strangers – they’ll pick a fight with them.

He, Tom, was a labourer for the Edinburgh Corporation Electric Lighting Department. Grand name he had – Thomas Anderson Farrell, the Anderson after his ma. He wasn’t old; the papers said he was 28, but I think he could have been a few years older. His wife, Annie, was a MacAdam before she wed.

Blackfriars Street today

Blackfriars Street today

We all lived at 36 Blackfriars Street, in the Old Town – living above each other, so we could hear our neighbours going about their daily business, and saw a lot of them, passing each other on the stairs. The Farrells were at the bottom – just one room, they had; that, and the coal cellar. It was just them, though, for even thought they had been married several years, they had no children.

The morning after the murder, Tom came knocking on the door. I answered it, and all he said was, “Annie’s gone”. He asked me to come into his house and see her; I did so, but never knew he meant she was dead. Well, not until I saw her, lying there on the bed, cold. She was covered in bruises; different sizes, but they were everywhere.

I told Tom to call the police, but he refused to. I must have raised my voice, for others from our building were roused. One of my other neighbours, a man, looked in, and immediately departed for the police office – I believe he told them what we’d seen. But as soon as he had left the house, Tom ushered me out, left with me, and locked the door behind him. Then, without a word, he left up Blackfriars Street.

The High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh

The High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh

Luckily, it turned out that Annie had given a spare key to one of my other neighbours. When the police turned up, they were able to open the door with that key, and so when Tom returned, and tried to use his key, he found the door unlocked, and the police within. That gave him a fright! They took him straight into custody, and I later saw Annie’s body taken away – the poor woman was taken, rigid and blue, to the city mortuary to be cut open.

Aye, I followed the story in the papers. I knew that he would be tried at the High Court of Justiciary, but not that he would look so smart. They never used to have any money, the Farrells, once they’d spent on the drams of whisky they seemed to live on (her more than him, though, to be fair). Yet the papers said he looked smart.

But they also said that a couple of years before she died, someone – either Tom or his brother – had put a notice in the paper saying that Annie had died. She hadn’t; she was merely in hospital, poorly, but was soon released. It was a bit odd, that, putting a death notice in the papers when she was very much alive.

It was strange, too, seeing me mentioned in the trial reports. There were several of us, though, called to give evidence in court, which was terrifying, to be honest, as I had never set foot in there before – I am a law abiding woman.

The court had already heard from family. Annie’s sister, Susan Murray, said Annie – whhad been a servant before she married – was addicted to drink. I think she was trying to say that Tom married Annie for her money; when she was in service, she managed to save a fair amount, and after their marriage, Tom lived off her money for a good six months. Basically, he spent it all.

They had to move to Manchester to try and get a living, but then moved back to Edinburgh, and into Blackfriars Street at the start of this year. Susan said they lived ‘in great poverty’ here; well, it’s true, none of us have much money, but we all look out for each other here, we know each other and there are few secrets. Like Susan said, we had all seen Annie with a black eye here and there. But the Farrells didn’t have much money left for food; two days before she died, Annie had eaten nothing, and on the Saturday, all she’d had was a cup of tea and a boiled egg.

I’m not surprised that Tom’s brother Alex made his sibling out to be a saint. It’s what families tend to do, although Susan and her husband weren’t too nice about Annie. But Alex said Annie was a drunk, and Tom wasn’t. He may not have drunk as much as her, but he still drank, that’s for sure.

When I was called, I told them what I knew. The night before the murder, before the two girls had heard Annie shout for the police, I had heard her too. It was between six and seven o’clock in the evening of the seventeenth, I’d say, and I was in the house. I heard Annie cry, “Oh, Tam, don’t, and I’ll make your dinner.” I was worried about her – for, as I say, we look out for each other here – and I went down and knocked at the door. Tom answered, and was rather rude to me; he told me to go and mind my own business.

I next saw her a few hours later,  about 10 o’clock, on the stairs with a jug of beer. That was the last time I saw her – alive, at any rate.

Weir's Close, Edinburgh (from the Library of Congress)

Weir’s Close, Edinburgh (from the Library of Congress)

Several of our neighbours in the building – Elizabeth Tait, Catherine Casey, William Stafford – gave evidence about the fighting and the drinking, too, as well as Pat Tansy from Weir’s Close, and Catherine Shanley from Hall’s Court.

We said how when the Farrells fought, often on a Friday night, Annie would sometimes have to sleep away from home, to avoid him. She might knock on our doors and ask if she could share our bed for the night, but on occasion she had slept in privies, just to have a roof of some kind over her head.

It was 30 August when the trial started. He pleaded not guilty, saying Annie had died after a fall – even though the coroner had clearly said she had been beaten and kicked to death. Her spleen had been ruptured; the poor woman had died of shock.

Lord Ardwall. (c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation; accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Ardwall. (c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation; accessed via Wikimedia Commons

I was still in court when the verdict was announced. There was a whole crowd of us; neighbours, family, friends, and those who didn’t know the Farrells but were just simply being nosey. The trial had lasted all day, until nine in the evening.

The judge, Lord Ardwall, said that there could be no ‘reasonable doubt’ that Annie’s injuries were inflicted by someone other than herself, and that they had caused her death. He wasn’t sure that a murderous intention could be proved, though, and so didn’t think a verdict of murder against Tom would be ‘safe’. It’s not surprising, then, that the jury reached a verdict so quickly. They found Tom guilty of culpable homicide, and Lord Ardwall sentenced him to ten years’ penal servitude.

Do I think it was the right verdict? I don’t know. But what I do know is that in ten years, Tom will still be in his 30s, he’ll have the rest of his life ahead of him, while poor Annie turns into dust. She may have liked a drink, but that was no reason to beat the poor woman to death, was it?

Annie McCann was one of the neighbours who gave evidence at the trial of Thomas Anderson Farrell at Edinburgh’s High Court. This account uses both her testimony and that of unnamed witnesses, taken from trial reports and press coverage in the Edinburgh Evening News, 31 August 1905; Hull Daily Mail, 19 June 1905; Aberdeen Journal, 19 June 1905; Edinburgh Evening News, 30 August 1905; Edinburgh Evening News, 31 August 1905; Gloucestershire Echo, 31 August 1905. However, accounts have been paraphrased.

A Tale of Two Sisters: The poisoners of Victorian Liverpool

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

Road to Versailles, by Camille Pissarro

It was a snowy morning in Lancashire, as the two women were brought out to the scaffold in the prison yard. They showed no sign of the cold, though, as they climbed up onto it, and were pinioned. Displaying a little nervousness, they stood there, eyes closed, their mouths moving silently as they repeated prayers over and over, over and over. Then their white caps were pulled over their pale faces, and, as the snow fell, their executioner pulled back a lever, and they fell to their deaths.

There they hanged, motionless, as the snow continued falling around Kirkdale Gaol, a gentle, floating snow that was at odds with the violent scene that had taken place in its midst.(1)


The women were not strangers, or even friends. They were sisters. Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins both lived in Liverpool, but there was considerable debate about where they were originally from. In the xenophobic, anti-Irish late 19th century, it was speculated that they were both Irish born; but other sources said that they were Scottish, from Dumfries, where their relatives still lived.

Some reports, though, had Higgins admit to being from a village near Belfast, and having migrated to Liverpool with her parents and sister when she was ten. What was known was that Catherine was the elder sister, being around 55 years old; Margaret was some 14 years her junior.

Mrs Flanagan had one trait that in other circumstances would have been commended – she was rather frugal. She spent little, to the extent of being regarded as miserly, and it was said that her favourite occupation was that of acquiring money.

Late 19th century Liverpool

Late 19th century Liverpool

With savings she had accumulated when young, she opened a beer house near Liverpool’s docks – a poor area but one that would guarantee good custom from the local workers. However, she did not like rules and regulations, and soon came to the attention of the police for opening on Sundays, and for the illicit activities that took place in her tavern. After several convictions, she was forced to close her beer house down.

She then put her financial skills to better use by setting up as a money lender. She borrowed money from local loan offices, and then lent it to her hard-up neighbours, in small sums, but charging interest of fourpence in every shilling. She then started dealing with burial societies – with rather a grim result.

The most noteworthy thing about her sister Margaret was that she had had two husbands – her first was a labourer, an Orangeman from Northern Ireland. He died under suspicious circumstances, and it was rumoured that she may have murdered him. She then married again – one Thomas Higgins. He soon died, after insurance policies had been taken out on him.

Suspicions were aroused, and in a dramatic fashion, his funeral was halted by police in order for his body to be examined. At this point, Flanagan disappeared – it took a week for her to be apprehended. An inquest was duly held on Thomas Higgins’ body, starting just after Christmas in 1883. On 4 January 1884, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against both sisters.

It then emerged that Flanagan had previously taken in a young lodger at her home on Skirvin Street – 18-year-old Margaret Jennings, who had also died under suspicious circumstances (2). Once the sisters had been charged with Thomas’s death, an order was submitted for Margaret’s body to be exhumed. It was believed that the women had killed both in order to get their life insurance.

Two more charges came; one that they had also poisoned Catherine’s son John, and the other, that they had also killed Margaret’s step-daughter, Mary Higgins. John, aged 22, had been buried four years earlier (3); his body was exhumed from its grave at Ford Cemetery, near Liverpool, and was found to be ‘wonderfully’ preserved. His corpse was found to be full of arsenic. John had been insured with a number of burial societies and insurance agents for a total of £71.

Madame Lafarge - another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Madame Lafarge – another woman accused of using arsenic to kill

Mary Higgins (called Sarah in some reports) had died in November 1882, aged 12 (4),  shortly after Margaret had taken out various death insurance policies on her. Her body was exhumed towards the end of January 1884, and again found to contain arsenic. Both Sarah’s and John’s bodies were reinterred after their post-mortems; no inquests were allowed to be held as more than a year had passed since their deaths.

Faced with the evidence of the insurance policies, Catherine now turned against her sister, offering to give evidence against her, and admitting that she had used arsenic from fly-papers to poison the insured. The Crown, however, refused to let her become a witness.

The two women went on trial at the Liverpool Assizes in February 1884. Both women were charged with the wilful murder of Thomas Higgins, Margaret Jennings, and John Flanagan; Margaret was additionally charged with murdering Mary Higgins (sic). Crowds attended the trial, eager to hear the details of the two middle aged sisters’ alleged offences.

One of the witnesses was Margaret Jennings’ father Patrick, who confirmed that he and his daughter had lodged with Catherine, and had known her son John. In court, he had to describe not only John’s agonising death, over two days – which both the accused women had watched –  but his own daughter’s.

The two women murdered him by poisoning; and were sentenced to death on Saturday 16 February 1884 for doing so. Realising there was no chance of their sentences being commuted, they freely admitted their guilt. They were sent to the nearly 70-year-old Kirkdale Gaol to await their execution, and were said to have been ‘dejected’; because they were both completely illiterate, ‘the time has hung more heavily on their hands than it would have done had they been possessed of any education’.

Kept in separate cells, they had little to keep them occupied, apart from thinking about their impending deaths. They ended up asking the female warders who watched them 24 hours a day to read to them, and were said to have ‘much appreciated’ the stories.

Their own stories, however, were about to end.


It is 3 March, a bitterly cold Monday morning. It’s early, and barely light, but even so, a crowd has gathered in the snow in front of the gaol. They cannot see the execution itself, for hangings have been held away from the public gaze for nearly two decades now. (5) Yet there they stand, blowing on their hands, stamping their feet, to keep warm; the women are huddled into their shawls. They have their eyes gazing upwards; not to the sky, but to the spot where, shortly after 8am, a black flag will be hoisted to tell them that the murderers are dead.

Behind the gaol walls, they know that Binns, the executioner, is finalising arrangements, assisted by Samuel Heath, a man from the other side of the Pennines. They have sorted the drop – nine feet six for Flannagan, and two inches more for Higgins. Now they are waiting for the two women to walk the steps to the scaffold… they are adjusting the ropes, placing the nooses under the women’s chins…

And on the outside, as the snow continues to fall, a black flag climbs into the air, watched silently by the crowd. (6)

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News

Report of the execution in the Illustrated Police News



  1. Press reports of the day stress the cold and snowy conditions of the morning the execution took place – see, for example, the Illustrated Police News of 8 March 1884.
  2. Death of Margaret Jennings: BMDs, Liverpool, March quarter of 1883, vol 8b, page 17.
  3. Death of John Flannigan: BMDs, Liverpool, December quarter of 1880, vol 8b page 40.
  4. Some reports said that she was 10, but BMD records state that she was 12 (BMDs for Liverpool, December quarter of 1882, vol 8b, page 30).
  5. Public executions in Britain ended in 1868 (see Capital Punishment UK).
  6. Press coverage taken from: Yorkshire Gazette, 10 November 1883, Dundee Evening Telegraph, 18 February 1884, Stamford Mercury, 8 February 1884, Dundee Courier, 22 February 1884, Cornubian and Redruth Times, 25 January 1884, Dundee Courier, 19 February 1884, Dublin Daily Express, 5 January 1884, Portsmouth Evening News, 29 December 1883, Fife Herald, 5 March 1884.

Book review: Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise

614-5PESbKL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_“A devil once lived in God’s own county,” states the blurb to this new book on the Victorian burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, and this sets up the style of the book well. First-time author Ben W Johnson proudly proclaims his journalistic credentials on the book’s cover, . has a journalistic background which does, perhaps, help explain the style in which he writes.

So what could be a grim, bleak tale of life in 19th century Sheffield becomes, in Johnson’s writing, a romanticised story of a boy who saw his father injured in the course of work and who was also injured young, ending his legitimate career hopes. A tale of a physically and morally repugnant man, who treated his wife appallingly badly, and had little thought as to other people’s feelings, becomes, in this account, almost heroic in places.

Although the author has clearly spent time on his research, the book is occasionally problematic in terms of facts; for example, Johnson states unequivocally that Peace married his wife, Hannah (on page 30, he says that Charlie and Hannah married ‘in a small ceremony in nearby Rotherham’, and on page 137 he notes that she was a woman who ‘took her wedding vows seriously’), but he then refers to her, later in the book, as his ‘common-law wife’ (p.114) – which would mean they were not married.

He frequently refers to Peace’s ‘athleticism’ – despite the fact that Peace was lame and had a pronounced limp. He states that Beverley was a ‘town in North Yorkshire’ (p.85) – it is, and was at the time of the events described in the book, in the East Riding. Peace’s stepson, Willie, is given two different surnames (Willie Ward on p.120 – Ward being briefly one of Pearce’s pseudonyms, but there is no sign that anyone else adopted that name –  and Willie Haines in the illustrations insert) during the course of the book.

More problematically, Johnson also ascribes feelings to Peace and the members of his family, where I am not certain he can possibly know what they were – it is not clear whether he has got them from historical sources or has simply put his modern day sensibilities onto these very different Victorian figures.

So on p.19, we are told that Peace’s parents ‘glowed with pride’ when he played an instrument, and on p.21 that he had visits in hospital from ‘his loving family’ and that he ‘thanked his lucky stars each day’ that he had not had a leg amputated (although on the same page, and the following, we are also told that he had a ‘sense of hopelessness’ about his predicament). His wife is his ‘soulmate and lover’ (p.30); his mother is said to have been ‘alarmed’ by the changes she saw in her son (p.22).  If these feelings are based on archival sources, I would have liked to have been told that, as it instead gives the impression that Johnson has got confused as to whether he is writing a history book or a work of historical fiction.

It’s certainly a great story – Peace moved around the country evading police for quite a while; he may (or may not) have had an affair that led to him becoming what we would call today an obsessive stalker, and murdering his (possible) lover’s husband. He also had the ability to dislocate his jaw at will, changing his appearance, and could feign being different characters through his use of dress and walnut oil.

But he was also, clearly, an unattractive, repugnant character, and the sympathy of readers may well be with the women he came into contact with, as well as the unfortunate lover’s husband and also a Manchester constable who ended up dead at Peace’s hand. He was not the romanticised American-style gangster that Johnson appears to want him to be (the description of a Manchester pub as being ‘more akin to a rowdy Wild West saloon’ on p.55 is one suggestion of this); he was a petty criminal from Sheffield whose committed murders appear to have been more the result of fluke than of plan.

Perhaps the hyperbole and odd similes and metaphors that Johnson clearly loves contribute to this strange attempt to make Peace more of a man than he was. One victim is described as dropping to the ground and lying ‘as still as a carved statue’ while Charlie ‘scampered into the night like a wily urban fox’ (p.72); at another point, Charlie disappears into the darkness ‘like an unwelcome gust of icy wind’ (p.83). Johnson refers to the ‘first green shoots of criminality rising to the surface’ in the young Peace (p.24); elsewhere we are told that ‘the talons of crime had buried themselves too deep into the flesh of this wretched villain’. (p.30). I ended up getting distracted looking for the next example of this unnecessarily flowery language, which is not what a reader wants to do, or should do!

Basically, Johnson has a good story here, but needs to reign in his tendency to over-egg his language in order to tell it effectively. There’s nothing wrong with paring back, rather than adding to, the words. He also needs to decide whether he wants to write a factual history of crime, or whether his enthusiasm is really for historical fiction. Trying to combine two different genres, as he appears to do here, can occasionally jar, as can the propensity to ascribe modern emotions about the family to 19th century characters who may have lived differently, or had different motivations, to those he, in the 21st century, assumes. However, it is still a readable romp through Charlie Peace’s life.

Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise by Ben W. Johnson (Pen &Sword, 2016) is available now from Pen & Sword, Amazon and other retailers.

Book Review: Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel


Mary Ann Cotton, suspected serial killer

Mary Ann Cotton has gone into the history books as ‘Britain’s first serial killer’ – something reiterated by a line on this new book‘s front cover. However, as the author, Martin Connolly, sets out to explore, there is doubt as to how many murders she committed – and the author in fact is not sure that she committed any, which makes the unequivocal cover a bit of an odd decision.

The first part of this book, looking at Mary Ann Cotton’s life prior to her trial in 1873, is a bit confusing. Connolly, who lives in the area Cotton was from, assumes that the reader has a knowledge of her life and crimes and therefore fails to explain events properly from the beginning, so the feeling is that the reader is being thrown into situations they are assumed to already know about.

There is also a bit of a confusing chronology and use of sources, and I had to refer back a few times to work out what was happening, and who was who.  In this sense, and in the way the author is confused as to how to refer to poor relief (and his argument that Mary Ann couldn’t have been a prostitute because she had always earned a living – despite prostitution being, by its nature, paid work in itself), the book could have done with more stringent editing by Pen & Sword.

However, once Connolly starts to explore the trial itself, the book becomes far more satisfactory. He relates the trial using archival sources and statements, and so here, we read a straightforward account of what people said, and the suspicions of the neighbourhood relating to Mary Ann. The fundamental unfairness of a trial in which the defendant had little defence or ability to understand what was going on and how to respond to it is made clear, and Connolly explores how such a trial, if held today, would be unlikely to result in a guilty verdict.

12947This is not to say that 40-year-old Mary Ann was innocent; although Connolly makes a good argument as to doubts in her case, my feeling remains that she was guilty of multiple murders. However, the key issue is the lack of defence, and the relegation of Mary Ann almost to a bit-player in her town trial, and this the author explores well.

I also liked the fact that Connolly had researched what had happened to others involved in Mary Ann’s life and trial, particularly her surviving children, which gave a sense of closure to the book, and the inclusion of Mary Ann’s prison letters, in her own spelling and language, which gave a real impression of the woman and how she communicated.

So for an interesting account of how the legal system operated in late 19th century England, and how it was stacked against poorer defendants, Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel is recommended.

Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel, by Martin Connolly, is published by Pen & Sword books, and can be bought here.

Female felons and controlling the community

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

As one of my particular interests is gender and crime, looking at how women have been represented in the criminal justice system both as victims and perpetrators of crime, as well as being vital witnesses in many case, I like to seek out other research in this area.

So with this in mind, and following on the footsteps of Findmypast’s recent blog post on finding 18th and 19th century ‘Wayward Women’, it’s good to see the British Library publish a post this week on Female Felons in the 18th Century. This post focuses on the women who can be found in the Calendars of Prisoners, and the cases the blog post cites include women accused of false reeling, being bastard-bearers, and of being idle and disorderly.

These offences were common ones for women in the late 18th century. Spinning was a job that women could do from home, whilst looking after their children – and in many cases, children could also help with the job.

However, some women took short-cuts, claiming to have spun a certain amount but actually doing less and taking extra yarn to others to be sold on. Yarn was supposed to comprise a certain number of threads; women convicted of false reeling had spun fewer threads onto a standard reel. For a fuller account of how yarn spinners were regulated in law, John Styles‘ paper ‘Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the Worsted Industries, 1550-1800’ (Textile History, 44(2), 145-170 (2013) is highly recommended, and can be downloaded here.

Being accused of being ‘lewd’ by having illegitimate children was a form of social control aimed at the mothers, not the fathers, of children. Although theoretically any woman who had given birth to an illegitimate child could face a charge of lewdness, in practice, it tended to be particular women who were deemed to be troublesome, or who had had more than one illegitimate child, who were targeted.

'Une Savoyarde' by Noël Hallé

‘Une Savoyarde’ by Noël Hallé

Women who had several children were perceived to be ignoring the social and moral conventions of society, and therefore had to be ‘punished’ for their repeated transgressions. This appears to be the case with the woman noted in the British Library‘s post; Mary Parker served a year in prison in Wakefield in 1778 after being found to have had three ‘bastard’ children.

And idle and disorderly? This was a term that could be applied to an increasing number of actions under the vagrancy legislation of the 18th and early 19th centuries. It could apply to those begging, or singing for money; but also for a wide range of other occupations or types of behaviour, and was an opportunity to ‘remove’ poorer members of society from the community in which they had been living, thus obviating the need of that particular parish to give them poor relief by shipping them off to their ‘home’ parish. To hear a podcast on ‘Loose, idle and disorderly: Vagrant removal in late eighteenth-century Middlesex’ by Tim Hitchcock, Adam Crymble and Louise Falcini, see the Institute of Historical Research website here.

Again a form of social control, the cases and offences detailed in the British Library’s blog post show how English society was preoccupied with both restricted the ways in which women could make a bit of money, and the way they tried to live their lives.


Joking is a hanging offence

It’s nice when two of my research interests – theatre and crime* – come together, so it tickled me to find the following short article in an Australian newspaper from 1907. Although our ancestors’ jokes can sometimes appear a bit opaque – or simply unfunny – to us, with the passing of time, this one is still clear.


David Garrick - what a wag

David Garrick – what a wag

Once, when David Garrick was passing Tyburn, he saw a crowd assembled to witness the execution of a criminal.


“Who is he?” asked the actor of a friend who was with him.


“I believe his name is Vowel,” was the reply.


“Ah,” said Garrick, “I wonder which of the vowels he is, for there are seven! At all events, it is certain that it is neither U or I.”

And that is your crime-related humour for the week. 🙂


*My next book, which fuses these two interests, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2017.  

Unfit for Judges: a Victorian tale

Another early C19th magistrate - Bedfordshire's Samuel Whitbread (Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons licence).

Another early C19th magistrate – Bedfordshire’s Samuel Whitbread
(Wellcome Library, London. Used under Creative Commons licence).

In 1847, each day’s sitting of the Gloucester Assizes had to start later than normal, at 9.30am at the earliest. This was despite there being lots of business that the magistrates were keen to get done as quickly as possible. What was the reason for the late start?

Justice Maule, one of the said magistrates, had simply decided that he had to commute from Cheltenham each morning, unlike others who lodged locally in Gloucester.

He had chosen to lodge at a nice, comfortable Cheltenham inn rather than face the judges’ lodgings, which he described as:

“the unventilated, undrained, fetid dog-hole”

He argued that people of “robust health” might be able to stay in such places without risking their lives, but he was not prepared to do so.

In all fairness to the justice of the peace, the judges’ lodgings in Gloucester were somewhat infamous, and the magistrates had been complaining about their state for several years. However, as the local press acerbically noted, their complaints did not mean they were prepared to do anything about the lodgings themselves; they were happy to voice their dislike, but not to make “any exertion to remove or abate the nuisance”.

It was easier, it seems, to simply stay elsewhere, and make everyone turn up to the Assizes later in the day.


Sticking it to the sheep

Waifish_boyWe still refer today, in our industrial present, to goading people – metaphorically prodding them just to annoy them, or to make them do something. Yet the phrase ‘to goad’ comes from a far more rural implement – the goad, a stick that was either shaped to form a point at one end, or fitted with a sharp spike to its top.

The goad was used for driving cattle – usually oxen during ploughing, but also for other animals being driven to market. In 1816, Sir Walter Scott noted that countrymen were ‘armed with scythes…hay-forks…goads’ and it was clearly still a fundamental part of the rural worker’s armoury in the first half of the 19th century.

This might seem to be a world away from early Victorian London – the sprawling urban metropolis described by the likes of Charles Dickens; a world of inequality, of paupers starving in workhouses living only streets away from businessmen and industrialists, making their money and creating a recognisably modern city.

Yet some rural traditions continued to impinge on the urban modernity. In the 1840s, there were around 4000 butchers within London, and Smithfield Market was the main place where animals were sold. Farmers sent their cattle into London to be sold on; it was noted that ‘the principal supply of live cattle for the consumption of the metropolis is from the northern counties.’

There was clearly scope for mistreatment of these animals, being brought into the city to be sold on, killed, and used for feeding the residents of the metropolis. But it was not always those responsible for the cattle who were guilty of neglecting or abusing their animals. For example, in 1841, a young boy, described as a ‘ragged-looking little urchin’, by the name of Franklin, was charged by the Animals’ Friend Society – a society established by Lewis Gompertz in 1832 – with having wilfully ill-used a sheep.

He appeared in the Marlborough Street Police Court in London, where a local constable gave evidence, stating that he had watched the boy as he followed a flock of sheep, giving himself amusement by hitting the animals over their heads with a thick stick, and occasionally poking a goad into their ribs.

Franklin was not employed to help drive the sheep; in fact, the drover kept trying to get him to go away. But Franklin simply laughed at the drover, and continued to hit the sheep until the constable grabbed him and brought him to Marlborough Street.

In court, the offending stick was produced, and it had obviously seen a considerable amount of wear. Franklin seems to have made it himself, making a hole at one end to insert a goad that would wound the sheep only to a certain depth of skin and tissue.

Before the magistrate, George Long, who was shortly to transfer to the Marylebone Police Court, Franklin insisted that he had been asked to help drive the flock by a butcher – despite the drover’s claims otherwise. Mr Long asked whether he used the goad to injure the sheep – “Oh no, I never sticks the poor sheep with the goad”, answered the boy.

A surprised Mr Long responded, “What do you have it for?” to which an unperturbed Franklin answered, “Only to stick into the bullocks.”

Franklin, the bored child who probably enjoyed answering the magistrate back as much as he enjoyed goading animals, was promptly fined five shillings “for his barbarity”.


Sources: The Morning Post, 16 March 1841, Diana Donald, ‘Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850’ (Yale University Press, 2007), p.354, OED, Oxford Dictionary of National BiographyVictorian London,



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