The House of Correction for Bad Wives

Joseph Townsend

Joseph Townsend

In 1791, the London Chronicle reported the existence of a “remarkable” house of correction in Barcelona, which had been visited by Joseph Townsend four years earlier.

It had two aims: the reformation of prostitutes and female thieves (the two apparently interlinked or one and the same thing to many); and the second aim was “the correction of women who fail in their obligation to their husbands, and of those who either neglect or disgrace their families”.

The women held in this house of correction were fed bread and meat, paid for mainly through fines, but the women were expected to help fund their own meals by working “as long as they can see”.

They were able to earn five shillings a month, half of which was given to the Governor, and the other half was kept on their behalf until their term of confinement had expired – enabling them to walk out of the House of Correction with some funds behind them.

It was made clear that this punishment was a last resort, for these strong-minded women should ideally be “corrected” by their husbands, fathers, or other relatives. If they were unable to give a “severe” enough chastisement, then they could apply to the magistrate to confine them “for a term proportioned to their offences”.

The relative who sought their confinement would be made to contribute the equivalent of fourpence halfpenny a day for their maintenance, “and with this scanty provision they must be contented.”

The whole building was designed to maintain 500 women, suggesting that Barcelona had (or anticipated) something of a problem with independent women, although at the time of Townsend’s visit, there were only 113 women confined there.

These included, apparently, some rather fashionable ladies, whose families would tell concerned people that they were “visiting some distant friends”. One woman present was a rather well-to-do lady who had been accused both of being drunk and “imprudent in her conduct”.

Such women would receive “bodily correction, when it is judged necessary for their reformation,” a good whipping presumably being just the think for getting rid of any unfeminine thoughts.

This tale was regaled to the English newspaper reader as a strange act carried out by those odd foreigners; one can imagine the Daily Mail salivating over the tales of posh drunks, prostitutes and errant wives, being forced to learn appropriate behaviour from men.

Yet the English press appear to have failed to realise the similarities between this establishment and the gaols of its own land; the willingness of the English law to punish women deemed guilty of unfeminine or immoral acts; and the legality of whipping for women in England at this time.

It wrote about the strangeness of the law in Spain, without recognising the equal strangeness of the law at home.

Source: London Journal, 30 June-2 July 1791; “A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787″ by Joseph Townsend (1791).


Why poor neglected females turn to crime

womenIt is a truth universally acknowledged that women do not always get paid the same as men for doing the same job, and this is in the 21st century. In the 18th century, women were often paid less than men, and had less recourse to the law than we do today to fight for a fairer deal.

Yet the fact that women were paid less, and sometimes paid a wage that they could not live on, was not a secret. Many knew it; and some had considerable sympathy for the plight of the female in the workplace.

One anonymous writer in 1796 argued that there was a clear correlation between the disparity in male and female wages and the likelihood of a woman turning to thieving as a result. He wrote that women were paid a quarter of what they should be, and added:

“I beg to remind the public that sempstresses had the same wages sixty years ago that they have now…while the wages of the men have been considerably advanced, those of the women had remained as before.”

In addition, legislation had regulated the wages of men, “while the poor neglected females have had none to plead their cause”.

And what was the result of this unfairness? The writer recognised the desperation of those who were out of employment, and who knew “the cravings of hunger”. He asked,

“Is there one man in a thousand who knows the cravings of hunger, who if a convenient opportunity offers to gratify his appetite even by means of theft, could withstand the temptation? No wonder that we heard of so many female thieves.”

The writer was relatively unusual in recognising why some women might be compelled to steal – not through a failing in their personality, or a lack of respect for society, but out of hunger, poverty, or lack of other choices.

Yet he still linked the criminality of women to that of men, unable to continue his argument that a woman could act independently of men. He concluded:

“The path of honesty once deserted, is very difficult to regain: but then entirely lost female virtue follows, and the consequence is, a connection is formed with the most infamous of the other sex, who then carry on the trade of thieving jointly.”

So once the female had set off down the path of thieving, it would be difficult to live an honest (poorly paid) life again; but if she met with an equally thieving man, she would be completely lost.

Source: The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 18 August 1796


'Six Stages of Mending a Face' (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

Defacing Beauty

'Six Stages of Mending a Face' (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’ (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

One eighteenth-century reviewer’s judgement on an exhibition of paintings, recorded in The Times, was marred slightly by one thing – the distraction of women.

The walking paintings at the exhibitions are by far more curious, more attractive, and more worthy the attention of the speculative mind than those whose situations are stationary. Why will women take so much pains to render their appearance unnameable – as Ordeal says in the new comedy, “they should be prosecuted for high treason in defacing beauty”.

- The Times, 13 May 1785, page 2


This put-out writer was misquoting the 1785 play Fashionable Levities, which had the character of Mr Ordeal praise a woman for her natural looks. Ordeal says, ‘her real face shall never be concealed under a counterfeit; some ladies coin complexions, and should be punished for high treason in defacing beauty’.


Appropriately, given the legal language in the play, it was written by the Dublin barrister Leonard Macnally. He trod a fine line between comedy and the law, writing at least 12 plays – mainly satires and comedies – as well as comic operas, and writing both a well respected book on the law of evidence and a handbook (albeit described as ‘exceedingly inaccurate‘) on the role of the Justice of the Peace in Ireland. He is regarded as having helped define the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ at criminal trials.

Yet Macnally was also a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen in the 1790s – set up to get parliamentary reform, but which became an Irish republican organisation – and defended other members in court, his clients including Wolfe Tone (also a former barrister). After his death in 1820, it was discovered that he had, in fact, been a government informant, spying on the United Irishmen for Britain. For the last 26 years of his life, he had been receiving payment for his services.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one of his common tactics was, when given a brief for the defence in a government prosecution, to pass on its contents to the crown’s lawyers. Yet James McMullen Rigg stated that ‘though no great lawyer [he] was…a powerful cross-examiner.’

Of course, there are similarities between law and drama – there is an element of acting when you are a barrister presenting a case in court, and in drama, you say your lines wanting your audience to believe what you say, and believe who you are.

But Macnally confused things further, using legal language in his plays, and playing several characters himself – playwright, lawyer, republican, government informer.

Macnally’s life may have been interesting, but he does not come across as an attractive character – much like the made-up women he critiqued in his play.


Criminally interesting: the British Crime Historians Symposium 2014

Liverpool's St George's Hall - former location of the Assizes

Liverpool’s St George’s Hall – former location of the Assizes

On 26 and 27 September, criminal historians from across the UK – and indeed from around the world – gathered at the University of Liverpool’s Foresight Centre for the 2014 British Crime Historians Symposium.

It was an incredibly enjoyable and friendly conference, with several people commenting on how quickly the time went, listening to a wide variety of papers and talking to people working in diverse areas of criminal history.

The only downside, as usual, was choosing which panel to go and listen to; often, several equally interesting panels took place at a time.

The Digital Panopticon team were there, talking about data visualisation and other aspects of this project, which aims to study the impact of punishments on the lives of thousands of people sentenced at the Old Bailey in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Meanwhile, legal historian Richard Ireland gave a hugely entertaining paper about Welsh criminal justice which was later also looked at by Rachel Jones, who studied how Welsh magistrates’ local knowledge was used in their decision making.

Interesting things learned here included the fact that although English was the official language of the Welsh courts until 1942, matters were sometimes subverted by evidence being given in Welsh, without translation, or even by magistrates conducting affairs in Welsh themselves, leading to some rather brief reports in the press – the English-speaking reporters being unable to say what had happened in court. Magistrates might also be related to prosecution or defence lawyers, leading to some rather biased – but also strangely intimate – court cases.

In another panel, I was particularly interested in Louise Falcini‘s paper on the impressment of naked male bathers in London in the late 18th century and Guy Woolnough‘s on rural policing in Victorian Cumbria, which linked the Temperance movement and Methodism in the area to the nature of arrests by the local police.

On Saturday, I listened to a fascinating panel about a project, After Care, that sets out to document the life histories of children who were sent to reformatories in the late 19th century. Pam Cox, Heather Shore and Zoe Alker spoke about the challenges of the project, which is trying to find out what happened to these children – did they go on to lead successful lives, and how do we measure success?

I then took part in a panel with Cardiff University’s Cath Horler-Underwood about women’s involvement in crime in the eighteenth century – I spoke about the representation of female defendants in property offence cases heard by rural magistrates, and Cath about women’s involvement in coin uttering cases – which included some great detail about women who hid coins in their underclothes, which had to be ‘retrieved’ by searchers.

Here’s my Storify of the conference (my tweets were sadly limited as I couldn’t get onto the wifi – despite much trying). If you weren’t there, you missed out on a criminally interesting, entertaining, yet informative, conference that proved that criminal history is where it’s at!





The Ullingswick Murder, Part Five: On trial for rape and murder

This is the final part of my series this week on the Ullingswick Murder. Click on the links for Parts One, Two, Three and Four.

The trial of William Hope took place on 28 March 1863 at the Herefordshire Assizes.

Entry for William Hope at the Hereford Assizes in 1863, from Ancestry.

Entry for William Hope at the Hereford Assizes in 1863, from Ancestry.

The circumstantial evidence – William’s presence at the beershop, his attempts to get Mary to drink with him, his sudden absence from the shop when Mary left, and his failure to return back to his lodgings – was combined with the evidence of marks in the clay and mud matching his poorly mended cord trousers, and the teethmarks in his skin.

Particular emphasis was placed on this physical evidence, and the fact that the trousers had been found bloody and muddy. The newspapers reported that these were ‘damning proofs of the prisoner’s guilt’, and there was little surprise when the jury found Hope guilty of wilful murder, and he was sentenced to death.

In reality, Hope’s previous convictions virtually signed his death warrant. He was known locally as a bad character, a man with a criminal past, who was unable to get steady employment, who liked his beer a bit too much.Even his looks were perceived to be criminal.

He was the obvious suspect, and there is little evidence that the local community saw him as anything other than a bad apple. The press saw him likewise, stating that:

‘he displayed not the slightest feeling while sentence was pronounced, and seemed to be indifferent to the death that awaits him.’

It was reported that Hope was ‘sullen’ between his conviction and the execution, and that when the High Sheriff of Hereford had visited him in his cell two days before his death, he had admitted the murder, but blamed Mary for her own death.

He turned her second visit to the beer-shop as an invitation, a suggestion that she was interested in him – and so he followed her intending to ‘gratify his lustful passions’. He said that if Mary ‘had not returned a second time to the village beerhouse and shop, and waited for him in the road, it would not have happened.’

condemnedOn the night before his death, Hope had been unable to sleep, only getting two hours’ sleep between 3am and 5am. He ate the usual prison breakfast at 7am. He was then pinioned, and helped onto the scaffold. He then knelt down to pray with the chaplain for a few moments, before the noose was adjusted round his neck, and the white cap placed over his head.

On Wednesday 15 April 1863, at exactly 8am, William Hope was executed by hangman Smith.

‘He was assisted to the drop, gazed for an instant with a wild look on the thousands of persons who had assembled to witness a murderer’s end, and the next instant was launched into eternity, life passing away with scarcely a struggle.’

His hanging was reported in far less detail than the original offence. This is, perhaps, what he deserved; it also reflects a desire by the press not to turn this hanging into entertainment, given contemporary concerns over the point of such executions.

But it also shows how the focus of the press was on the juxtaposition of good versus bad; the goodness of the loyal servant and the evil of her death at the hands of a criminal who had been given a second chance by the judicial system.

Sources for these blog posts: The Standard, London, 23 October 1862, The Leeds Mercury, 24 October 1862, The Standard, London, 25 October 1862, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, 28 March 1863,  The Bury and Norwich Post, 31 March 1863, Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863, Criminal Registers, 1851 census, 1861 census, 1871 census via Ancestry.


The Ullingswick Murder, Part Four: The Criminality of William Hope

The penultimate part of my story of the Ullingswick Murder. Catch up on Parts One, Two and Three by clicking the links.

William Hope's entry in the criminal register for 1850, from Ancestry.

William Hope’s entry in the criminal register for 1850, from Ancestry.

William Hope was not a character with a blameless record, and so it was perhaps inevitable that he would be the first person on whom blame for Mary’s death would fall.

He was a local – born in Ullingswick in 1833 to agricultural labourer George and his wife Ann, at their house at New Bridge, Ullingswick. He was well-known to the other villagers, evne lodging for a while with Mary and John Bevans.

But although he was known by name, face and family, this did not stop him abusing his neighbours. In 1850, he had broken into Mrs Skerrick’s house in the village, this being before her husband had died. He stole fowls from the house and was duly tried at the Hereford County Sessions of 30 December 1850.

He was found guilty of housbreaking and robbery, and was sentenced on the first offence to a week’s imprisonment, but for the second, was sentenced to be transported for seven years.

He never made it to Australia, but instead was sent to Millbank prison in Pimlico, London, which was designed as a ‘holding’ prison where prisoners would be kept before they were transported.

William, though, served a whole three years of his sentence at Millbank. This was usual by the 1860s, as transportation had greatly reduced, with most people being sentenced in this way simply serving a prison sentence.

He then obtained a ‘ticket-of-leave’ and returned to Herefordshire, but ‘resumed his old habits and associations’.

Millbank Prison, 1867

Millbank Prison, 1867

The press reported that he had since been convicted twice for various misdemeanours, including the use of threatening language, and had been twice imprisoned for 14 days. However, the records of the Trinity Quarter Sessions held at Hereford in July 1861 also show that a William Hope was convicted of assault on that date and sentenced to six months in prison.

By 1861, he had found lodgings with a sawyer, Mr Proper, at Ullingswick, but was dependent on occasional labouring odd jobs to maintain himself. He was well known for his regular drinking in the Ship Inn.

He was a stout, thick-necked, burly man, and the Victorian press, in its usual way, decided that ‘his physiognomy tends to a low estimate of his moral character.’ He was also described as ‘a man of known bad character’.

The press also noted that he had previously been in the army and the Herefordshire Militia, clearly associating his criminal nature with his involvement in the armed forces. [The Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863].

This was not a new association; as Clive Emsley has noted, the armed forces in England have long had a negative image, being associated with complex images of masculinity relating to aggressiveness, drink and violence [Clive Emsley, ‘Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief: Crime and the British Armed Services since 1914’, Oxford, 2013, p.11]

In short, William Hope had all the characteristics of a Victorian baddie. He was working-class, a drifter, with a long criminal record. He was just as much a stereotype, as he was depicted in the press, as any Dickensian character.

The final part of the Ullingswick Murder: On trial for rape and murder, will be published tomorrow.


The Ullingswick Murder, Part Three: How the press reported Mary Corbett’s murder

The third part of my series on the Ullingswick Murder of 1862. Catch up with Parts One and Two by clicking the links.

Entry for Mary Corbett in the 1861 census for Ullingswick, via Ancestry.

Entry for Mary Corbett in the 1861 census for Ullingswick, via Ancestry.

The coverage of Mary Corbett’s death in the newspapers was unusual in one respect – the media all focused on her reputation as a ‘well conducted, modest young woman’. This was unusual because Mary came from a background that Victorian England disapproved of – she was an illegitimate child, one of five, drawn from the rural labouring class.

As far as I have been able to work out, Mary was probably the illegitimate daughter of Jane Corbett, variously described as an agricultural labourer and a servant, presumably meaning she was an agricultural servant.

She had been born when her mother was between 15 and 18 years old (Jane was baptised on 27 May 1832, but in the census returns is listed as being born between 1829 and 1832).

Jane was, in turn, the daughter of a mason’s labourer, Richard, and his wife Sarah. In 1851, Jane and her father, sibling and 6 month old son had all been paupers living in the Bromyard Union Workhouse. In 1861, Mary was living with her family at Stone House, Ullingswick.

Her family are recorded in a way to make them ‘respectable’ in the census; Sarah Corbett, a 66 year old widow, is listed as the mother of Elizabeth and Jane, aged 35 and 32 – but also mother of 14 year old Mary – with Jane’s other four children – Elizabeth, Emma, Vincent and Fanny, aged between 2 and 12 – listed as grandchildren.

By 1871, Jane was back in the workhouse, together with her 12 year old son Vincent and a younger child, eight year old Eliza.

Yet despite this very humble background, Mary was seen as a good girl, and a rarity – a loyal, hard-working servant, who instilled the compassion and respect of her employers.

Berrow’s Worcester Journal, reporting the trial, noted that “the atrocity of the crime caused great excitement throughout the county of Hereford at the time, which, judging from the crowded state of the court this morning, has not yet subsided.”

Part of this excitement was reflected in the press coverage. The violent sexual death of a pretty 16 year old girl; the offence allegedly committed by a prior offender, who met the Victorian stereotype of the callous labouring class man whose previous criminal convictions should have led to hanging rather than a transportation from which he could return and commit new offences; the bucolic rural setting – all helped make this a story that the newspapers could sell their copies on.

The innocuous nature of Mary Corbett’s errand that October evening – an innocent trip to buy candles that led to her death, and the fact that she had only walked yards to a local shop yet did not return – added to the drama of the story.

There was a reluctance from the press to report the details of Mary’s post-mortem, and this continued at the trial. The detailed evidence of rape was glossed over, apart from the fact that there was bruising to the right side of Mary’s groin.

Dr Bull, who carried out the post mortem, had found evidence of a violent rape on Mary’s body, but Berrow’s Worcester Journal simply commented that ‘The doctor then detailed the appearances presented by other parts of the body, from which it was evident that violation with much violence had taken place.’

Apparently, it was alright for Victorian readers to learn about Mary’s struggle with her attacker, and the exact mode of death – but sexual violence had to be glossed over.

As was usual with press reports of deaths, some details were wrong or the result of Chinese whispers, with some reports naming William Hope as his brother George, and others reporting that Mary had been strangled, not suffocated.

But Mary’s death – and the subsequent trial of William Hope – was also news because it was unusual. It was noted by the Bristol Mercury that it had been some 30 years since the last execution in Hereford. In that case, too, in 1832, a man – named Gammond – had been hanged after raping a young girl.

The fact that Hereford rarely saw offences that resulted in executions was newsworthy in itself – the city papers stressing the rural, bucolic nature of the county. Added to this was the fact that at this time, the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment had been established, and two years later would recommend the end of public hangings.

The last public hanging took place in 1868, six years after Mary’s death. The debate as to whether public hangings were an educational experience for onlookers, or simply a form of entertainment, is evident in some of the press coverage about this case. It was noted after Mary’s killer was hanged that:

‘the conduct of the occupants of the houses opposite the place of execution deserves a passing word of praise. They either went from home or closed their houses, neither viewing themselves nor permitting others to view the execution from their premises.’ [Bristol Mercury, 18 April 1863]

It can be seen, then, that Mary’s murder was a chance for various issues to be explored in the press – and that it also demonstrate how the Victorian press reported violent crimes, depicting such events as a simplistic fight between good and evil and choosing the facts that best suited their chosen narrative.

Part Four of the Ullingswick Murder: The Criminality of William Hope, will be published tomorrow.