Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Tag: crime (page 1 of 7)

In a rather self-publicising post (sorry), I’m pleased to say that I have an article published in the new issue of the Law, Crime and History journal (vol 8, issue 1).

This is a special issue of the journal, devoted to a conference I attended last yearn Liverpool –  Lives, Trials and Executions. I spoke there about the Hampstead murder – when Mary Eleanor Piercey killed her lover’s wife and baby daughter, a crime she was executed for. My article follows on from that conference paper, looking at how the press depicted both Piercey and her victim, in ways that subverted the usual tropes of crime reporting.

My article can be accessed here; but the whole issue of this journal is, I think, great, and really shows the fascinating work being done by crime historians at the moment.


Event: Crime focus at SAFHS Annual Conference

If you’re into your crime history, it’s well worth signing up to this year’s Scottish Association of Family History Societies’ Annual Conference and Fair in April.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Was Your Ancestor A Convict?’, and there will be sessions on the making of the Fife Kalendar of Convicts (including the launch of a Convict CD and digital download) and on banishment and transportation, among other talks.

The conference takes place at The Rothes Halls, Kingdom Shopping Centre, Glenrothes, Fife on 21 April, from 10am until 4.30pm. There is a £20 conference delegate fee, but it costs just £2 to enter the family history fair (accompanied under 12s are free). This includes workshops, stalls, exhibits and ask-the-expert sessions. You can book online for the conference at

Event: Courts, crime and punishment at the SoG

The Society of Genealogists is holding a half-day course on crime records.

The course, hosted by professional genealogist Antony Marr, will take place on 3 March, from 10.30am until 1pm, and will look at the records of courts, criminals, police, prisons and punishments throughout the 19th century.

Taking place at the SoG HQ – 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA – the course costs £20, and you can book online via this link.

Why criminal ancestors sound so much more fun

Actor Lytton Grey, on the right in this image, was married to one of my ancestors; and attended her 18-year-old sister’s illegal marriage (© Criminal Historian)

Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?

A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.

But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.

I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.

The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?

Gough Square – home of Samuel Johnson, and my ancestors (© Criminal Historian)

On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.

The exploits of criminals – such as this 1936 murderer – are better remembered than the quiet achievements of the majority

I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.

Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.

So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.

They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.

Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.

His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?

And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.

The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.

The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.


Watched: The Unsolved Murder of Frances Buxton

Coverage of the case from the Sheffield Evening Telegraph made explicit the unlikelihood of the perpetrator being found

On 17 January 1920, Mrs Frances Buxton, landlady of The Cross Keys pub in Chelsea, was murdered.

Two days before, Mrs Buxton, aged 53, had been ‘pestered’ by a man at the bar. He was quite tall – between 5’10 and 6 foot, with a long, clean-shaven face, light hair and ‘very piercing’, close-set black eyes. He seemed respectable; he wore a bowler hat, was aged about 40, but spoke with quite a high-pitched voice for a man.

But what he said in that high-pitched voice disturbed her. He asked her intrusive questions about her love life, requested that she have supper with him, and then finally asked her if she lived at the pub on her own. She answered ‘yes’ and then immediately realised how stupid she was to do so. The man had then tried to walk into her private parlour, at which point, she pushed him out.

The incident bothered her so much that the following day, 16 January, she asked a local timekeeper, named variously as Briscoe Hervey, or Detley Driscoll Harvey, if he had noticed the man when he had been in the pub that day, but unfortunately, Hervey had not noticed him. However, he realised how concerned she was; she felt that she, and the pub, were being watched, but thought perhaps it was the police, monitoring the premises for evidence of improper conduct.

The London electoral register for 1919 records Frances in Chelsea (from Ancestry)

Frances was a married woman – but separated. She had lived apart from her husband, Frank, since about 1908, and they had not seen each other since the previous summer. Frank had relocated to Sussex, where he ran the Sussex Hotel in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Frances was not a drinker, but she had seen other men since she and Frank had separated; one of her barmaids, a Mrs Mitchell, believed that she had been seeing two men ‘at times’.

Then, on the morning of 18 January, Frances Buxton was found dead in the cellar of her pub; she had died shortly before midnight on the night of the 17th. That evening, Mrs Mitchell and her daughter had been working at the pub – the daughter was engaged to wash glasses – and had left at 10.30pm, Frances saying goodnight to them before Mrs Mitchell closed the door. Frances may then have had a late meal – in a small room behind the bar, the remains of a meal were later found, with it looking like she had been disturbed whilst eating.

Happier days? The 1891 census records Frances living with her husband Frank at 64 Fetter Lane, in the City of London

Whatever happened just before midnight that night involved violence. There was a smashed bottle and a pool of blood in the passageway, and Frances’s body had been placed on a pile of burning sacking, and covered in sawdust, with a spade lying nearby. She had not been dead long when the police found her. She had been killed from head injuries caused by the broken beer bottle, including a fractured skull – but her nose had also been broken by a blow, and it looked as though someone had attempted to strangle her with a cord of wire.

There were clues found by the police; fingerprints on Frances’s dress and the walls; two Treasury notes dropped by the perpetrator; missing money and jewellery belonging to Frances. All except the missing items (obviously) were photographed by the police, who suspected that two individuals – men – must have committed the crime.

The National Probate Calendar entry for Frances, from Ancestry. Although the date she died is given as 18 January, she was attacked the night before.

The inquest into Frances’s death had to be adjourned, but on Tuesday 3 February, it was resumed, with the coroner, HR Oswald, stating that ‘as there was no immediate prospect of the arrest of any suspected person, the jury could not in fairness continue to adjourn the inquiry on the chance of one taking place.’ The coroner’s jury soon, therefore, returned a verdict of wilful murder ‘by some person or persons unknown’.

There had, in the three weeks or so since the murder, been no arrests, and there was, as the coroner noted, no sign of there being any in the near future. This increased the fascination with the case by the press; the Globe employed a ‘special representative’ to give a gushing account of an interview Frank Buxton had with the police, together with a list of jewellery that was missing from the pub. This correspondent had made ‘inquiries from neighbours’ who frequented the pub, to build a picture of what it had been like on the night of the murder: ‘there were several couples playing dominoes’ was one of the earth-shattering things he found out.

More significant, perhaps, was the reporter’s suggestion that as Frances’s ‘exceptionally good’ watch-dog had failed to bark (or at least, was not heard to bark) when Frances was attacked, ‘the crime was probably perpetrated by someone familiar with the premises and known to the dog’. Given that the murder occurred in a popular pub, where many people would have been ‘familiar’ to the dog, though, this might not narrow the list of suspects down very much.

And so it proved. Nobody was arrested or charged with the murder, and five years later, it was being described in the press as ‘one of London’s unsolved crimes’.


NOTE: Five years after Frances’s death, in 1925, the case made headlines again when a man at the Tottenham Police Court suddenly declared that his niece could solve ‘the Chelsea murder mystery’. Another man had been charged with stabbing his nephew, following an argument where he had made allegations about his nephew’s wife. In court, another of the nephew’s uncles – so probably the defendant’s brother – commented about the nephew’s wife, “Our niece doesn’t want it known that she can give the information the police want to solve a Chelsea mystery of four [sic] years ago. The proprietress of a public-house was found murdered and her jewellery stolen.”

The defendant in this case was discharged, and immediately turned to the reporters in the police court, and asked them to print the family’s allegations against the nephew’s wife. Was this a baseless vendetta against the woman, or was there really a witness who could say what had happened? We don’t know, and all subsequently went quiet again – until the summer of 1926, when a Mr Creed was murdered in a Bayswater provision shop, a crime that resulted in anonymous letters being written to the police by a woman.

In coverage of this crime, it was noted that ‘the circumstances of the murder of Mr Creed are very similar to those in the case of the murder, in 1920, of Mrs Frances Buxton.’ Then, the following summer (1927), an ex-convict provided a statement to Scotland Yard that whilst serving a sentence in a French prison, he got talking to another prisoner who confessed that he had ‘taken part’ in the Chelsea crime.

Although Scotland Yard were stated to be trying to track down this confessing prisoner, there was doubt as to whether the ex-convict was telling the truth, for he was, after all, ‘well-known to the police in this country, and one who has many aliases.’

Sources: Western Daily Press, 21 January 1920, p.6; Nottingham Journal, 4 February 1920, p.5; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 4 February 1920, p.9; Globe, 19 January 1920, p.1; Daily Herald, 25 June 1925, p.5; Lancashire Evening Post, 25 June 1925, p.6; Nottingham Evening Post, 30 August 1926, p.1; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 25 July 1927, p.5; Nottingham Journal, 25 July 1927, p.1; Northern Whig, 25 July 1927, p.9. Records relating to the murder of Frances Buxton are also to be found in The National Archives (ref MEPO 3/268B).

Mr Dumpig the butcher and his New Year murder

With a surname like his, it was perhaps inevitable that Adolf Dumpig would grow up to be a butcher. There was no reason, though, why he had to be a butcher of people – and, in particular, of his baby son.

However, in January 1904, Mr Dumpig, a 28-year-old German immigrant to London, was charged with the murder of eight-month-old Walter Dumpig. On the evening of 2 January, he appeared – flanked by two warders – in Islington Coroner’s Court, to hear the inquest into his son’s death. Unable to speak English – or not well enough to understand the coroner – a German-speaking Met Police officer, Constable Schneider, acted as his interpreter.

The records indicate that the Dumpigs were recent immigrants to Britain, for less than a year before the awful events of New Year’s Eve, 1903, they had married back in Berlin; Adolf Otto Louis Dumpig, aged 27, had wed Selma Ida Antonie Knobel (known as Antonie) on 2 February 1903. Antonie was then just 21 years old.

11 months after that happy even, Walter Schroeder’s poor, mourning, mother, Antonie Dumpig, was called on to detail what had happened on New Year’s Eve, 1903. She said that Adolf was generally a sober man, but on New Year’s Eve, he had been out drinking, ‘to keep up the New Year’. Antonie had been left at their home at 295 City Road to celebrate on her own, as she had to look after the baby – obviously, Adolf had not thought to stay with her and mark the night together.

The couple rented just two rooms in the building on City Road, from a clerk named William Woods. One room was on the first floor, and the other in the basement. Woods lived in other rooms in the same building.

Adolf returned home just after midnight, and made some hot rum for the couple to drink together. Combined with his earlier drinking, though, this made him very drunk – and he rapidly became violent, scaring Antonie so much that she ran from the kitchen into another room. Adolf followed her and locked her in that room, before returning to the kitchen. Their baby son Walter – asleep in a bassinet – was left in that room with his drunk, violent father.

Imagine Antonie’s desperation. She was locked in a room, unable to get out and get to her child. Meanwhile, she could hear Adolf drunkenly breaking windows, shouting, and heard signs of violence. The noise was so great that at one point, around 1am, their landlord William Woods ventured out of his room to see what the matter was; he saw Antonie crouching in a corner of the hall, outside the door, with dripping-wet clothes, while her husband stood over her, talking to her angrily in German, before hitting her as she stood to go into the room.

Woods had the courage to try and intervene, but was then himself hit by Adolf. Instead of trying to reason with this drunk, angry, butcher, he did the sensible thing and ran out to fetch a policeman (other reports, however, state that it was Antonie who herself summoned the attention of a passing policeman, by shouting out from her locked room).

Antonie managed to get out of the room before the police arrived, and headed straight back to her kitchen. There, she discovered the body of her son. His throat had been cut.

The policeman who attended the scene, Sergeant Walter Lane, said that on approaching the backyard, he had found Adolf Dumpig sitting on a wall, so drunk that he appeared asleep. His hands had been covered in blood, and Sergeant Lane’s fears had immediately been roused (apparently, he was suspicious as soon as he noticed that Dumpig was not wearing either a hat or an overcoat…). Dumpig was not coherent; he was still very drunk, vomiting, and reeked of rum.

Soon after, Inspector Laban Lynes of G Division discovered a butcher’s knife in the yard. Adolf Dumpig – a journeyman butcher, but who had been unemployed for some time – had killed his own son with his work tool. He was taken to the City Road Police Station and charged with murder; his reply, which was translated by the Worship Street Police Court’s interpreter, Aaron Lichenstein [sic] was to his wife:

“Did I do this, or did Antonie? Speak the truth, say what you did to the child; I was out last evening, I never done it; should it come that I should murder my child that I love so dearly?”

By this time, it was 4.45am, and although he was still a little bit drunk, it was thought that he had ‘recovered’ a lot from earlier, to the extent that he could understand what was being said to him.

Not surprisingly, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Dumpig the Butcher, and he was committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court. On 11 January 1904, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Somewhat surprisingly to modern readers, the jury ‘strongly recommended’ him to mercy. This may have been because of contemporary concerns about how drink could affect even the most law-abiding of people; or sympathy towards his unemployed status, which may have led to stress and therefore a desire for drink.

Yet this remained a man who abused his wife; who tried to shift the blame for his son’s violent death onto her – the ultimate betrayal of trust by a man towards his spouse. Dumpig was a butcher in more than one way; he killed animals for a living, his son because he was drunk; and he tried to hang his wife by accusing her of killing her child.



Portsmouth Evening News, 4 January 1904, p.1; The Salisbury Times, 8 January 1904, p.2 (both via British Newspaper Archive); Berlin Marriages, 1874-1920 on AncestryOld Bailey Online, ref number t19040111-131. CapitalPunishmentUK does not list Dumpig as having been hanged in 1904, and, as this suggests, the jury’s plea for mercy was successful. The 1911 census for Dorset shows that Adolf Dumpig, born 1876 in Berlin [and described as a stone dresser], was at that time a prisoner at Portland Convict Prison.


Rogues Gallery – Faces of Crime

Highly recommended this month is the free exhibition Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime, 1870-1917, which is at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh until 1 December.

The centre of the small, but perfectly formed, exhibition is five photograph albums that survived from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, detailing some of the many Scottish criminals who were photographed after committing offences. Alongside these are historical trial records from the NRS.

Individuals whose stories are covered in the exhibition include Eugene Chantrelle, the French-born teacher who poisoned his wife Elizabeth in Edinburgh in 1878, and who is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Mr Hyde, as well as lesser-known characters such as Margaret Reid, a servant convicted of theft and fraud in 1899, and thief George Anderson, who worked as a miner and watchmaker but who was convicted in 1901, at the age of 36.

More details can be found here; visit the exhibition Monday to Friday, 9.30am until 4.30pm, at the NRS, General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh. There is also a great-sounding series of talks arranged to tie-in with the exhibition, and details of these can be found online here.

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Reckless turnip throwing – a Hallowe’en crime

A seasonal turnip, by Geni at Wikipedia

It was Hallowe’en – 31 October – in 1899, and a group of men and boys were celebrating the night in Yell – one of the Shetland islands in the north of Scotland. They were full of the joys of autumn – and possibly alcohol – but one man was not enjoying the pumpkin season, and had no desire to join in the fun.

This was Gilbert Tulloch, who lived at New House near the Yell Sound. He had no wish to be annoyed by the lively individuals outside, and so remained obstinately in his house, bolting his door against intruders. However, he had forgotten to bring his dog in, and the poor animal, stuck outside, started to bark.

Something then struck the door, and Gilbert, reluctantly, opened the door to quickly let the dog back in. However, he immediately saw a group of youths around 60 feet away, with one, Arthur Robertson, near the door. Gilbert spoke to him, presumably to ask him to keep further away from his house, or to request that he not strike his door. Robertson took offence and threw the nearest thing to hand at Mr Tulloch. That thing turned out to be a turnip.

The turnip struck Gilbert full in the face, and it was so heavy that it broke his nose, loosened five of his teeth, and struck him deaf in his right ear. Blood coursed down his face, making him appear as though he was a Hallowe’en creature rather than a persecuted householder.

Arthur Robertson was prosecuted, and duly convicted of a rather unusual-sounding offence: that of recklessly throwing a turnip. Because Gilbert had been so badly injured by it, the local sheriff decided that although Robertson had no prior convictions, he could not be convicted of this offence under the First Offenders Act. The sheriff further said that although he had ‘no objection to boys having larks’, in this case, it had led to both annoyance and injury to another man.

Robertson was fined 10 shillings – if he couldn’t, or refused to, pay, he would have to go to prison for four days instead. The sheriff noted that he hoped this punishment ‘would be taken as a warning by the youths of the county, and prevent them carrying their larks beyond the degree of moderation.’


Source: Shetland Times, 16 December 1899, p.5

Review: West Indians – Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police?

The Museum of London at Docklands

This month, a new display appeared at the Museum of London Docklands looking at the history of the Thames River Police. Judging by the description of it on the museum’s website, it sounded like a major new exhibit –  and this would be appropriate, given the long history of the Thames River Police, or Marine Police, which was founded in Wapping in 1798.

However, if you’re expecting a lot, like I was, you might be disappointed. After immediately visiting usual ground floor exhibition space only to find it dark and empty, I was redirected by a member of staff to the second floor – but I had already visited this, and hadn’t spotted anything about the police. On looking round the floor again, twice, I found the display, and understood why I missed it. There is nothing directing you to it; and it comprises a single display board (albeit a fairly large one) and one artefacts display case at the side of it.

The artefacts include a copy of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829; a copy of Patrick Colquhoun’s treatise, which inspired the creation of the police (he first published it in 1796, although the copy here is from the 6th edition); a police seal, hangar, scabbard, tipstaff, rattle and handcuffs, all dating from the first quarter of the 19th century,

Sources for these artefacts are the Thames Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and the West India Committee (the latter having curated the display); but placed separately like this, they actually lose something – I felt I understood more about the Marine Police from my visit to the Thames Police Museum, where the curator talked me through the history and artefacts, in the police’s actual base.

A map of the Port of London, focal point of the display

The display board is nicely designed, with its focal point being a map of the Port of London, from the city, out east to the mouth of the Thames. But understandably, given its size, it has to limit the amount of information it tells you: so there’s a brief mention of the 1798 Dung Wharf riot, and the inevitable paragraph on the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811.

There’s better mention of Patrick Colquhoun than of John Harriott, the JP who devised a plan to police Thames shipping in 1797. It was Harriott’s plan that led Colquhoun to convince the West India merchants’ and planters’ committees to finance a year’s trial of this new police force, initially known as the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute – a trial which became a two year one, before, in 1800, government made the Marine Police a public police force under the control of the Home Secretary (see here for more on its early history).

I understand that this display is part of a larger project by the West India Committee to uncover the ‘little known shared heritage of the Caribbean and police services today’, and utilises its own archival resources. Yet given the Thames Police Museum’s own collection and expertise, it just feels like a wasted opportunity to publicise the history of the River Police to a wider audience, and to go into more detail about why it was set up, and the relationship between the police and the men they dealt with.

Patrick Colquhoun, founder of the Thames Marine Police

The West India Committee, meanwhile, claims on its website simply that it ‘founded… the Thames Police’ and that ‘West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force’, with its phrasing suggesting that West Indians were doing so prior to 1839. These claims (and potential differentiation between initiating an organisation, founding it, and funding it) deserved more detail than the limited information provided on the display board (I would have particularly have liked more detail on the Committee’s involvement with Colquhoun) – and the artefacts displayed fail to make any link to the West India Committee outside of them being simply police artefacts.

The Museum acknowledges that most people assume that the Metropolitan Police was the start of ‘modern’ policing in London, when actually, the Thames River Police is the longest, continuously serving police force not only in London, but in the world. I’m not sure the display is clear enough about its remit, and because of this, it frustrates by the bite-size pieces of information it offers visitors.

West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police? runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 14 January 2018

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Locating Lydia: Tracing the life of a female convict

An 1879 image of Lydia Lloyd

I’ve been spending a bit of time delving into the Digital Panopticon’s many cases recently, and trying to find out information about them outside of their criminal records, to see how much of a life can be reassembled from this distance in time.

These men and women were more than their criminal career – what did they do outside of this, who were their families, who were their friends?

Unfortunately, of course, you can find out more about some individuals than others. With women, matters get more complicated – they might state that they were married, but you can’t locate a husband; they might go by one name, but was this their maiden name or married name, or even an alias?

They might claim to have been born in a particular place, in a particular year – but they may have had reason to fudge this to the authorities, perhaps not wanting to be traced, or for their families to face ignominy.

In some cases, most of what you know about them is from their criminal record – and it serves to remind us how that criminal record might actually be all that prevents them from becoming forgotten.

A small part of Lydia’s long record on the Digital Panopticon website (although the top entry appears to be for a different individual)

One such case is that of Lydia Lloyd. Her presence in the Digital Panopticon is an extensive one; she was regularly recorded as a criminal from 1865, when she claimed to be 22 years old, to 1886, when she was released from Woking Women’s Convict Prison, aged 43.

She is certainly present in the 1881 census, as an inmate of Woking Prison, and she is also present on the Old Bailey Online website. But outside of her criminal record, and that one census, I’ve struggled to locate her – or locate her with any confidence.

Lydia Lloyd claimed to have been born in 1843 in Wolverhampton. During her criminal career she described herself as a widow, a laundress, who had one child – in 1873, this daughter was said to be aged 15, so born around 1858.

No censuses prior to 1881 list a Lydia Lloyd born at around the right time in the Wolverhampton district. There seems to be no marriage of a Lydia to a Mr Lloyd; she would have been 15 when she had her daughter, so the marriage – if it had, in fact, taken place – presumably couldn’t have been much earlier than that, although it could, of course, have been later.

The births of seven Lydias were registered in the Wolverhampton district between the first quarter of 1842 and the last quarter of 1843. None, that I can find, married a man by the name of Lloyd. The 1861 census has no Lloyd family that could be Lydia’s.

In July 1873, Lydia Lloyd was charged with being drunk in Banbury, Oxfordshire, on the evening of 14 July, a local police constable stating that she had been so ‘very drunk’ that ‘quite a crowd’ had started following her round.

She was fined 5s and 6s costs, but failed to pay, and so was sent to prison for a week, according to the Banbury Advertiser of 17 July 1873. The Oxford Journal of two days later described her as being a widow, living in Calthorpe Street, in the centre of Banbury.

In October 1873, described as a laundress, she was charged with stealing a sack and skirt, worth 4s, from Oxford on 23 July and on the same day, also stealing underwear from a man on the Woodstock Road.

As with the previous offence, she was described as having been drunk at the time, and she had also struck a man across his back with the sack. When she had been questioned by police, she claimed to have ‘brought the sack and its contents from the Potteries in Staffordshire’.

The record of two charges against Lydia, from Ancestry

Lydia’s defence was described as ‘rambling’ – she said she had gone to a public house to get some drink, and afterwards went to sleep.

On waking up, ‘she was told to be off and take the sack with her’. She was convicted of one of the offences, and when sentence was passed, she was described as ‘an old offender’. She was given five years in prison, and a further five years under police surveillance (Oxford Journal, 11 October 1873).

Her most serious offence was heard in March 1879 at the Central Criminal Court. She was described as being aged 36, of no fixed abode, and a laundress. She was charged with stealing a shawl worth £1 from the Railway Hotel in Finchley, having been found hiding under a bed.

The press noted that she had several previous convictions, and was currently on a ticket-of-leave; she was convicted of theft and sentenced to ten years in prison (Hendon & Finchley Times, 8 March 1879).

Asked to explain the theft, all she could say, according to the papers, was “I came down from London and was drinking at the bar with a man, but how I came in the house, I don’t know.” She did not say where she had come to London from (Hendon & Finchley Times, 1 March 1879).

The Old Bailey Online records her as saying she had lost the train home from Finchley ‘and a young man gave her some whisky, stating that his father was the landlord of the hotel, and offered to pay for a bed for her; she drank several times, and remembered nothing till she found herself on the bed next morning’.

After her release from prison in 1886, Lydia disappears from the record. Searching for her both on ancestry websites and in the press leaves names but no corroborating evidence that it’s her.

Is Lydia the same Lydia Lloyd who ran a coffee house on Walsall’s High Street in 1893, and who prosecuted a 16-year-old for obtaining 6s by false pretences from her? Another newspaper disproves it, describing her as the wife of the coffee or cocoa house’s manager – not a widow, and not a previous convict who had made a new life for herself (Walsall Advertiser, 25 February 1893).

Perhaps she married again; perhaps she had never been married in the first place, but adopted a name and a marital status that made her daughter a respectable legitimate child. But we just don’t know.

What we do know is that this was a Midlands woman who had problems with drink; she stole, not just once, but frequently, as her numerous trials for theft attest. She was around 5 feet 2 inches; she was Catholic; she had grey eyes.

We can see her photograph; although she was convicted of thefts, the Digital Panopticon team record that she engaged in prostitution as well as thieving.

As a prisoner, she fought with others, was regarded as quarrelsome and insolent, struck an officer, refused to do what she was told, and spent time in solitary confinement. She slammed her cell door in a fit of temper;  she laughed in chapel; she disliked the rules of prison life.

She moved around; she caught trains; she lived not only in Wolverhampton, but in Banbury – a provincial market town in north Oxfordshire – and in London.

Was she moving in search of work, or had she moved to live with a partner? Could she not make a living as a laundress, and had to seek money by stealing, or was it her drink that ended her legitimate work?

What seems clear is that if it wasn’t for her unsuccessful but fairly extensive criminal career, Lydia Lloyd would be forgotten about, like so many other Victorian women from the lower echelons of society. Thanks to the Digital Panopticon and other online sources of criminal records, however, a timeline of part of her life, at least, can be assembled and remembered.



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