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.
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.