Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Author: Criminal Historian (page 1 of 23)

The clairvoyants who failed to tell their own fortunes

An Edwardian trial used legislation from larceny to witchcraft to prosecute a husband and wife palm-reading team…

In 1904, an ordinary looking, middle-aged couple appeared in court to answer various charges. Charles Yates Stephenson and his wife, Martha, were well-dressed, literate and well-spoken. They were also two of the targets of a concerted effort by the Metropolitan Police to clamp down on a surfeit of fraudulent clairvoyants and spiritualists who were flocking the capital, advertising their services in the press, and encouraging the vulnerable, the grieving, and the unhappy residents of the capital to pay good money to hear platitudes – voices of their dead loved ones, allegedly speaking beyond the grave.

Charles was born in 1858 in Southwark, the son of a commercial traveller and grandson of a wealthy shipowner. He grew up in Camberwell and in Brighton, initially working in the latter place as a journalist. He knew how to conjure up a good story, and this would later include a series of exaggerated job titles.

In the censuses, he variously described himself as a ‘medical masseur’, a ‘medical electrician’, and, finally, a doctor of medicine, despite having never gone to university or medical school. He moved around frequently; in 1888, when he was working as a reporter in Southport, he married Martha Faircloth, one of ten children, and the daughter of a Cambridgeshire corn miller.

A sketch of the Keiros during their trial

The Stephensons moved around the country, but after a spell in Sussex – where Charles was convicted of two offences, from the minor (failing to muzzle his dog) to the major (getting drunk and beating Martha up in the street) – they moved to London. By the turn of the century, they had established a partnership as Professor and Madame Keiro. This was a permutation of the name Cheiro – which was an abbreviation of cheiromancy, another word for palmistry.

Another palmist who used the name was the Dublin-born William Warner, known as Cheiro; he was a popular figure in London at around the same time. Although using a form of the word cheiromancy was logical in the Stephensons’ line of work, it is also possible that they wanted to create a link between themselves and the well-known ‘society palmist’ by using a similar name.

The fin de siècle had seen a resurgence of interest in spiritualism and the ‘other world’, following a similar passion amongst individuals earlier in the 19th century. Academics sought to rationalise spiritualism whilst others embraced it and founded societies aimed at exploring the supernatural. Students investigated the occult illicitly, scaring themselves with ouija boards and other activities designed to communicate with the dead.

An increasing number of palmists and fortune tellers set up in business across Britain, some working from their kitchens or living rooms, inviting strangers into their homes to tell them what they wanted to hear. Others, like the Stephensons, aimed higher, renting properties that could act as business premises.

The press and government were concerned at this resurgent interest in the supernatural, and the authorities sought to clamp down on it. They invoked three main pieces of legislation – the Larceny Act, the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and the Vagrancy Act. Under the old vagrancy laws, it was illegal to engage in fortune telling for money – something originally linked to suspicion about gypsies – and there were also issues regarding fraud, with it being increasingly recognised that these fortune tellers were fraudulent, and that their motive was obtaining money for false services.

It was made clear, with the Stephensons, that they ‘were not of the class of vagrant fortune tellers, who wandered from house to house, but would probably claim to belong to the innermost hierarchy of that class’. Therefore, despite the laws against vagrancy, there was also a kind of romantic perception of the itinerant, gypsy fortune teller – one that the Stephensons were keen to exploit.

The police awareness of fortune-telling scams had been helped by disgruntled former clients, who made efforts to discredit individuals such as the Keiros, both by reporting them to police, and by writing anonymous cards, placed publicly, warning others.

The Keiros were so concerned about these notes that they took the risk of placing an advert in the Morning Post in January 1901, describing themselves as ‘Professor and Madame Keiro, scientific palmists’ (Charles was no professor, and neither had scientific credentials). They stressed that they held daily consultations at Regent Street, but then added: ‘The writer of the anonymous cards to Prof. Keiro and others has been traced. Their communications are treated with the contempt they deserve.’

It was on10 October 1904 that Charles and Martha Stephenson appeared before the magistrates at the Clerkenwell Sessions House in London. They both pleaded not guilty to fraud. The prosecution mocked Charles’ description of himself as ‘the leading and oldest established palmist in the world’, and made clear that money was at the heart of the business – ‘he had carried on a highly remunerative business for many years.’

Although every customer who visited him received a note declaring that he would never deceive them, and that they could choose whether or not to believe his predictions of the future, it was noted in court that this did not offer Charles any protection legally – not even the ‘smallest possible protection’.

A contemporary drawing of Charles Stephenson, aka Professor Keiro

Customers using the Stephensons’ services often wanted to know information such as when they would get married, how many children they would have, or how long they would live. Other services were also sought, such as in the case of one young man who was panicking about his forthcoming exams, and who asked Charles to hypnotise him into better revision habits.

As part of their evidence gathering for the case, the police had employed ex-Scotland Yard inspector Charles Richards, now working as a private detective. Keiro had boasted to him that he had read the hands of President McKinley and that he had also foretold the death of Queen Victoria. Another witness detailed a reading she had received from Keiro, in which he told her that her husband would be asked to build a big asylum. When questioned further, she said this was unlikely, given that her husband was ‘really a clerk in the works department of the Stores’.

In summing up, the prosecution stated that ‘this was a gross, impudent fraud, this getting of a guinea or two from credulous, foolish, stupid people who had an extraordinary capacity for believing any form of rubbish, no matter how outrageous, offered to them.’

The case also had important connotations in terms of class, for it was noted that there had been many prosecutions of poorer fortune-tellers – those genuinely from traveller backgrounds, or otherwise from the lower echelons of society – and that it would not look good to convict these people, but not middle-class frauds such as the Stephensons. At the conclusion of the case, both Charles and Martha were found guilty of attempted fraud, as well as of pretending to tell fortunes. They escaped jail, instead being bound over to come up for sentencing if called on – and they were ordered not to practice palmistry again.

The 1904 case was part of a concerted effort by the authorities to clamp down on unscrupulous and fraudulent fortune tellers, but in the case of the Keiros, the same authorities were not completely successful. ‘Madame Keiro’ continued to work for another decade, and it was only in 1917 – after the now 61-year-old was sentenced to two months in prison, bursting into tears in court on hearing her punishment – that she appears to have stopped practicing palmistry. She now started to sell a hair remover for 6s 6d a go.

Charles, meanwhile, wrote an ‘apology’ in the form of a book on palmistry, followed by another book – the ‘autobiography’ of his tabby cat. After telling other people’s fortunes for so many years, one wonders if they foresaw what their own fortunes would now be: a gentle fade into obscurity.

This article originally appeared in the Discover Your Ancestors online magazine, and is reproduced with permission. To subscribe to this monthly history magazine, or to find out more, visit the DYA website here. All illustrations taken from newspapers via the British Newspaper Archive.

Why I won’t be at BCHS

‘Merry’ female students at Oxford, in The Sphere, 28 October 1922 (from British Newspaper Archive)

Today, I should be making the 40-minute car journey followed by three train changes journey up to Ormskirk to spend a couple of days with fellow crime historians at the British Crime Historians Symposium.

Held every two years, I’ve attended the last three – at Edinburgh, Liverpool and Milton Keynes – and have found it to be a valuable experience. Not only do you get to talk about your research to people who are genuinely interested and involved in related fields, but you also network with others, make or renew friendships, and feel that you are part of a supportive community.

However, I won’t be there today. Very reluctantly – and after having managed to write both my own conference paper and its accompanying PowerPoint, which always feels like an achievement in itself – I’ve had to withdraw. It’s the second conference I was supposed to be speaking at this year, and the second I’ve had to cancel, with less notice than I’d like to have given.

Why won’t I be there? Basically, I’ve realised I’m not superwoman. Other people seem to be able to do everything (and if that’s you, I have huge admiration for you) – but I can’t, and I think because I straddle two different areas – academia and freelance writing – I struggle to keep up.

If you work full-time in academia, or are doing a research degree, speaking at conferences is pretty much expected of you. There’s a clear benefit both to you and your institution that this is a valuable activity, one to add to your profile or CV. You may also get funding – some, at least – towards the costs of attending the conference, even.

I finished my PhD three years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to get a lectureship, as my university was unable to give me any teaching experience over the course of my studies, and this is required for all the posts I’ve seen advertised (understandably, I hasten to add). I am also at a disadvantage in terms of applying for sought-after postdocs because I have family commitments that mean I can’t just up sticks and move around the country to take on jobs that are on fixed term contracts.

I therefore work as a freelance writer and editor, juggling projects and commissions for different companies (in addition to also trying to get my next book written!). I love doing this – I’ve been doing it for over a decade, so I must do! – but it’s not a 9 to 5 job, and it’s not regular hours throughout the year.

I never know when I’m going to be busy, and when I’m not – although if the last couple of years are anything to go by, it seems that the summer holidays tend to be my most frenetic time. But it means that paid work has to come first, and that when I become busy, I have to let other commitments go.

This year, conferences have been the commitment I’ve had to let go, and it’s made me realise that I need to stop trying to attend them for a while. It’s costing me too much in terms of time, stress and money – as I have to pay conference fees, travel and accommodation out of my own pocket, and the conferences I want to attend invariably seem to be quite far away, meaning I spend a lot of time travelling with dodgy or non-existent wifi, so that I can’t guarantee being able to work whilst on the move.

It does make me sad, and feel sometimes that I’m struggling just to keep one foot in academia – but I’m just going to have to find other ways to do it (and thanks to Oxford Brookes University, who have given me an honorary research associate position, which is very much appreciated)!

Luckily, I know lots of lovely academic historians on social media, and if any of them ever fancy a coffee in Oxford or London – the places I can get to easily – then shout! And in the meantime, all the best to everyone taking part in BCHS this weekend; do tweet, blog or otherwise communicate what’s happening up at Edge Hill University so that those of us who would love to have been there, but can’t, feel like we’re still involved. 🙂

Book review: Death on the Victorian Beat

There’s something about the violent deaths of police officers that grabs our attention. These are men and women who dedicate their working lives to helping to make communities safer, and so when they die in the course of their duties, we are shocked.

At a time when there is debate about economic cuts to the police, resulting in fewer ‘bobbies on the beat’, and the possible correlation between that and violent crime in places such as London, we should remember that there has always been crime – and that those whose job it is to ensure our safety have always been the targets for violence themselves (Wikipedia, for example, has a page listing the deaths of police officers in the line of duty since 1900).

In the last couple of years, a few books have been published focusing on some of these individuals; there have recently been two books looking at the life and violent death of PC Cock at the hands of Charles Peace in Manchester in 1876, for example – Angela Buckley’s Who Killed Constable Cock? (2017) and Ben Johnson’s book on Peace’s life, Charlie Peace: Murder, Mayhem and the Master of Disguise (2016).

The latest to join them is Martin Baggoley’s Death on the Victorian Beat, published by Pen & Sword (who previously published a book looking at more modern cases involving the deaths of police officers – Dirk Kirby’s Death on the Beat (2013)).

This book is not for those wanting a comprehensive history of violence (for that, read JA Sharpe’s humungous book) or one of the origins or development of policing (try Clive Emsley’s books, especially The Great British Bobby).

Charles, or Charlie, Peace, who killed a constable in Manchester in 1876

However, if you want a readable introduction to the subject of Victorian policing, it’s recommended. Baggoley’s approach is to let the stories tell themselves, to a large extent; so he presents several case studies, drawn from original archives and newspaper reports, to show the different situations that could result in individual police officers being killed throughout the 19th century.

Each chapter comprises a single case study; one, perhaps inevitably, is about PC Cock’s death, but other cases are less well-known or written about, and so offer a range of examples of how Victorian policing, like modern day law enforcement, could be a dangerous job.

Baggoley’s book is a good introduction to the subject of Victorian policing and to the individuals who lost their lives through their policing of communities; it also serves as a useful companion to Gaynor Halliday’s more detailed Victorian Policing (similarly published byPen & Sword, in 2017).

Death on the Victorian Beat, by Martin Baggoley, is published by Pen & Sword. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

A visit to Cork City Gaol

The city of Cork formerly had a gaol at Northgate Bridge, but this old site had, by the start of the 19th century, become overcrowded, with poor hygiene conditions. It was recognised that a new gaol was needed, one better suited to ‘modern’ times, and so, in 1806, an Act of Parliament was passed to build a new prison – the Cork City Gaol.

This new site was at Sunday’s Well, on a hill overlooking the city, although it took a further decade from the passing the Act of Parliament for work to begin on constructing roads up to the site, and then for the prison itself to be built. It finally opened in 1824 as a prison for both male and female criminals who had committed crimes within the city’s boundary (those committing crimes outside the boundary would be sent to the County Gaol instead).

Prior to public hangings being stopped in 1868, those condemned to death would be hanged from the gatehouse of the prison, it being the place visible to onlookers and passersby (the main part of the prison being behind the gatehouse – even today, you can only really see the prison once you have passed through the gatehouse). Therefore, although the building was grand, it had a dark purpose that was often all too visible to the city’s residents.

The gaol became a women’s only building from 1878, now housing female prisoners from both the city and county of Cork (the county gaol became the men’s prison). It housed political prisoners during the Civil War, before closing in 1923. Then, rather bizarrely, the building was used as a home for radio stations until the 1950s. Finally, after a period of dereliction, it reopened as a museum and heritage centre 25 years ago.

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Today, it is a good place to visit to learn more about Cork’s criminal heritage; it’s fairly low key, with visitors able to choose whether to have a guided tour, or to use an audio tour, or just to wander round on their own. There are the almost ubiquitous (and always strange) wax dummies of prisoners and staff, but the visitor map clearly lays out some history and detail about both former prisoners and the structure of the building.

It’s all very simple, with only one main use of audio-visual gimmickry; this plays recreated trials, featuring actors, onto the walls of one room and is incredibly effective, highlighting how the lives of famous prisoners are generally focused on by history, leaving the lives of the ordinary – the desperate thieves, the children caught up in the criminal justice system, and the women struggling with poverty and death – to be forgotten, erased or ignored.

Because of its relative simplicity, largely letting its rooms speak for themselves (don’t miss the prisoners’ graffiti still visible in several cells), Cork City Gaol is well worth a visit, and it is a moving experience. Guides and volunteers are low-key but there to answer any questions you might have. There is both a cafe and a small gift shop, but these are both almost hidden away, so the focus of your visit remains on the history rather than the merchandising opportunities – and that’s exactly as it should be.


Bring the WM Police Museum to Steelhouse Lane

Steelhouse Lane police station (photo by Andy Mabbett – used under Creative Commons)

I’m a great fan of police museums. These tend to be smaller museums, often manned by volunteers including retired officers, with not only a good knowledge of their collections, but also a huge amount of enthusiasm and a desire to impart their knowledge to their visitors.

I’ve been to many police museums around England – from Tetbury to the City of London, via the Thames Valley Police Museum. There are several more on my to-do list, including the Essex Police Museum, which, from its social media feeds at least, looks great, offering a wide range of activities to get younger visitors involved.

But, as always with the heritage sector, funding remains an issue. Personally, I don’t think that, in this country at least, we value heritage and museum sites enough. They have been at the forefront of funding cuts for the past few years, along with libraries, part of the government’s inability to value the arts and our history, and to fully recognise their value within local communities.

Now, due to the cuts to police funding (and don’t get me started on that, either), another police museum is in need of help and generosity from those interested in police history.

The West Midlands Police Museum needs a new home, and the old Victorian Steelhouse Lane lock-up in Birmingham would make an ideal location. However, there is no funding available to turn the building into an effective home for the museum – and so those behind it have launched a GoFundMe campaign to try and finance the conversion of the lock-up into a museum.

The Lock-up is already seeing a steady stream of visitors come and investigate its history, and that of the local police force, through regular open days and talks. It would be great to see it extend this work, and one of WMP’s aims is to have this new museum site take on a programme of work with the local community – from schools to history groups.

It would also become home to WMP’s historic collection of helmets, uniforms and so on, and enable it to further explore the stories it has relating to police heroism and bravery.

Funds raised through the campaign would be used to separate the Lock-up from its neighbouring police station, create better access (including a lift and a stairwell), new visitor facilities and exhibition displays. It is hoped that funding will be in place by summer 2019, with the aim of relaunching the museum by summer 2020.

If you would like to contribute to this project, you can do so via the GoFundMe page here. You can also find out more via the website, the WMPHistory twitter account, or its Facebook page.


I found this in a 1916 Prison Directory online; it’s a fascinating insight into how prisoners used to be punished. In this case, prior to the city bridewell being built in the mid 19th century, Chicago’s criminals were made to clean the streets whilst their leg was attached to a ball and chain, which had unintended consequences…


Who Do You Think You Are? Probably a man, that’s who

Comedian Lee Mack (photo by Amanda Benson via Wikimedia Commons)

I have a confession. Despite being a historian, keen amateur genealogist and former editor of a family history magazine, I don’t avidly watch every single episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on television. Instead, I dip in and out, choosing to watch specific episodes where I either like the person being featured (hello, Olivia Colman), or a story featuring in the episode is flagged up by the media beforehand, and piques my curiosity.

Therefore, I watched this Monday’s episode, focusing on the family of comedian Lee Mack, because it was looking partly at one of his forebears – Billy Mac – who had been a music hall entertainer. As my ancestors were on the stage, I am always interested in similar stories and advice on how to research these individuals, and in the event, I enjoyed the journey Mack took from the Midlands to the trenches of World War 1, looking at his ancestor’s involvement in wartime troop morale as part of an entertainment troupe, The Optimists.

Billy Mac’s entry in the WW1 medal rolls index on Ancestry

Obviously, it’s difficult to condense everything into an hour’s programme, and facts and stories necessarily get omitted. So we didn’t hear of Billy Mac’s life before World War 1 (had he done any entertaining prior to joining the Liverpool Pals? If not, what was he doing? He must have had a job before 1914, as he was 25 when he enlisted), and his life post-marriage was glossed over in five minutes, as though anything he had done outside of comedy was somehow uninteresting or irrelevant.

But the greatest omission came when the programme moved on to look at Mack’s maternal line, and in particular his great-grandfather (I think), Joe. He was born in Southport, but the family story was that his mother had abandoned him as a baby and emigrated to Canada. The programme explored a fascinating story of Joe’s moving to County Mayo in 1911 to be raised by his grandparents; he was born Mathew Felix Kingsley, a fact he may have never known, for he had no birth certificate and his grandparents appear to have renamed him Joseph Francis at a young age.

The 1911 census showed that his mother was still present in his life when he was one; she is recorded, with baby ‘Mathew’ in the returns for Ballina, living in the home of her parents, Thomas and Mary Farrell. Her surname, like her child’s, is recorded as Kingsley. The programme hinted at the fact that she was probably not married – despite what the census stated – and that Kingsley had been adopted as her and her child’s name in order to mask the fact of his illegitimacy. Judging by the family tree shown on screen during the programme, the baby – later Joe – remained a Kingsley throughout his life, when he should have been a Farrell (or an O’Farrell, as both permutations of the name are found in online sources).

It was what happened to Joe’s mother Delia that was most unsatisfactory. She remained a cipher throughout the programme: the emphasis was on her father’s illegal shebeens that regularly brought him before the magistrates at petty sessions, and on the males in the family. This is fairly common in researching and writing about family history, for men tend to be better documented in official records and occupational information than women. Yet it also gives the impression that it is the men’s lives that are worthy of note, worth going into detail about, with women being sidelined or even erased from the story.

There is also a tendency to criticise the woman where a man would escape censure. Lee Mack acknowledged that he felt critical towards Delia for ‘abandoning’ a young child and fleeing to another country, even though he later commented that her parents may have been responsible for making her leave.

There was an acknowledgement that illegitimacy was stigmatised and that life would have been hard for Delia as an unmarried mother; she also had to maintain the falsehood of her marriage to an imaginary man named Kingsley. Yet from the start, there was a perception of her as somewhat flighty, and lacking in maternal feelings (perhaps inadvertently emphasised by the use of a photo of her grinning as though she didn’t have a care in the world).

There was no mention of the man who got Delia pregnant and failed to keep in touch (as far as we know), let alone marry her (if she had wanted to do so, of course). There was no mention of her father’s inability, as a labourer and unlicensed drink seller, to adequately maintain her, to protect her and keep her within the household, bringing her child up with the support of her family.

Perhaps, then, he tried to help her by putting her in touch with the Canadians who paid for domestic staff to be schlepped across the Atlantic to work as servants there? It seems unlikely, but more that Delia recognised that this was an opportunity to make something more of her life, to earn money that could help her son, or help herself. There appeared to be no interest in following Delia’s story, to see what happened to her.

This was such a gaping omission that I ended up, after the programme aired, going online to see if I could find anything further out about Delia.

Delia was born as Bridget Farrell, at the end of 1888, in the family house at Ballyna. The 1901 census records her, aged 12, living with her parents and six other siblings there. By 1910, she had migrated – as many other Irishmen and women had over the 19th and early 20th centuries – to the Liverpool area, in search of domestic work.

There is one family tree listed on Ancestry that states that Delia ‘fell pregnant by a Mr Kingsley, out of wedlock’.  In 1910, she gave birth to Mathew Felix Kingsley (presumably named after her brother Mathew), but failed to record his birth. Within a year of his birth, she had returned to her family home in Ireland, where the 1911 census records her again, listing her as having been married for two years.

Five months after the census was taken, Delia left Ireland for Montreal, to seek work as a domestic, her passage funded, as mentioned on WDYTYA?. She appears to have met and married a man there – marrying only a year after emigrating. In 1924, her father died, but it seems unlikely that Delia would have returned to see him buried, even if she could have got there in time. She then seems to have several children by another man, who she would only marry two years after the death of her first husband (this information is all from this user family tree on Ancestry).

Delia’s burial record, from Ancestry

Delia died in 1936, still only in her 40s. Her life took her from rural Ireland, to the north-west of England, and from there to Quebec.

She saw more of the world than her illegitimate child probably did; she appears to have married twice, seen several children die in infancy, been widowed, all within fewer than five decades. Her life was unusually well recorded, and has so much potential as a story looking at how women’s sexuality was dealt with at this time (and within a Catholic family), and how schemes to recruit domestic workers overseas might have helped such women, as well as opening up a new world and life to them. This is the story I would have liked to see focused on during WDYTYA? this week.

Review: The Murder of Mary Ashford

Mary Ashford spent the last evening of her life out dancing at a local ball, held in a pub near her house in the Midlands. The following morning, her lifeless body would be found in a pond. The year was 1817, and the subsequent trial would see a man widely regarded as being her murderer sensationally acquitted.

This is the case that Naomi Clifford details in her latest book, The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History (Pen & Sword).

As she has previously shown with her earlier books, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn and Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837,  Naomi is always interested in the history of the law, as well as the history of women and crime, and here, she looks at how, when justice appeared to have not been served, Mary Ashford’s brother attempted to use an ‘archaic process’ to prosecute the accused man, Abraham Thornton, for a second time.

The crime in this case is located in Erdington – now a Birmingham suburb, but at the time, still a village in Warwickshire. Naomi conjures up what life was like in this still relatively rural area at this time very well, and sets the scene for the reader, so that you feel you are one of the men who discovers the sodden corpse one morning – even though the event took place two centuries ago.

On every page is evidence of the author’s painstaking research – she has clearly done a lot of preparatory work for the book, locating people, places, and the law, and utilising her knowledge well. On occasion, you may need to reread a section, or have to concentrate to understand it all, purely because there is so much information to take in – but it is clear that this is a methodically researched history, which is always good to see.

It’s also well illustrated and the image are chosen sensitively. There are photos of buildings mentioned, drawings from court, and illustrations of both the murder victim and the accused. Naomi makes clear that the victim’s portraits are idealised (and they are certainly fairly generic), but a contemporary newspaper’s portrayal of Abraham really makes him a flesh and blood creature for the reader.

What Naomi Clifford does particularly well is her placing of Mary Ashford’s murder into its context, but she also shows how its brutality ‘became a marker against which the murders of women were compared’. Comparisons were made in the press between Mary’s murder and subsequent ones; it became something of a cause celebre for the next half century and even beyond. And what happened to the man who was acquitted of Mary’s murder, the unpleasant Abraham Thornton? You’ll have to read The Murder of Mary Ashford to find out more.

The Murder of Mary Ashford is published by Pen & Sword (PB, £14.99)

Locating 19th century prisons – a new resource

Today, a new website resource, Prison History, is being launched at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham, itself the former county gaol.

Those behind the resource – a team from the Open University, led by Ros Crone, have a simple question: “How many prisons existed in 19th century England?”. This is a harder question to answer than you might expect – for the penal system at this time was rather complex.

Firstly, there were two different types of prison – the convict prison (under direct control of the Home Office) and local prisons (which were, until the 1877 Prisons Act, managed by a range of authorities – counties, boroughs, liberties and cathedrals).

Secondly, even within the term ‘convict prison’ were a variety of establishments: penitentiaries, public works prisons and prison hulks. Meanwhile, local prisons could include gaols, bridewells and lock-ups.

The courtyard at Shepton Mallet Prison (© Criminal Historian)

Prison History uses lists of surviving archives of nearly 850 English prisons in us between 1800 and 1899, as well as other key information, to help fill in gaps in our knowledge of the prison landscape. The website has an easy to use search facility accessible both from the homepage and a tab at the top of the page; you can search both by county and by type of prison, and see the results either on a map or as a list.

There is also a list of prison records (drawn from both local and national archives), which are broken down into time period covered, and type of document (such as chaplains’ records, visitors’ books, and gaolers’ reports).

In addition, you can look for further resources and readings relating to prisons.

This looks like being an invaluable resource, that will offer researchers and anyone interested in English crime and penal history an easy-to-use facility to learn about England’s varied forms of 19th century prison.


How to write about criminal women

I’m really pleased today to be publishing a guest post from a fab crime historian and friend, Dr Lucy Williams.

Lucy is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Liverpool. She researches the history of women, crime, and punishment in Britain and Australia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

She is the author of Wayward Women: Female Offenders in Victorian England (Pen & Sword, 2016), and the forthcoming book Convicts in the Colonies: Transportation Tales from Britain to America (Pen & Sword, to be published on 30 September).

Lucy’s latest book, co-authored with Barry Godfrey, is Criminal Women 1850-1920: Researching the Lives of Britain’s Female Offenders (Pen & Sword, 2018). Here, she tells us about the process of researching and writing about the criminal women in Britain’s past.

Criminal Women has been a new exciting project with my colleague Professor Barry Godfrey. Essentially the book offers readers three things; some brief histories contextual of women, crime, and punishment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, 30 colourful, detailed, and diverse case studies of female offenders during our period, and a ‘how to manual’ which guides researchers through the key sources and methods of researching fantastic criminal biographies.

As historians interested in recovering and reconstructing offender’s lives we recognised that, even today, women still make up only a small portion of the criminal histories and cases we talk about. This is because, as most genealogists know, whilst individual records for women, civil or criminal, are certainly there to find, stitching them all together and following women across their lives can be much more difficult than it is for men.

Even law abiding female ancestors might regularly change names with marriage or have their occupations missed off a census, or their illegitimate children hidden from history. With female offenders we contend with all of this and more – as many of the women we seek were actively trying not to be found.

Even though both of us are well practiced at finding offender stories, as we dug in to old forgotten material and looked in new places, we were both pleasantly surprised with the huge amount there is out there, and just what you can do with it. We found stories of women over a fascinating century: from offenders who were among the very last to be shipped to Australia as convicts in the 1850s, all the way up to juvenile reformatory girls causing mischief at the beginning of the 20th century, or women serving prison sentences well into the 1920s.

Arabella Hopton is one of the women explored in Lucy and Barry’s book

It’s hard to pick a single case study, as all of them were fun to write (and, we hope, to read!). Each offers something different. However, certainly, one of my favourite new discoveries was the story of Arabella  Matilda Hopton, a midwife practicing in the first half of the 20th century.

The world of criminal women is so often hidden, and never more so than when they involved themselves in the (little talked about) business of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare.

Arabella Hopton, originally from Gloucestershire, was for more than two decades an ordinary woman. The wife of a butcher, and mother of five, she lived a respectable working-class existence in London.

When her husband Daniel died in 1900, Arabella had to find a way to provide for her three living children. Whilst her two teenage daughters took work in local factories, Arabella could not take full time work as she was still needed at home to care for her youngest child – four-year-old Hilda. Arabella had little work experience, having left her father’s house for her husbands, and having devoted most of her married life to domestic duties. During this time Arabella did, however, gain significant experience of children.

Arabella took work as a ‘monthly nurse’ providing help to other women at times of gynaecological illness and menstruation, and especially pregnancy and childbirth. Women who worked in this capacity needed no formal qualifications, and were usually women like Arabella – in middle-age or later life, who were mothers themselves and had spent years helping friends and neighbours in the same capacity.  Arabella later claimed that her experience in this capacity dated back as far as 1893.

Two years later, in 1902, an Act of Parliament made provision for the professionalisation of these services. Arabella became one of the first women to formalise her role by the Certified Midwives Board Examination that same year.

This new formalised role provided the Hopton family with ten years of stability. Arabella was able to pay for the cost of the family home, and even to hire a domestic servant. A situation far away from many women who found themselves thrown into offending in later life.

However, a paper trail shows us that her newfound affluence was not entirely gained through legal means. Like many midwives who sympathised with the plight of the women they served, Arabella not only aided women in birth, she also offered to undertake (then illegal) abortion procedures for a fee of around five shillings. All, of course, off of the formal record.

When it was discovered she was providing these services, Arabella was struck off the Midwives Roll in 1914, meaning she was no longer allowed to practice as a midwife. Far from preventing her illegal activities, the loss of the right to practice her legal trade only increased the time and incentive she had to continue.

The war years were an especially busy time women practicing abortions. Women who found themselves with child after an adulterous relationship and the recently bereaved an unable to contemplate bringing up a child alone might seek out the services of a midwife of nurse who offered this service when they would not ordinarily have done so.

There was also a standing pool of clients amongst young unmarried women, and those with large families who could not afford another mouth to feed. It was not until the 1920s that reliable contraception was available for women who wished to avoid pregnancy, and even then contraception was limited to married women and difficult to obtain. Arabella, with a reputation of successfully practicing for more than 20 years, would have found it easy enough to find work.

The illegal trade in abortions involved considerable risk on both sides, one physical, and one legal. Arabella’s downfall came when she performed a procedure on Edith Barbara Watts, using a surgical instrument to procure a miscarriage. However, Watts later went into septic shock and died shortly afterwards.

The cause of death was found to be a result of a dirty instrument used by Arabella. In this period, abortions were primarily carried out at home with household items, often those who operated had no way of surgically sterilising their instruments and simply cleaned them with soap and water between patients.

Despite it being her first offence, Arabella was tried for the murder of Watts. The case against her was easy to build and she was eventually found guilty of a lesser charge of using an instrument to procure and abortion. Much less serious than murder, which could still carry the death penalty, the offence still carried a sentence of seven years imprisonment. Arabella served five years in a Liverpool prison before she was released in July 1925.

More information on Arabella’s case, and 30 other rich and diverse cases, along with information on how to find them and what to make of them can all be found in our new book, out now with Pen and Sword.




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