Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Snapshot of a female thief’s life

Kate Stobbs - from Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums' collection on Flickr

Kate Stobbs – from Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums’ collection on Flickr

Many poorer women came into contact with police and magistrates in the early years of the 20th century, the difficulty of their lives economically being evident in what they were accused, charged, or convicted of. This photo is from Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, and shows Kate Stobbs, who was arrested for larceny in June 1903, and who appeared at the North Shields Police Court.

At the time this photograph was taken, Kate was 48 years old. As Kate, or Catharine, Hood, she had married Robert Stobbs in North Shields in early 1874, when she was 19.

Kate was born on 29 December 1854, and baptised on 28 January the following year. She had, by 16, been acting as her mother Charlotte’s housekeeper, and helping care for her three younger siblings at home in Bell Street. Her Scottish father David, a mariner, had been away from home a lot due to his work.

They had had six children, but only one survived – a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1879. Both Kate and Robert were born and bred in North Shields, but moved around the north-east in search, it appears, of work for Robert. In 1881, he was described in the census as a boatbuilder, and the family was living at 24 Linskill Street in North Shields.

By 1891, they had moved to Elswick, in the western part of the city of Newcastle, bordering the river Tyne. This had plenty of opportunity for work, being home to the Elswick manufacturing works, the Elswick Colliery, and a train station, which had opened two years earlier. Robert, two years his wife’s senior, was working as a joiner, and Elizabeth was still living with her parents. The couple seemed settled in Elswick; they were still there in 1901, living at 80 Maria Street. By this time, Elizabeth had moved out of home – she had married, at 17 or 18 years old, in 1897. Robert was still working as a joiner.

A year later, the local paper recorded that Robert Stobbs, ‘described as a tramp’, had been up before the North Shields magistrates, charged with begging in Preston Lane. He was committed to prison for three weeks. Although there are others with the name of Stobbs living in the area at around this time, Robert and Kate may have been having difficulties – reflected in Kate’s own arrest a year later – and so this may be a further indication of economic problems, and perhaps unemployment on Robert’s part.

By June 1903, the couple had taken furnished rooms in a house at 73 Howdon Road, North Shields. Their landlady was a woman named Barbara Bowman. She was not a wealthy woman either – in 1881, she had been described as the wife of a general labourer named John. She was a decade older than her tenants, but also a native of North Shields. Like Kate, she had also lost children; in the 1911 census – by which time she appears to have been a district nurse, visiting the sick – she stated that she had had eight children, of whom five had died.

But Kate appeared to have little solidarity with her landlady; she needed money, she had none, and so she looked to Barbara’s belongings. She stole numerous items, and took them to the pawnshop. When Barbara noticed they were missing, she reported both Kate and Robert to the police, unsure as to who had stolen them, and suspecting that Robert may have stolen them, then given them to Kate to pawn.

Accordingly, both were initially charged with larceny. The goods stolen were fairly extensive, and could not have been carried on foot – at least, not easily. One or both of them had taken a quilt, two blankets, a pair of boots, a plane, saw, vest and other items – valued at nearly £4 in total. Chivalrous Robert denied all knowledge of the thefts, and was cautioned and dismissed. Kate was convicted, and sent to prison for 14 days.

It is hard to believe that Kate could have committed the acts without Robert’s knowledge; had he not noticed the sudden appearance of money where there had been none before, or goods or food bought when there was nothing to buy them with? Perhaps there was a tacit agreement between the pair that Kate should take the blame and leave Robert to try and get work while she was serving her sentence.

After this affair, the couple moved away from their home county, and in 1911, were living in Alum Waters in County Durham, near the village of New Brancepeth. Robert had found work as a bricklayer’s labourer – not on the level of joining or boatbuilding, but a legitimate occupation at least. Robert died in 1915, aged 62; Kate continued to survive, although presumably not far from the breadline, until 1931, dying at the age of 76.

The 1911 census entry for Kate and Robert Stobbs, from Ancestry.

The 1911 census entry for Kate and Robert Stobbs, from Ancestry.


Sources: Shields Daily Gazette, 21 October 1901; Shields Daily Gazette, 11 June 1903; BMDs for Durham, vol 10a page 519 and vol 10a page 574.




Criminal Love, Criminal Life

The Love Tokens website

The Convict Love Tokens website

The National Museum of Australia has the world’s largest collection of ‘love tokens’ made by convicts, dating from 1762 to 1856, and is displaying them online at The website has images of the collection of 314 tokens, organised by date, and showing biographical details of the individuals where they have been traced.

These tokens were made by convicts at around the time of sentencing, and given to their friends or relations as mementos. Many feared that they would never return from being transported, and so giving something of theirs to those left behind ensured that they would not be forgotten. Often, they were coins that were engraved by the convict, but they show the emotional ties a convict had to others, and bring these men and women to life.

Most of the tokens were bought by the National Museum of Australia from a British dealer. The identity of convicts associated with around 80 of its tokens is known; in some cases, a life story can be constructed by combining a variety of sources, as one case in particular shows.

One of the tokens on the website was inscribed by a 19 year old man named David Freeman. He engraved a coin for ‘Sarah’, marking it:

Dear Sarah, when this you see Rem[em]b[e]r me when In Some foreign Country.

And on the back, he recorded his own details:

David Freeman Born the year 1798 Banished 17th June 1818

Why did David feel that he was being ‘banished’ from his homeland, and his native London? To fid out, we go to the trial records on the Old Bailey Online. David, and his friend John Clark, had been tried at the Old Bailey on 17 June 1818, accused of pickpocketing. The charge was that on 24 May that year, at 9.30pm, they took a handkerchief from the pocket of merchant’s clerk John Baker while he was walking past St Clement’s Church on the Strand in London. Baker grabbed the men and gave them into the custody of a passing officer, William Bond.

Taking leave of loved ones prior to transportation...

Taking leave of loved ones prior to transportation…

The handkerchief was said to be worth five shillings – making it a case of grand larceny, subject to capital punishment (grand larceny was abolished in 1827, with grand and petty larceny being replaced by the offence of simple larceny). Transportation was an alternative to this for less ‘serious’ cases, though transportation for life was harsh enough (seven or ten years’ trasnsportation seem mild in comparison!). At their trial, Clark argued that he had never touched the handkerchief; Freeman’s defence was not the greatest – he argued that ‘it was thrown into my hand’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both men – Clark, who was 27, and 19-year-old Freeman – were quickly found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life.

On 30 September 1818, David set off on the Lord Sidmouth convict ship, bound for New South Wales. He arrived there on 11 March 1819. The 1828 census recorded him as a labourer working for Captain Richard Brooks at his farm at Denham Court, Lower Minto (now a suburb of Sydney).  David may not have forgotten ‘Sarah’, but he got on with his new life in Australia, knowing that he could never see her. In 1830, he applied to get married to Mary A Morrison, two years his junior, who was a free settler. His application was approved and the couple married at St Luke’s Church in Liverpool, New South Wales, on 16 June 1830.

An extract from the Goulburn Gaol Description and Entrance Books, from Ancestry

An extract from the Goulburn Gaol Description and Entrance Books, from Ancestry

He was pardoned nearly 22 years later, on 1 January 1841, but never returned to his home. In 1870, now aged 72, he was a prisoner in Goulburn Gaol in New South Wales.  Although he was still not ‘free’, the gaol description and entrance books enable us to build a physical picture of this transported man. He was just half an inch over five feet tall; of ‘feeble’ build, grey eyes and hair, with a heart tattoo on his left arm and missing two teeth from his lower jaw. This builds a picture of a seasoned prisoner, a transported convict who, though small, had survived a long and eventful life.

But two years after this record detailing David’s looks and build were made, he died. A full half century after he engraved his Sarah a pitiful message on a coin, he died on the other side of the world – presumably having never seen her again.

There is a news item on these love tokens in the latest issue of Your Family History.

On the trail of Amelia Dyer

I’m delighted to welcome Angela Buckley back to Criminal Historian, for a guest post about the subject of her new book…

Amelia Dyer, photographed on arrest in April 1896 (Credit: Thames Valley Police Museum)

Amelia Dyer, photographed on arrest in April 1896 (Credit: Thames Valley Police Museum)

After living in Manchester and London, I finally settled for a quieter life in the leafy village of Caversham, on the edge of Reading. However, little did I know that I was living close to the spot where a Victorian serial killer had disposed of the bodies of her tiny victims in the river Thames. The story of infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer is tightly woven into Reading’s history and so I set out to piece together the details of her gruesome crimes.

I began my investigation from the first shocking discovery on this tranquil stretch of the Thames in the spring of 1896. On 30 March, a bargeman was towing a boat of ballast up the river when he spotted a brown paper parcel near to King’s Meadow, a recreation ground near to the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory. He and his mate dragged the package towards the shore. They unravelled the damp parcel and cut through layers of flannel to reveal a child’s foot. The victim was a baby girl aged between six months and one year. She had been strangled with a piece of white tape that was tied around her neck and knotted under her left ear. Faint writing on the sodden package led the Reading Borough Police to local baby farmer, Amelia Dyer. I followed the story through the sensational headlines and graphic descriptions in the Berkshire Chronicle, just as the horrified Victorian residents would have done.

After running her baby farming business for some 30 years in Bristol, Amelia Dyer moved to Reading in 1895. Advertising in the local papers, she offered to look after children for a fee, usually five shillings a week, or £10 for a one-off adoption. Throughout her time in Reading she received a number of infants and older children into her household, which she shared with Jane ‘Granny’ Smith, an elderly woman whom she had met in the workhouse.

Nurse children were often neglected, drugged with laudanum and even starved to death, but Dyer was an even more heartless practitioner. When the bodies of babies Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons were found strangled in a submerged carpet bag, Chief Constable Tewsley of the Reading Police had enough evidence to build a case against her.

The Clappers Bridge, near Caversham weir, where the infants’ bodies were found.

The Clappers Bridge, near Caversham weir, where the infants’ bodies were found.

It has been an emotional experience following the trail of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. I have re-traced her steps along the pathways of the Thames, which have barely changed in just over a century. Overgrown with bushes and with dark, shady spots, it’s easy to imagine Dyer making her way after dark to the Clappers bridge to drop the babies’ bodies in the weir.

I have passed the two houses where she lived and I’ve been into Reading Prison, where she was held during her trials at the police court. I have discovered new information about the police officers investigating the case, including the invention of a special telescope that they used to scour the riverbed for bodies.

I have read some of Dyer’s original letters, in which she paints a picture of a cosy home waiting to receive a much-wanted adopted child. And even more chillingly, I have seen the photographs taken in 1896 of Dyer and her accomplice, son-in-law Arthur Ernest Palmer, as well as the images of the two fragile corpses of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons.

This case, together with the convictions of other Victorian baby farmers, contributed to the gradual implementation of child protection legislation for fostered and adopted children. It is not known how many infants perished at Dyer’s hands, but it is likely to have been hundreds. Despite the tragic aspects of this dark story, I have been grateful for an opportunity to shine some light into the sinister world of Victorian baby farming and the plight of its tragic victims.


Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets.

You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website,

My review of Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders will be published in the June issue of Your Family History magazine (on sale 10 May).

Minding the lunatics: life for female prisoners

'Minders' would have slept with lunatic prisoners in their cells

‘Minders’ would have slept with lunatic prisoners in their cells

Prisoners at Wicklow Gaol in the mid 19th century had a range of jobs allocated to them. Men were recorded as making shoes and clothes. They were also painting, whitewashing, and pumping water. Women sewed or spun wool, washed bedding and clothing, and ironed. The painting and whitewashing was undertaken twice a year, with the latter being used on internal gaol walls because of its antibacterial properties.

Although cooking was seen largely as a task for female prisoners, in 1866, men were also recorded as cooking for the prison. Both genders were recorded as ‘attending lunatics’, but it appears that it was largely female prisoners who did this job.

There were different types of prisoner who were regarded as being ‘lunatic’. Some may have had been mentally ill, whereas others were epileptic.

A view of Wicklow town today - not the view that its prisoners would have had...

A view of Wicklow town today – not the view that its prisoners would have had…

Attending the lunatic inmates meant that other female prisoners had to undertake a daily routine including feeding them, washing them, and ‘keeping them calm and making sure they didn’t self-harm’. They also had to accompany these ‘lunatics’ around the prison at all times, even having to sleep with them in the same cell. In 1866, eight lunatics were recorded as being incarcerated in Wicklow Gaol – six men and two female. A report by the Inspectors-General at this time noted that these eight “presented a sad spectacle” in the prison:

“one of the former being very violent, and disgusting in his habits; and another, an epileptic idiot of the most brutish aspect.”

The task – or collection of tasks – involved in looking after these particular prisoners could be so onerous that women could miss out on important opportunities in terms of education, despite the increasing recognition of the importance of education on the rehabilitation of prisoners. Although the other jobs that women were made to do, such as spinning and weaving, had a use that women could employ when they were released from gaol; but the care of lunatics was more to save gaolers an unpleasant job than to serve a useful purpose for other prisoners.

Torture and the ‘Travelling Hangman’

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 46 41In the 1730s, an inventory of items in the care of gaolers Richard Hoey and Thomas Manning was taken at Wicklow Gaol. Amongst the items recorded were 11 pairs of handcuffs, two neck yokes, five yoke shackles, and six pairs of manacles (source: Lane Poole Collection, National Library of Ireland). These items do not fully illustrate the extent to which torture was employed at the gaol, however.

Wicklow Historic Gaol records that the torture of its prisoners was ‘very common’ in the 18th century, and included flogging, mutilation, ironing, the stocks and branding. Men and women, adults and children, were all subject to torture.

Another grotesque method of torture was ‘half-hanging’, whereby a rope would be tightened around a victim’s neck and then, when the individual lost consciousness, the rope would be loosened. Once the prisoner had regained consciousness, the rope would again be tightened. Anne Devlin, the housekeeper of rebel leader Robert Emmet, was subject to this in 1803.

Wicklow also employed a notorious character known as ‘The Walking Gallows’ or ‘The Travelling Hangman’. This was Lieutenant Hempenstall, a seven foot tall militiaman who was employed by various gaols as an executioner. However, he was also a torturer – he was famed for taking an instant dislike to certain members of the local poor, and would put a noose around their necks and ‘merely fling them over his shoulder and hang them across his back until they were dead’.

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 49 02Hempenstall was particularly feared as he refused to accept bribes  – so condemned prisoners knew that he was their executioner, they had no chance of bribing him to avoid their deaths.

Torture was considered so much a part of prison life at Wicklow that today, one cell has been recreated as a torture cell; here, visitors can ‘watch’ a prisoner being flogged, whilst blood splatters across the walls both inside and outside the cell. In a neighbouring cell, instruments of torture are laid out, making it clear how barbaric the treatment of prisoners in the past could really be.

The third of my blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, on life for female prisoners, will be published on Friday. For more information on the Gaol, see its website here.



A very dark tourism: Torture, incarceration and execution in Wicklow

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 14 08As part of a recent research trip to Ireland, I visited the 18th century gaol in Wicklow town, to look at how prisoners were treated here. This week, I’ll be publishing a series of posts on aspects of prison life here, but I thought I’d start with a general review of the site as a tourist attraction.

The ‘Historic Gaol’ as it has been termed is packaged as a bit of a themed day out with costumed interpreters – always a bit of a concern for me, as these ‘interpretations’ can be a bit hit or miss (and I’ve even heard interpreters give completely erroneous information out to visitors). It also means it has a completely different approach to Kilmainham Gaol in nearby Dublin, which only lets you round as part of a guided tour, but takes these (uncostumed!) tours very seriously, concentrating on the prison’s political history and leaving the cells and so on as they would have been – giving you the shudders as you go round.

But in reality, the costumed ‘warder’ only gives you, in effect, an introduction to the site before letting you loose on the rest of the gaol (although you have to follow a set path round). The first stop is the exercise yard, where there is a treadwheel in situ. The ‘prisoners’ depicted on this really showed how mind-numbing the treadwheel was, and how dangerous – it was stressed to visitors that the ‘windows’ at the top of the treadwheel were not for prisoners to look through, but for the spotting of bodies, as particularly younger, smaller prisoners may have slipped between the steps and fallen to their deaths.

After the exercise yard, you are taken back into the main building, where, on the ground floor, each cell has been fitted with something to look at – either a recreation of a cell scene, or a video screen telling the story of an individual or a type of offence, or an audio track again telling a story. The history of transportation is covered here in detail. Downstairs, the dungeons can be viewed; upstairs are more cells looking at different aspects of the criminal justice system and incarceration, including the treatment of lunatic prisoners and the jobs that prisoners undertook.

The multimedia elements are both good and creative; although I dislike the use of waxworks to show prisoners in their cells, they are at least used here for a distinct purpose (the torture cell, which I will cover in a separate post, is particularly fascinating). There is a recreation of a transportation ship, which offers something different to the usual prison experience, and the obligatory cafe and (small) gift shop.

Although the gaol’s website and Facebook page suggest that a visit will be more theme park than serious learning experience, they actually give the wrong impression. There is plenty of serious history here, informative and well presented; it’s well worth a visit.

Wicklow Historic Gaol is on Kilmantin Hill in Wicklow Town, and is open every day. See the website for more details.

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The next in my short series of blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, looking at torture and one particular torturer at the site, will be published on Wednesday.

Was indecent exposure the way to resolve a work dispute?

A Victorian cabman - from the Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1880

A Victorian cabman – from the Illustrated Police News, 3 January 1880

In May 1864, Mrs Ruth Vincent was shocked – shocked enough to go to the police and tell them how shocked she was.

The wife of a wheel chair-man, William Vincent, she was a 29-year-old mother of three, living a quiet life in Clifton, Bristol. William was originally a mariner, a seaman, a common occupation amongst those in Clifton, close to the Avon and not too far from the Bristol Channel. He had only changed career within the previous three years, and now plied his trade in the nearby city of Bath.

Unfortunately, though, he had fallen out with another local chair man – 28-year-old John Ponting, another man who had changed career, this time from being a stonemason. Perhaps the two men had disagreed over taking each other’s custom, or competing with each other in the same area. But there was, apparently, ‘a great deal of ill-feeling’ between them.

This was despite their apparent similarities – both of the same age, both married with young children, living in the same area, and both married within a year of each other. In 1861, the Pontings had been living in Clifton’s Avon Crescent, with the Vincents at Caroline Place. By 1864, the Vincents had moved to 2 Wellington Place.

Luttrell_of_Arran_(1873)_(14579918530)The wheel chair men were seen as a bickering sort, anyway; it was believed that cabmen tended to work well together, supporting their colleagues rather than falling out with them. Indeed, this discrepancy in how the two similar occupations worked was highlighted in the court case that eventually occurred.

Ruth Vincent brought the case against James Ponting, accusing him of indecent conduct after exposing himself to her. She was described in the Bristol Police Court as ‘respectable-looking’; John Ponting’s lawyer said his master was present and would give Ponting a good character – but added that the ‘police also knew him very well’, which could be read in two ways.

The details of the charge were deemed too sordid in nature to repeat in the newspapers, but Ponting’s defence appeared to be that it had been dark at the time, and that he had not exposed himself ‘with the slightest intention of insult’! Surprisingly, perhaps, the magistrates discharged him, believing that any act he had engaged in had been a result of the animosity he had towards Ruth’s husband. This was, apparently, a valid defence, despite the fact that Ruth had not done anything towards the Pontings.

Instead, the magistrates called William Vincent and John Ponting to them, and cautioned them both to behave better in future. (Western Daily Press, 11 May 1864) Ponting appears to have managed this only by moving away from Clifton and back to his native Wiltshire.


Review: The Secret History of my Family

The History of my Family: image via BBC

The History of my Family: image via BBC

Last night, a new documentary series entitled The Secret History of my Family started on BBC Two. What could have been a somewhat clunky programme – mixing animation with actors, real-life descendants of historical characters commenting on events, and a healthy dose of modern day class politics – actually worked surprisingly well.

The premise is that we start with some Victorian characters – from different classes – and are told their story. The key difference to other history series is that here, the descendants of those characters have been traced, and it is they who tell the story of their ancestors, and attempt to explore how those ancestors have made them the people they are today.

So last night, in the first episode, we looked at the three Gadbury sisters – thieving girls from the Shoreditch area, who found that in 1837, their luck  ran out. One was simply jailed; the other two, in their teens, were transported to Australia for seven years (as one participant commented, this was effectively a life sentence, for the girls would not have had the money to return to the UK after their sentences expired).

The programme concentrated primarily on these two transported sisters (perhaps because the descendants of the third had not moved far, still being in the same area of London as their criminal relation, and seeing their success today in terms of ‘she’s never been in court’).

The programme makers clearly wanted to stress the class issue – one set of descendants were deemed to be ‘working class’ and the other high achieving, educated professionals. This was slightly stymied by the Australians’ insistence that they did not live in a class-based society; yet it was the wealthier set of relations who insisted this, more than the ones who had grown up with less.

One interesting point that was made, but perhaps not explored enough, was the impact of where people were transported to on their subsequent lives. One sister was transported to Hobart, where so many were also convicts or former convicts that there was little stigmatism. Individuals therefore had the chance to thrive and make a life for themselves. It was the family of this sister who became particularly successful, one descendant becoming Premier of Tasmania, another becoming a judge, a third being a Labour MP.

The other sister had been sent to work as a servant in Sydney, in an area where there were more free settlers, and therefore greater stigmatism and antagonism shown towards convicts. Under these conditions, individuals may well have felt more stifled and less likely to achieve. I’d love to have heard more about this possibility.

I didn’t particularly like the choice of modern day child actors to read the girls’ words – told to a 19th century social investigator, William Miles – as they looked, well, too modern; I’d have preferred to have heard the words without seeing faces attached to them, and to have imagined what their speakers would have looked like. But the premise of getting their descendants to tell the rest of their stories was a surprisingly effective presentation technique, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

If you’re quick, you can watch the first episode here. For some background on the Gadbury sisters, read this post by Dr Heather Shore, who was an advisor on the programme.

The perceived perils of having female jurors

Charles_Dana_Gibson_(1902)_Studies_in_expression._When_women_are_jurors_(compressed)I love The Guardian‘s use of archival material on its website; one of the many stories from its archive that I’ve enjoyed looks back at the first woman jurors at the Central Criminal Court – formerly the Old Bailey.

Only 30 years prior to The Guardian’s story, a joke made the rounds of the press that mocked women’s ability to be objective jurors:


First Female Juror (some years hence): “There seems to be no doubt that the prisoner, Mr Handlecash, stole 100,000 from the company that employed him. Was he indulgent to his wife?

Second Female Juror: “Yes, indeed. He gave her everything she wanted.”

Third Female Juror: “She had just a lovely time – trips to Europe, Worth’s dresses, opera box, everything.”

Verdict: We, the jury in the case of Mr Handlecash, find that the prisoner was an over-indulgent husband, who should be reprimanded by the court, the company to pay the costs.

(Shields Daily Gazette, 23 January 1892)

Yet within a few years of female jurors appearing in court, the papers were stating that the opposite case was true; that an outcry had previously been raised over women jurors “as they were callous and unsympathetic and especially prone to severity in the case of male offenders”.

In one case at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions in 1926, it was recorded that “one of the ladies of the jury” had insisted on a male thief being dealt with leniently because he was surely a first offender. She had to be disabused of that by the judge, who pointed out that the thief had a 16 year history of offences, and several prior convictions, before pleading guilty in this particular case. (Western Daily Press, 1 July 1926)

Other contemporaries had argued that women shouldn’t be in the jury box because juries were a place for “calm, cold, analytical reasoning, and not for unfortunate displays of uncontrolled emotion”. (Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 November 1926) The Gloucester woman may have been regarded in this light, looking at a man and believing that he could not have committed any prior offence because of his face, or his looks, or his demeanour.

It was clear that having women on juries prompted a wide range of feelings – women were too emotional or not emotional enough; prone to agree with female testimony and disagree with male. One report about the first female jurors in London noted that out of four women sworn in, two had asked to be excused:

“The first said that she had an aged mother of 83 whom she was unable to leave, and the Judge at once accepted her excuse. The second said she had a tobacconist’s business, and had no assistant to look after it while she was away. She was released.”

The other two women were keen to serve; and perhaps this one case suggests that many women wanted to be a part of the process, and only sought to escape it when they had caring or business responsibilities that had to come first. However, this was not always the case. On the second jury sworn in at the Central Criminal Court was one woman who sought to excuse herself:

“I have not the time, and I am so awfully nervous that I don’t think I am suitable.”

The Common Serjeant: I don’t think I can accept that excuse, or I should get no ladies at all.”

“I am sure there are numbers who would enjoy it,” rejoined the lady quickly.

“Who are more strong-minded than yourself?” asked the Judge.

“Yes,” said the lady. She was excused.

(Western Daily Press, 12 January 1921)

This dialogue shows that some men regarded women as fundamentally unsuited to jury work due to their ‘nervousness’ and emotion; but women themselves recognised that they were all different, and that for every one who was reluctant to serve, another would greatly enjoy the opportunity.




Top Ten: Descriptions of the female prisoner

The licences of parole for female convicts – which are available to access online with Ancestry – are a great resource, not just for finding out what women were convicted of in the late 19th century and how long they served, but also for finding out facts about their health, and how their appearance and medical state was perceived by the authorities.

A quick trawl through the licences has revealed this motley collection of women – I’ve saved the best (or worst?) until last.

jane-farrell1. JANE FARRELL. 23.

Convicted in Manchester in 1879 of receiving a stolen watch. Her condition on arrival at Millbank Prison was described as ‘fat’.





Convicted of larceny and receiving stolen goods at Newcastle in 1882. Her general health was described as ‘pretty good’ – despite her being syphilitic and having a ‘pustulent discharge’.


sarah-ann-horner3. SARAH ANN HORNER. 45.

Convicted of stealing an iron pot at Leicester in 1884. She had ‘varicose veins, both legs’.



catherine-brown4. CATHERINE BROWN. 36.

Convicted at Manchester of stealing linen, 1878. She was described as ‘stout and strong’.



mary-clarke5. MARY ANN CLARKE. 38.

She was convicted of felony at Stafford in 1876, but was ‘in good condition’.




sarah-jane-howlett6. SARAH JANE HOWLETT. 43.

Convicted of stealing 13s at Bradford, 1884. ‘Scarred forehead and both eyebrows; stout and strong.’



mary-ann-lawrence7. MARY ANN LAWRENCE. 24.

Convicted at the 1878 Middlesex Sessions of stealing from her mistress. She was of spare build, and had dyspepsia. A later medical note records: ‘Pleads that her health is failing through long imprisonment. Her health is not bad, nor is it injured by her imprisonment.’


alice-rowlands8. ALICE ROWLANDS. 45.

Convicted of stealing a shirt at the Liverpool Quarter Sessions in 1884. ‘Spare, but muscular. Leprous spots on left buttock.’



ellen-clarke9. ELLEN CLARKE. 38.

Convicted at Bolton of stealing from John Hesketh. ‘Spare and weak; both lungs unsound from bronchitis; weak heart; phthisical [sic] (tubercular).’ Also had a tattoo of the initials A.S. on her right arm.


susan-craggs10. SUSAN CRAGGS. 27.

Convicted at Durham in 1882 of stealing 9s 3d from Elizabeth Winn. She was recorded for posterity as having an ‘abscess of her vulva’.



All images taken from Ancestry‘s licences of parole for female convicts.


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