My first proper post!
I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of the crimes that were carried out by some of the poorest women (and girls) as a female monarch – Victoria – took her position upon the European stage as Queen of England on the 20th June 1837. This is just the tiniest snap-shot of course and it focuses on what was happening right at the beginning of her reign.
It almost seems insulting to call the theft carried out by women of this era ‘petty’ as they were no doubt driven by poverty and need. When one sees the sentences regularly meted out it is hard to believe anyone could possibly be blasé about the risks of even the smallest crimes. The most common sentence was, imprisonment while carrying out hard labour. The final week or two of the sentence would often be spent in solitary confinement.
The Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury guardian reported the ‘Southampton Midsummer Sessions’ on the 1st July 1837 and include the case of Eliza White aged 29 who was charged and found guilty of stealing, two and a half crowns, one sixpence, five halfpennies and a farthing from a William Phillips. This crime received the sentence of three months in prison with hard labour, the last week to be spent in solitary confinement.
The same sessions include the rather sad case of Elizabeth Watts and Anne Steele both aged 13 facing charges of stealing a piece of bacon and a (used) pair of shoes. The girls are reported as ‘crying bitterly’ as they faced the charges. The Recorder (rather like a judge) threatened the girls with ‘transportation’ should they offend again. In this instance, for each crime, he sentenced them both to only one month in prison due to the fact they had already been confined for some time. He instructed ‘…labour as was fit for their age and sex’ and the last week of the sentence to be spent in solitary confinement. This, it was considered, was a lenient sentence.
The ‘County Sessions’ reported in The Leicester Chronicle, 6th January 1838 also report a case of a very young girl, described as, ‘almost an infant in appearance’, pleading guilty to stealing a ring from a reverend. Her name was Martha Wilson, age unknown, and she too, sobbed as she received her sentence; two months hard labour and two weeks in solitary confinement.
In the case of adult women, two examples from both of these newspapers reveal that lighter sentences could be hoped for if they could secure for themselves good and reliable character references. They are those of Lucy Litherland and Eliza Moody.
Lucy stole a piece of print from a shop and although found guilty, called several character witnesses. This gave her a recommendation for mercy. Eliza aged 24, was charged with stealing a green silk shawl and an imitation acorn flower from Mary Ann Ford. Her plea was ‘not guilty’ and was uttered through her sobs. She was so overcome with distress that she was given a seat. Despite testimonies on her behalf (by her sister Harriet among others) the Recorder and the jury remained convinced of her guilt. She also managed to secure an excellent character reference from a friend called Thomas Shergood whom she had known for 15 years. This is reported as contributing significantly to a reduced sentence. The Deputy Recorder apparently spoke to the distraught woman in a ‘feeling manner’ as he read the sentence of just one month in prison with such labour as befitted her age and sex.
On the flip side of this, previous convictions and a ‘bad’ character could increase the sentence dramatically with frightening consequences. Mary Cunningham had no character recommendations and her work as a prostitute only served to compound her dire fate in the face of emerging Victorian values. Poor Mary was charged and found guilty of stealing three sovereigns and sixpence. The crime was reported as ‘…another of the many cases of street robbery by street prostitutes.’ She had pick-pocketed the money from Mr Richard Potter. With a previous conviction she was doomed; sentenced to ten years transportation.
Thanks for looking, I hope you found the post interesting. 🙂