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.


Book review: Van Diemen’s Women

TasmaniablogIn the March issue of Your Family History magazine, which is out now, I wrote a brief review of Joan Kavanagh and Dianne Snowden’s book Van Diemen’s Women: A History of Transportation to Tasmania (The History Press, 2015). I didn’t have the space to write as fully as I’d have liked, so am taking the opportunity to write a slightly longer review here…

This is not a comprehensive history of transportation, but, as the title and subtitle suggest, a selective – and compassionate – history. Although Catherine Fleming wrote about the transportation of Kildare women to Van Diemen’s Land back in 2012, this book looks at a wider geographical area, looking at both urban and rural women in Ireland in the 19th century, what they were convicted of, and what happened to them.

The book is full of interesting case studies, and is amply illustrated. Its focus on the Irish women who found themselves transported to Tasmania, sometimes with their children, or giving birth en route, is fascinating, and thought provoking.

The period the authors cover, of course, means that the Ireland they write about was, under the Act of Union, a part of the United Kingdom When many histories of crime in the United Kingdom actually mean predominantly English, this Irish angle helps us to reconsider who was subject to transportation and why. It is not designed for those with a good knowledge of criminal history – it has a glossary, for starters, that includes terms such as ‘Assizes’, ‘hard labour’ and ‘House of Correction’ – all basic terms in the history of crime and punishment – but for the general reader. Likewise, its focus on a ‘compassionate’ retelling of history (as acknowledged in former Irish president Mary McAleese’s foreword) is problematic – is it the historian’s job to offer a ‘compassionate’ rather than an objective portrayal of events?

In addition, the description of one woman’s trial for infanticide describes the offence as ‘an extremely serious crime’ – well, obviously, you can’t get much more serious than murder. It’s the kind of explanation that feels unnecessary to readers who should be assumed to have some kind of common sense. However, the authors then appear to view potato theft during the Irish potato famine as a trivial offence. This is despite the theft of any items worth over 12d being a capital offence, and the fact that if there was a potato shortage, an individual stealing these items would be treated very seriously, and a sentence might also be served that would act as a deterrent to others seeking to copy.

Perhaps the problem there lies in the attempt to create a compassionate history that sees the female offender as both perpetrator and victim. Emphasis is put on women being desperate and stealing to feed their families, rather than on the impact of such thefts on the rest of the local community, and on law and order. This isn’t to say that the women focused on do not deserve any sympathy, but that their experiences were individual, and complex.

However, this book is a welcome addition to works both on gender and crime, and on the history of transportation and the experience of being transported. The focus both on female convicts and on the Irish experience is needed and useful, and the authors’ involvement in, and commitment to, the subject is commendable. For the general reader wanting to know more about the experience of Irish women sent to Tasmania in Victorian times, it is recommended.


Prison Life, 1895

394px-Hombre_con_grilletes_(dibujo_de_Goya)In 1895, it was noted, with concern, that a substantial proportion of the population of Canterbury Prison was made up of repeat offenders. During that year, according to a report from the Prison Commissioners, there had been 1155 men and 167 women imprisoned there; the daily average was 128 prisoners, although at its quietest, the prison had been home to 100, and at its busiest, 171.

Canterbury Prison dated from the beginning of that century, having been established as a county gaol in 1808. Its predecessor had been regarded as inadequate following a rise in the number of prisoners in Kent in the late 18th century, the result both of a rise in crime and the impact of the American War of Independence on transportation.

It was noted that ‘a discouraging feature of prison work is the number of men and women who appear time after time in prison’. At Canterbury, 220 men and 60 women that year had already been in a prison prior to their most recent committal – equating to 19 per cent of male prisoners, and 36 per cent of females.

Of these repeat offenders, 27 men and 12 women had over 10 prior convictions resulting in a committal to prison. 11 men and three women had between eight and ten prior committals, and nine men and seven women six or seven prior committals. It was believed that once men and women had been committed once, they were likely to be embarking on a long criminal career.

When the prison population at Canterbury was analysed on 31 March 1895, it was found that the majority of men there at the time were young – between 21 and 30 years old. One of the relatively few ‘older’ men there at the time was Arthur Funnell, a 34-year-old butcher, who had been sent to the prison whilst on trial for forgery, as he had been unable to find sureties. Whilst in prison, Funnell’s father died; his mother was seriously ill, her health no doubt not helped by her son’s incarceration.

It was recognised that individuals placed within Canterbury’s prison walls were unlikely to behave well either in prison or on being released, and that prison actually increased their chances of repeat offending afterwards – they became, to an extent, institutionalised.

Hendrik_Frans_Schaefels_-_Young_prisoner_in_his_cellIn prison, several individuals, both male and female, were reported to have committed offences, primarily violence, ‘idleness’, or breaches of regulations. Punishments for such offences included flogging, being put in solitary confinement (by the end of the 19th century, known as ‘punishment cells’), being put in ‘short commons’, whereby their diet was restricted, or losing other privileges.

Even when not being punished, the prisoners were subject to hard labour, which in Canterbury primarily meant the treadwheel – although unlike in some prisons, this had a purpose, pumping water for the prison. If not on the treadwheel, prisoners were engaged in making mail-bags and chopping wood.

All male prisoners who had a prison sentence of over four months were visited by a schoolmaster, to ensure that their educational achievement reached the third standard, and the chaplain also visited inmates every three months to encourage ‘moral elevation’. It was noted that ‘the prisoners take great interest in reading, and the cases where they injure the books are happily few and far between.’

Short commons may not have been much of a punishment for some; it was noted that ‘the mere feeding of a prisoner costs little enough’, suggesting that the diet was both cheap and limited. This was in contrast to the money spent in 1895 on new stores and staff quarters at the prison.

Despite the education and religious training, prison was hard on its inmates, and suicide was recognised as a problem – netting had to be put up around staircases and corridors to prevent hangings. It was recognised that poverty and unemployment might be factors in reoffending once prisoners were released, and so the chaplain would recommend particular inmates who could benefit from the services of the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, which aimed to help them find a job.

It was noted that ‘very few cases, really worthy of help, are refused, and then only if the aid asked for is beyond the Society’s scope.’ The society was helped by the Church of England Temperance Society‘s Labour Home, located at Dover, which received and employed ‘men who have no immediate hope of employment’. Women were sent further afield, primarily to Miss Steer’s Bridge of Hope, on the infamous Ratcliff Highway.

So prison life in Kent had the recognised potential of leading to reoffending, through interaction with other prisoners and with resultant poverty once back on the outside, and measures were put in place to try and stop this through education and employment. Yet it was also clear that by restricting prisoners’ diets, by incarceration and hard labour – the economic value of which was reported in financial terms in the prison commissioners’ report – the prisons themselves created an atmosphere of desperation in some that could lead to suicide.

Sources: Canterbury Journal, 19 October 1895, Dover Express, 1 November 1895, Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald, 23 March 1895, Canterbury Journal, 30 December 1895.


A “peculiar” father and his dead daughters

Luke_Fildes_(1891)_The_DoctorToday, stories involving people who refuse on religious grounds to seek medical help for themselves or members of their family are still to be found in the press. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, may refuse blood transfusions.

In 1906, a similar, tragic, story was reported in the press, but with little sympathy for the beliefs of the man at the heart of the story. Former Lambeth horsekeeper James Cook was deemed simply “peculiar” after he refused medical help for his two daughters, Dorothy May and Hilda.

The two girls had initially had measles, but then developed bronchitis and pneumonia. This terminology, the use of the word ‘peculiar’ to describe James was a play on words; he was a member of the Peculiar People, a name given both to a branch of the Wesleyan evangelicals.

James was originally from Norfolk, and was, at the time of the deaths, in his late 30s. The 1901 census shows him working as a housekeeper and living in Lambeth with his wife Grace, and one-year-old Dorothy May. He had married Grace West in 1895, back in her home county of Essex, which was the centre for the Peculiar People, its founder, James Banyard, being from Rochford.

In line with his religious beliefs, James had refused to send for a doctor when his elder daughter became ill; after concern from others, he was ordered by a judge to seek help, but still refused. As a result,first Dorothy, and then Hilda,  died at their home in Ashmole Place, off the Clapham Road. Dorothy May was just six years old; Hilda was only 18 months old.

James was sent charged with, and convicted of, manslaughter. This followed an inquest, where James told the coroner,

“Gifting the Testament is the treatment. We are to do our part and the Lord will do His. Here are His promises. They are ‘Yea!’ and ‘Amen!’ to them that believe.”

He refused to accept that he had not called a doctor because he couldn’t afford one – he had been unemployed – saying that this would be to offer an excuse, when he didn’t feel one was required. If he had believed a doctor could help, he would have called one, but he felt that his trust in God was all that was needed.

The coroner, in response, had argued that it was not part of his duty to ask why ‘these people’ disobeyed the law, ‘but they must be prepared to bear the legal consequences of doing so.’ A doctor gave evidence that medical assistance would have done a lot of ‘good’ for the two girls.

Later, the jury at James’s trial at the Old Bailey asked for him to be leniently dealt with ‘owing to his having committed the offence through his religious belief.’

The father was unrepentant, arguing that “if I am wrong, the Book is too.” He sought to justify his actions, stating that the bible did not tell him to call a doctor, and he “wished the jury knew it [the bible] as well as he did”. Rather than calling a doctor, he had instead called ‘an elder of the sect’, James Whaley, to anoint them with oil and pray over them. The prayers, obviously, failed to work.

The judge, Justice Bigham, was not as sympathetic towards the man as the jury was; he reminded the jury that Cook had a previous conviction, from 1896 – an identical offence, after another child had died in the same circumstances. In that case, Cook had been let off with a warning, ‘which he had obstinately and persistently neglected’.

Yet despite this, Cook was sentenced to just nine months’ hard labour. The press was more sceptical about him than the jury had been, regarding the man as both odd and abnormal for placing his beliefs above his love for his daughters.

Sources: London Daily News, 17 May 1906; Manchester Courier, 11 May 1906; Manchester Courier, 27 June 1906; North Bucks Free Press, 30 June 1906