I’ve recently been looking at the criminal activities of Cornish women in the 19th century, placing their offences within their wider economic and social context. However, here, I thought I’d focus in on one particular Cornish family, to show how their offences and lives could be different from those of local men, and how these women were able to contribute to the household economy and form a financial coping strategy in times of economic need. Their lives were governed not by conventional morality (or concepts of what defined morality) but by a practicality and by close bonds with the other women in their families.
In March 1848, two women, 34-year-old Elizabeth Worsley and 47-year-old Eliza Harvey, were convicted at the Penzance Borough Sessions of keeping a bawdy house, and sentenced to three months each in prison. This was a fairly unusual offence to be charged with, judging from surviving criminal registers for Cornwall; women were more frequently convicted of in the 1840s of larceny, including larceny as a servant, a more serious offence whereby female servants stole from their masters or mistresses. But there was also an apparent monitoring of female sexuality in the mid 19th century, with women being deemed to be ‘common prostitutes’ for walking in public at night, or for having an illegitimate child.
Elizabeth Worsley, one of the women charged, lived in the Penzance area all her life. She was born there in 1814, and died in the town in 1873. In 1851, the census listed her as the head of household at a house in Camberwell Street, Penzance, working as a boot binder, along with her sister, 29-year-old Mary Worsley. Also with them were Elizabeth’s two children – Charles F Worsley, aged 11, and daughter Wilmot Ann Worsley, 3, and Mary’s son, two year old Isaac. Elizabeth was clearly listed as single; her two children were illegitimate, and took her surname. Similarly, Mary’s son was also illegitimate. Also present at their house was Elizabeth’s ‘sweetheart’ – named as such in the census – Peter Knight, a 31-year-old mariner.
In 1861, Elizabeth was still working as a shoe or boot binder, but was now living at 31 Adelaide Street. Now aged 41, she was listed in the census as unmarried, but she was also stated to be the mother of Charles, a 21-year-old cordwainer, Amelia, 15, a servant, and Wilmot Ann, 12, a scholar. Two of Elizabeth’s other sisters were now living with her – a married sister, 42-year-old Ann Rowe, and a younger, single sister – Wilmot Worsley, after whom her niece was named. This younger sister also had an illegitimate child with her – Isaac Crow Worsley, aged 12. Neither sister had a job, and so Elizabeth and her two older children were responsible for maintaining this extended family.
Elizabeth – still single – and her son, Charles, were in 1871 living with her ‘daughter in law’ Amelia, 24 (presumably the same Amelia who was stated to be Elizabeth’s daughter ten years earlier; see note at end). Also living with them was Elizabeth’s nephew Isaac, by now a 22 year old labourer. Charles had followed his mother’s occupation, and was now a shoemaker.
So we have here a woman who never married, but who had and raised children on her own, maintaining an extended family through her work. She may well have supplemented her boot-binding income with sex work, as the bawdy house conviction suggests; was the ‘sweetheart’ named in the earliest census one of her clients? But she lived in close confines with this extended family, and it seems unlikely that if she had sex for money she did so on a formal basis, from her own home. It seems more likely that when times were hard, she may have tried to get money where she could, on a more ad hoc, disorganised basis, until things got better.
What does seem apparent is that this was a matriarchal set-up, where marriage was neither sought nor thought about. Elizabeth’s own illegitimate daughter Wilmot Ann, born in 1849, followed her mother’s example. She died in 1928 in Penzance, still unmarried, but this does not mean she did not have relationships. In 1881, she was the head of household in a house in Friggens Court, off Market Street, working as a seamstress. She was working to support not only herself, but her 10-year-old illegitimate son, Charles. Charles was actually her second illegitimate child; the first, Mary, baptised in 1868, seems to have died young.
Wilmot only had one recorded appearance before the magistrates – in August 1881, she appeared at the Penzance Petty Sessions, charged with disobeying a school attendance order – she had not been making Charles go to school. She was fined 2s 6d for the offence. At the same time, two of her relatives similarly appeared; William Worsley for not ensuring that his children regularly attended St Paul’s School, and was fined the same as Wilmot. Then Amelia Worsley was summoned for not sending her daughter to school, but she claimed her child was ill, and produced a doctor’s certificate (The Cornishman, 11 August 1881).
It was noted that she did not send her children to school regularly – and in fact, four months earlier, Amelia Worsley had been before the magistrates for the same reason, both her son and daughter having failed to attend school. In that case, Amelia had argued that her son ‘had been frightened by a dog’ and her daughter was ill; but she was censured for not having got a medical certificate to that effect (The Cornishman, 17 February 1881). In this case, too, the children appear to have been Amelia’s illegitimate son and daughter.
This was the same situation ten years later; Wilmot was now working as a charwoman, living in a different, but still poor part of the town, her income now supplemented by Charles’s work as a driver. Wilmot then moved to a two-room house at 7 Summer Court, New Street, where she remained for at least ten years. She continued to work as a char, and clearly signed her name as ‘Mrs Wilmot Worsley’, despite not marrying, and the use of ‘Mrs’ to denote a female whether married or single having become obsolete.
These children’s illegitimate status seems to have been overlooked or tolerated within their local community, and all of them were baptised within the Church of England (in Wilmot’s and Amelia’s cases, Elizabeth was recorded as her father in the records, with a Mary Worsley listed as mother). There is no record online that their baptisms had the common annotation ‘base born’ or ‘illegitimate’ next to them.
Elizabeth freely declared that she was a single woman, as did Wilmot, although she used the title ‘Mrs’. Amelia, in 1901, was listed as a widow in the census, when she was working as an office caretaker and living on her own – but she was similarly listed as a widow in 1891, and in 1881, when she was working as a laundress and living with her children Mary, 10, Charles, 7 – and an 11 month old child, William. And as mentioned previously, in the 1871 census, she listed herself as ‘wife of John Worsley’, but there was no John living at the address, and no record of any Cornish marriage between a John Worsley and Amelia.*
Were the Worsleys simply one family who refused to live by the conventions of Victorian morality, or were they representative of their community? The apparent acceptance of their lifestyles in their local area, their openness in recording their status and that of their children, and the many cases involving ‘immoral’ behaviour and prostitution by women in Cornwall during the 19th century suggests that female sexual behaviour was not perceived by these women as anything to be embarrassed about – even if the authorities sporadically attempted to punish them for it.
* There is one marriage between John Worsley and, possibly, an Amelia Hardy in 1870, but this took place in Manchester, and there is no evidence that the Worsleys ever moved outside of Penzance. In addition, as Amelia is clearly Elizabeth’s daughter in the 1861 census, and has Elizabeth’s family with her in 1871, it seems unlikely that she was a daughter-in-law with the maiden name of Hardy, rather than a Worsley by birth. There is also no record of Elizabeth Worsley having a son named John (one John Worsley baptised in 1852 in Penzance was the son of Mary and John Worsley). However, a John Worsley, aged 49, did die in Penzance in 1878, so I cannot be 100% sure that Amelia wasn’t telling the truth.