Pin cushion embroidered by Annie Parker, using her own hair, c.1879. Photo by Nell Darby.
Yesterday, I looked briefly at the Museum of London’s forthcoming exhibition on London crime – The Crime Museum Uncovered. One of the artefacts being displayed in this exhibition is a pin cushion embroidered by a woman named Annie Parker in 1879, a woman notorious, according to the museum’s publicity material, for having been arrested over 400 times for drink-related offences, and for having embroidered the cushion using her own hair as thread.
I was intrigued by this simple rendering of Annie as a drunk with a penchant for pulling her hair out. Who was Annie, really?
On 2 March 1879, Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that “an unfortunate” 31-year-old by the name of Annie Parker had appeared in court in Greenwich accused of being drunk and incapable. Already, the mythologising of Annie was underway, as the piece on her appearance was titled “Three Hundred Times in Prison for Drunkenness”.
Annie was, at the time, living in the slum area of Mill Lane in Deptford, but had previously been ‘rescued’ by the Greenwich Branch of the Church of England Temperance Society, who had found her a home with a well-meaning ‘lady’. Annie had apparently been unable to cope with living with this paragon of virtue, and had run away back to her previous life.
On the night of this particular offence, Annie had been found by a police constable, lying on the pavement at New Cross. She was so drunk that he had had to transport her to the police station in a cart. Once there, she had started to tear at her own clothes, and had actually been charged with this offence too, until the police clerk said that it would only be an offence if she was in a workhouse ward (presumably because the clothes would have been the workhouse’s) and that “a prisoner could not be charged with tearing up her own clothes in a police cell.”
Before the magistrate in Greenwich, Annie heard that she had spent 350 out of the previous 365 days in prison. She had been written off by authority; the local police inspector said that if she was “discharged now, she would be in custody again on Monday.”
Yet Annie was suffering. She was an alcoholic who probably got more of a sense of security being in prison than ricocheting between workhouse, lodgings and the unfamiliar residences of well-meaning temperance society members who couldn’t possibly know how it felt to need alcohol as Annie did. In police cells, Annie complained of “suffering” and of waking up with water dripping from her hair – she was not treated sympathetically.
There was little the legal system could do for Annie, either. In this case, she was simply imprisoned again, this time to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.
It was noted in the press that the 300 prior convictions mentioned had all been cases heard at Greenwich; whether an additional 100 took place elsewhere, or after this one conviction, or whether there was an element of hyperbole in the reporting of her life is not clear. What was significant is that Annie was “never out of prison more than two or three days”.
This Annie may have been the same woman mentioned in a press report in 1875, although her given age was wrong; in this case, a 40 year old named Annie Parker came before the Greenwich magistrates accused of drunkenness and breaking a pane of glass in the window of the Deptford police station. In this case, it was reported that Annie had “only left Maidstone gaol on Saturday last, after undergoing a month’s imprisonment” for drunkenness, and that at the police station, whilst waiting for a charge against her to be taken, “she remarked that was the first time she had been brought to the station without being conveyed on a stretcher.” It sounds like the same person. (In this case, Annie was sentenced to two months in Maidstone Gaol – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 7 October 1877)
In 1884, the press again reported Annie appearing before the Greenwich magistrate, “charged for over the 300th time with being drunk and disorderly” after being thrown out of the Centurion public house. In this case, Annie’s fragile state of mind was apparent. When the police inspector spoke, he related that Annie had tried to kill herself in the cell, and had to be monitored as a result. Annie’s response was to retort, “And I should have done it if I had the chance.” She was again imprisoned. (The Morning Post, 13 August 1884)
Just a year later, Annie was dead. It was not drink that killed her, but consumption, ending her life in the Greenwich workhouse infirmary. Unusually for a woman in and out of prison, her obituary was published in the press, in recognition of her ‘notoriety’. In this case, unusually, her positive qualities were focused on, and the embroidery featured in the Museum of London was also reported on in a sympathetic rather than exploitative way:
“The death has just taken place in Greenwich Union Infirmary of Annie Parker, aged 35 [sic], who has been over 400 times charged before the magistrates at Greenwich Police Court with drunkenness, but never with felony, and has spent the greater part of her life in prison… She was always exceedingly well conducted in prison, and shortly before her death sent a letter to Mr Marsham, the magistrate at Greenwich police court, thanking him for kindnesses, and at the same time acknowledging that her life had been misspent.
“She had a luxuriant head of hair, and on the morning of her death presented to Dr Dixon, the assistant medical officer of the infirmary, a lace-bordered sampler, on which was artistically worked, with her own hair, the hymn commencing ‘My God, my Father, whilst I stray.’ Another beautiful specimen of her hair work is in the possession of the Rev JW Horsey, for many ears chaplain to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, and a third is framed in the parlour of Mr James, Old King Street, Deptford.
“Annie Parker had received an excellent education, and a bad word never escaped her when before the magistrate. On one occasion a lady took her to Canada with a view to her reformation, but she could never resist intoxicating drink.” (Illustrated Police News, 29 August 1885)
This obituary recognised Annie’s good traits – her attitude to others, her careful work, and her education; it even commended her for never committing more serious offences. Yet there was no attempt to analyse her addiction to ‘the demon drink’, or to query the system that shuttled Annie in and out of prison and the workhouse. This was undoubtedly a complex woman with an addiction that could not be simply stopped by the good intentions of a few women; a woman who came from a decent background but who could never combat her own personal demons.
There was undoubtedly more to Annie than simply an ability to pull her own hair out to sew with – although the question of why she needed to do this is interesting in itself. Her obituary in the Illustrated Police News hints at a woman whose life deserves more attention than just a mention of how many offences she was charged with over the course of her short life.
Annie’s age was reported differently in different papers, as suggested above – the newspapers tended to be a bit inaccurate when it came to the personal details of those it wrote about. Her death certificate gives her age, in August 1885, as being 38 years old (FreeBMD, deaths, Sept 1885, Greenwich, 1d 567). It is also possible that Annie herself was unsure of her exact age, and gave different ages to the magistrates and police.