Maria Dibsdale - By the first few years of the twentieth century, Maria, now in her late thirties, was drinking so heavily she was attracting the attention of the authorities. In July 1903, Maria was taken to Holloway Prison for three days on a charge of criminally neglecting her children. Though the charge was for a single incident on 17 July, it was noted that several similar instances had already occurred. Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

By Mark McConville

 

A NEW book has revealed the striking mug shots of Britain’s criminal women in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the tragic circumstances that led them to a life of crime.

Poverty in Victorian Britain.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

Incredible images show Elizabeth Dillons who began working as a prostitute at age 16 and was convicted more than forty times for charges including riotous behaviour, drunkenness and disorderly conduct, obscene language, vagrancy, wilful damage, prostitution, theft, and assault.

SARAH TUFF ALIAS SARAH POOLE – convicted of larceny multiple times and not permitted to return to her marital home by her husband upon her release from one of her prison stints.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

Other stunning photographs show Maria Adams who was revealed as the youngest woman in convict prison aged 17 in the 1881 census, Sarah Tuff convicted of larceny multiple times and not permitted to return to her marital home by her husband upon her release from one of her prison stints, and Amelia Layton who sought out the workhouse on many occasions as a way to fight against her poverty before dealing with her financial problems by committing theft and receiving a 12-month sentence.

The convict ship Success docked at Hobart.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

The remarkable insight into the lives of female criminals is showcased in Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey’s new book, Criminal Women 1850-1920, published by Pen and Sword.

Ellen Risden – In 1873, Ellen stole a pair of boots and was given one month in prison with hard labour, the following year she again stole boots and received two months of hard labour. Ellen’s offences were infrequent, rather than perpetual, taking place less than once a year. This would suggest that her thefts were not closely related to financial hardship or destitution. Ellen offended again in 1874, 1876 and 1879, receiving two, four and six months of hard labour respectively.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

“Records of crime and disorder created by the British state between 1850 and 1925 are some of the most voluminous of all those available for the study of ordinary people in the last two centuries,” they write.

Amelia Layton who sought out the workhouse on many occasions as a way to fight against her poverty before dealing with her financial problems by committing theft and receiving a 12-month sentence.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

“However, while we might suppose that this would make the history of crime and criminals one of the easier histories to uncover, creating a criminal biography can leave us with a nasty shock.

Mary Fitzpatrick – In March 1879, Mary was convicted at Leeds Police Court of being ‘riotous’ and sentenced to seven days in prison. Later that same year, Mary was reconvicted at York for stealing flannel and she was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment. A few months later she was convicted of stealing handkerchiefs and given another two months’ imprisonment.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

“Unless you are tracing one of the handful of criminal celebrities in the nineteenth century, you may find this more difficult than you first imagine.

Matilda Bramble (alias Sarah Davies) – by the age of around 15, Sarah was already frequenting the streets and working as a prostitute. However, her first conviction was not for prostitution or disorderly behaviour, but for theft. She was prosecuted for stealing a gown and sentenced to six weeks in Swansea Prison with hard labour. In fact, Sarah was never convicted for prostitution-related offences, or for drunkenness or disorderly and violent behaviour like so many other young women in her position.
In 1867 she was in court again, this time for the theft of a duck. Sarah maintained her innocence and the case was eventually dismissed.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

“People who broke the law usually had a vested interest in not being found. They used aliases, regularly changed addresses and weren’t always the most truthful when officials asked them for details – information we rely on to find them and learn about their lives more than a century later.

Victorian street-sellers in Covent Garden.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

“Female offenders can be amongst the hardest characters of all to find. Not only were they, like male offenders, keen to escape the eye of the authorities, but by virtue of being women, their identities were more changeable and their lives were less consistently recorded.”

Elizabeth Dillon, convicted more than forty times. She had been taken to the police court for riotous behaviour, drunkenness and disorderly conduct, obscene language, vagrancy, wilful damage, prostitution, theft, and assault. Her sentences were usually between one week and two months in length, and she had spent a combined total of more than five years in prison.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

Willams and Godfrey believe that the narratives of the female criminals in the last two centuries have the potential to challenge our perception of women in this era.

Maria Adams – When the census was taken in 1881 it revealed that the youngest woman in a convict prison was Maria Adams, aged 17. She had been sentenced to five years’ penal service in 1879 for stealing clothes. That was her fifth conviction, having first been convicted at Birmingham for a similar theft, aged 15.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

They also think it could broaden our understanding of working-class lives and expand our knowledge of crime, disorder and the dark side of society in British history.

 

“When we think of criminals between 1850 and 1925 we might imagine the spectral figure of ‘Jack the Ripper’ lurking in Whitechapel alleyways, or perhaps the ‘Artful Dodger’ picking pockets in a crowded public place,” they added.

Maria Allen – launched into a significant criminal career relatively late in her life. She was first convicted of larceny in 1852 when she was 44. She went into custody for six months; and another twelve months in 1854. Almost as soon as she got out, she was convicted of larceny again, and sentenced to four years’ penal servitude. She received another five years for stealing sheets in 1861 and was released on licence in 1865. In 1880 she stole another sheet, and at the age of 72 she received a ten-year sentence at Surrey Sessions.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

“We might think of the most famous murders of the day, or the petty crimes that kept policemen pacing the beat; and travellers in Britain’s towns and cities keeping a watchful eye on their wallets. Women, however, do not normally spring to mind.

 

“By revealing these lives, we seek to convey not only the diversity of the crimes for which women were convicted, and the punishments they were subjected to, but also the different patterns that criminal activity could take in the female life-course – from young women whose later lives reflected nothing of their early transgressions, to women stuck in an almost life-long cycle of offending, imprisonment and reconviction.”

Mary Hardyman – repeatedly convicted of theft but it was often for a piece of beef or other meat to feed herself and her family.
Lucy Williams / Barry Godfrey / mediadrumimages.com

 

Criminal Women: 1850-1920, by Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey, is published by Pen and Sword. It is available now, RRP £14.99.

 

LEAVE A REPLY