The horrors of Kilmainham Gaol

image1 4Last month, I visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and it had quite an effect on me.

Unlike many sanitised dark tourism sites, Kilmainham remains a forbidding site.

The first thing to mention about it is the cold. Little effort has been made to bring it into the 21st century with heating, or decent lighting, or any mod cons.

Apart from the museum – which is a fascinating place, well designed and with so much information that you can spend hours there – the place is firmly set in the past.

You can imagine the lives of the prisoners who once spent their days and nights there; the men crammed in their small cells, the women and children bedding down on straw in the corridors, under open, unglazed windows – at the mercy of the Irish weather.

image2 3This was once, in the late eighteenth century, home primarily to debtors, who made up over 50 per cent of prisoners. But it was also home to petty thieves, drunks, and prostitutes. Men and women were held together, in spaces designed for far fewer.

Window glass was not brought to the site until the late 1840s – until then, how many people must have died after failing to get adequate warmth within the confines of the gaol?

The Vagrancy (Ireland) Act, passed in 1847, served to punish those who, made destitute by the Famine, tried to beg in the streets, or steal food.

The prison became home to these poor people, with up to five sharing a cell designed for one. At least, now, they had a roof over their heads and regular food and drink.

Kilmainham is, of course, mainly associated with political prisoners. The instigators of the Easter Rising of 1916 were brought here, and executed in the yard.

image3 3Today, a cross marks the spot where all but one of these men faced the firing squad (the other, James Connolly, was so ill, he had to be constrained in a chair and killed near the gate where he had been brought in, unable to walk to the traditional execution spot).

You can only visit Kilmainham as part of a guided tour, and even as part of a group, it feels dark, claustrophobic and intimidating walking its corridors and looking at the cell doors behind which so many prisoners languished.

But for that reason, it is well worth a visit. It brings to life how awful prison life was, up there on Gallows Hill, rather than attempting to be a tourism “experience” with costumed guides and garish souvenirs.

 

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Horror and entertainment at the gibbet: Charles Dickens’ day out

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Marie Manning, hanged with her husband Frederick outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol on 13 November 1849 – witnessed by Charles Dickens.

“I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane…The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators…

“When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked onto the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour.

“Fightings, faintings, whistling, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.

“Nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits.”

Charles Dickens, 18 November 1849

Looking through a magistrate’s eyes

I’ve been meaning to do this post since last summer – but better late than never! This is an insight into one of the magistrates I studied for my PhD, which includes a look round his house…

Richard Colt Hoare and his son

Richard Colt Hoare and his son

Sir Richard Colt Hoare was a Wiltshire magistrate, a member of the banking family. Born in 1758, he inherited the family estate of Stourhead, near Mere, on the Wiltshire/Somerset border.

Hoare was, as was typical for a rural justice, a member of the landed gentry. He professed sympathy for the rural poor, yet was, by his own status, somewhat distanced from them.

His attitude expressed a dichotomy amongst the magistrate; he commissioned portraits of the poor, showing them as both innocent and vulnerable and thus displaying publicly his empathy towards them.

However, he also kept man-traps in his house and made out lists of poachers who had been caught taking game from his lands.

Hoare’s ambivalence and contradictions perhaps reflected his own background. Although gentry, his status reflected the changing nature of the magistracy over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The increasing workload of the rural magistrate was leading to the JP being drawn from a wider social group than previously – for example, a growing number of magistrates were now from a clerical background.

Hoare’s money was new(ish) money; he was descended from the founder of the bank, C. Hoare and Co. Unlike many gentry magistrates, Hoare was not educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and did not get admitted to one of the Inns of Court, a popular form of education for young gentlemen.

Stourhead

Stourhead

Instead, in his mid-20s, he inherited Stourhead, and indulged his passions for archaeology and travelling. But he was also a magistrate for decades – his notebooks covering the period between 1785 and 1834 – and High Sheriff for Wiltshire in 1805.

How accessible he was as a magistrate is debatable. He spent a lot of time travelling both in Britain and across Europe, and translated classical works.

He was certainly not always present at Stourhead, and in his absence, local people had to either travel further to another magistrate, or resolve their issues within their community rather than seeking the mediation and arbitration of a justice.

Hoare's library

Hoare’s library

Hoare was also concerned with appearances. He set his grand library up as his justicing room, where he would received those members of the local community who wanted him to resolve their disputes, or to report offences such as thefts and assaults.

This library must have appeared intimidating to callers. It was lined floor to ceiling with books – both antiquarian works and legal manuals, bound copies of statute law and books on local history.

But the most fundamental issue was access to the justicing room itself. Hoare constructed an exterior staircase entering into the room, so that callers would have to queue outside – regardless of the weather – rather than traipse through the interior of Stourhead to reach the room.

This does not suggest that Hoare saw himself as champion of the poor, or friend of the poor. Instead, it suggests that he was at a distance from those who came before him, and was keen to preserve that distance.

Those of equal status to himself may have been allowed to set foot in other rooms, but those who came before him charged with poaching, or other forms of theft, and who were drawn largely from the humblest ranks of rural society, knew their place as soon as they lined up on that staircase.

That is why visiting Stourhead is so valuable; the gap between the image the magistrate wanted to present, and the complex reality is clearly visible in the contrast between grand library and the small flight of stairs outside it.

For more information about the Hoare family, see the National Trust’s page here.

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An extra shilling for Valentine’s Day

 

Not a crime story, but I liked this Valentine’s story from 1871, so thought I’d share it:

“On the evening before St Valentine’s Day, there was an immense increase of labour in the inland branch of the Post Office, which was met partly by the employment of an extra number of men and partly by extra exertion of the regular hands, who were paid an additional shilling for coming an hour earlier than their usual time.

“The ordinary force of 350 sorters was made up to 500, by the enlistment of men who were off duty in their own right, and of others from the Dead Letter Office.

“The number of valentines despatched on Monday evening from the General Post Office was 250,000 more were received the same night and on the morning of St Valentine’s Day, for despatch by the day mails.”

The Derby Mercury, 22 February 1871 (who in turn had lifted their story from the Globe).

Dressing the Criminal, Stealing the Dress

Annie Wilson, admitted to Dorchester Prison in 1900 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry.co.uk).

Annie Wilson, admitted to Dorchester Prison in 1900 (Dorset History Centre, via Ancestry.co.uk).

When I was applying for university at 18, I originally intended to study fashion design, gaining a place at the London College of Fashion. Although I ended up doing something completely different, my interest in fashion history has remained.

This links to my work in criminal history, in that I am fascinated by what people wore in the past, and in particular, what criminals wore and what they stole in terms of clothing.

Clothing the elite: fashions on display at the V&A.

Clothing the elite: fashions on display at the V&A.

There’s plenty of evidence for what the elite wore – the paintings that adorn the walls of country houses show us.

The clothes that get preserved and exhibited in museums (such as the ones in the Victoria and Albert Museum) again tend to be those of the higher echelons of society.

But what about the poor, the marginalised members of society? One of the historians who has made the biggest inroads into this area is John Styles, with his book The Dress of the People, which includes a section on the clothes that criminals stole, and what these can tell us about what was seen as fashionable, popular, or what these people would have worn themselves.

The Old Bailey Proceedings detail the clothing stolen by individuals, in varying amount of detail. In 1692, for example, Abraham Stacey was indicted for theft, having stolen:

“One stuff Gown value 10s, one woman’s hood Dress, value 15s, another Scarf value 40s, a Feather Tippet, value 5s.” (Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 15 January 1692)

The status of the woman who the goods belonged to, a Jane Browne, is not known, but the goods were both valuable and valued. This is not your average plebeian woman’s wardrobe. Abraham, who stole the clothing, was a cook – a servant – and had stolen clothing that could be sold on.

The Old Bailey Proceedings do show that particular items of clothing were popular targets for thieves at different times. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, women’s hoods and muslin head-dresses, ruffles and pieces of lace were popular items to steal, together with Holland aprons.

In the late 18th century, bonnets, damask shoes, striped muslin aprons, silk dresses and petticoats were itemised; these were not only goods that thieves coveted or thought valuable – they were what Londoners were buying and wearing.

The poorer members of society coveted what their ‘betters’ wore; so in 1768, a female servant bought clothing with money she had stolen from her mistress, and was spotted “dress’d in gauze and a black apron, and other things, with a new gown.”

Of course, by the late Victorian era, photos were being routinely taken of criminals, which really bring to life what ordinary people were wearing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Elizabeth Clode in 1890 (Dorset History Centre/Ancestry.co.uk).

Elizabeth Clode in 1890 (Dorset History Centre/Ancestry.co.uk).

The photo of Annie Wilson, at the top of this post, shows her wearing a distinctive double-breasted coat or jacket.

Elizabeth Clode, left, admitted to Dorchester in 1890, has some striking buttons on her top.

The wealth – or lack of it – is also visible in prison photos, with some men wearing waistcoats and relatively tidy jackets, whereas others are in torn coats and dirty neckerchiefs.

What does all of this show? Well, it shows that people have always been interested in fashion, in looking fashionable. It shows that crimes have been committed because of fashion – its monetary value, and envy of those who can afford it.

It’s also evident how one’s social status and financial worth have been made explicit through clothing in history. The exhibitions of eighteenth-century dress at the V&A are a world away from the prisoners’ mugshots online at Ancestry.

But both show the importance of dress to our ancestors – both to the poor and to the rich, to thieves and their victims – and what it can tell us about their position in society.

A pilfering barmaid at the Rising Sun

The Old Rising Sun on Marylebone High Street

The Old Rising Sun on Marylebone High Street

Florence Savins was a barmaid at the Old Rising Sun on Marylebone High Street. She was just 19 years old, and had been working at the pub for around two months.

But her behaviour was arousing suspicion. The pub’s takings had been falling off; money seemed to be disappearing. The landlord thought Florence had been taking money from her employer.

He called the police, and two police detectives, Keys and Brooks, duly arrived. He told them of his suspicions, and they took some coins from him and marked them.

They then called into the Rising Sun, pretending to be customers, and when Florence told them how much their beer was, they passed the coins over in payment.

When the landlord came to empty the till that night, he found that two shillings and a sixpence were missing. He called Sergeant Keys to the pub, and, in front of Palmer, Keys questioned Florence.

At first, she said she didn’t know what had happened to the missing purse, and said all the money she had been paid had gone straight into the till.

image2She then showed the men her purse, which contained over a pound, all in unmarked coins. However, she later produced the marked coins, admitting having pocketed them after receiving payment from a customer. She was immediately taken into custody.

Florence’s case was heard in May 1894 at the Marylebone Magistrates’ Court, the prosecutor being the famous solicitor Frederick Freke Palmer.

Freke Palmer asked for her to be dealt with leniently, and Walter Dobbin, from her employers (Dobbin & Co), promised her that if she told him all about the money, “he would do his best to be lenient to her”.

However, Mr Newton, the magistrate who dealt with her,  said,

“tradesmen could not carry on business if such offences were to be regarded as trivial matters.”

He sentenced Florence to 21 days hard labour.

Source: The Standard, London, 16 May 1894, p.6

The Hall Green Tragedy Part 2: Scandal at the Undertaker’s

This is part two of my retelling of the Hall Green Tragedy of 1895. For part one, see here.

It was not until the day after the deaths that the bodies were identified, after police found an address in Edward’s pocket.

His wife was brought to formally identify the bodies as those of her husband and her eldest daughter by her first husband. It was noted that ‘the distress and horror of the poor woman were most painful to witness’.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

The Mermaid Inn in Sparkhill. Photo by Oosoom.

Carrie’s body was initially taken to the local pub, the Mermaid Inn, on Stratford Road, but later, both her body and that of Edward Birch were removed to the undertakers. Here, scandal ensued.

The undertaker unscrupulously allowed spectators to view the bodies on payment of a penny each admission fee.

The result was that his premises were ‘crowded with morbid sightseers’ all weekend, with women seen shaking their fists in Edward Birch’s dead face and shouting ‘May you go straight to hell!’.

The negative publicity this resulted in led to the undertaker promising to donate all money paid to Mrs Birch, but this did not lessen the views of other locals that this had been an ‘unedifying’, ‘repulsive’, spectacle.

Carrie’s inquest was held first, at the Mermaid Inn, with AH Hebbert, deputy coroner for North Worcestershire, presiding. Here, the verdict of wilful murder against Edward Birch was recorded, despite the couple appearing to have made a pact together to die.

The deputy coroner summed up by saying, ‘the extraordinary part of the case was that the girl consented to die’ but that if two persons agreed to kill themselves, but one of them survived, the survivor would be guilty of murder.

The jury expressed ‘strong dissatisfaction’ with how the bodies had been ‘housed’ – and the subsequent scandal – and ‘hoped it would not be long before a proper police-station, mortuary and ambulance’ was provided in Sparkhill.

Meanwhile, a search had been carried out in the family home, and police found several letters written by Birch. One read:

“E Birch, 59 Upper Highgate Street, Highgate, Birmingham. Nov 8th 1894. This is to shew that I will not be bested I worned her 12 mounths ago she dou in May 5th 1894 what she ourt not to… she as deceived me agin & when I get in drink it plays on my mind and I make the best of myself Ive taken her out & to places of amusement and then she will be after the men & in September last I give hir lef to go Sunday school and church if she be in by 9 and then she goes of with to fellers in the Ram till after 10 at night round the Mosley fields coaved with muck and paint… She is not my own child and this is the reason when I tell hir about it the mouther takes hir part and incurges hir in it. So this is the end of it.”

The next letter, sent to his parents in Wolverhampton on 5 January, stated:

“Dont put yourself about me of what you see and hear, I care for nothing as they ave brought it all on themselves. Emmer knows what I sed about genney when I was out of work being with that grieves till 1 o’clock in the morning as I keept from starving so long in 1893. So this makes to I have to keep of other mens kids and Calley is as bad…and have soon put her in trouble and this is the way out of it the Job is worse for me than hir as I shall go throw the same and no it tell the fokes to have mutch to say of this afair on either sides to envest into ther own life and they will no dout find soom black spots that will take a robbing out.”

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

The Victoria Law Courts, by Tony Hisgett

An inquest on Edward Birch was held on 15 January at the Victoria Courts in Birmingham, before city coroner Oliver Pemberton. Here, Mrs Birch repeated the evidence that she had given at her daughter’s inquest, detailing the ‘painful relationship’ between her relatives.

At a small china teacup, which had the words ‘A present from Birmingham’ inscribed in gold round it, being produced, she burst into sobs – ‘it was given to me by my daughter on my 32nd birthday.’

Carrie’s younger sister Lilly, then aged around eight, then had to give evidence, followed by two of Birch’s colleagues at Messrs Lowe’s iron foundry in Upper Trinity Street. They noted that although quiet and intelligent as a worker, he was something of a drinker, and had been summoned before the courts recently for not sending one of his children to school.

The coroner stated that the dead man had ‘turned from the conduct of the parent and behaved in a manner almost impossible to describe.’ He went further; Birch was a ‘profoundly wicked man’, and he encouraged the jury to return a verdict of felo de se – that Birch had ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought did kill and murder himself’. The jury duly did so.

The funeral of Carrie Jones took place at Yardley Cemetery on the Monday morning. The funeral procession left her mother’s house at 59 Upper Highgate Street at 9.30am with the service taking place at 11am.

How did Mrs Birch cope with this double betrayal by her husband and daughter, followed by the double deaths and the publicity the events received?

Understandably, the press reported that she was ‘utterly prostrated, both mentally and physically’, to the extent of being unable to maintain either herself or her six other children, the youngest being only a few months old. In her lowest moments, but the community did not stigmatise her, instead rallying around her.

The jury had stated at Birch’s inquest that they expressed ‘deep sympathy’ for Mrs Birch, and collected money for her from each of the jurors at the end of the inquest. The coroner encouraged all the onlookers at the court to do the same.

Joseph Lock was appointed by the community to collect money on behalf of the Birch family, writing in the press that ‘any sums, however small’ would be welcome to help maintain the family as it would be ‘weeks, probably months’ before Mrs Birch was able to resume family life.

Another man, William L Sheffield, responded in the press that ‘the unfortunate woman Mrs Birch deserves some little help, and I shall be happy to contribute’, and others sent postal orders directly to the newspapers, asking for them to be forwarded on.

Selina Birch survived the ordeal, although life continued to be tough for her. She stayed in the Upper Highgate Street area for the next decade.

She worked as a laundress to maintain her children, and seems to have had at least two illegitimate children following Edward’s death – Jessie was born in 1898 and Lizzie in 1906.

In 1911, living at 6 Beales Buildings, Frank Street, in Balsall Heath, she stated that she was a widow with nine children, of whom two had died.

Significantly, though, despite being a widow, she wrote that her ‘present marriage’ had so far lasted 30 years, suggesting that she still saw Edward Birch very much as her husband.

Selina J Birch died in Birmingham in 1939, shortly before the start of the Second World War, aged 79 – having long outlived her unfaithful husband and naïve daughter.

Sources: 

The Standard, 9 January 1895, p.3; Nottinghamshire Guardian, 12 January 1895, p.8; Birmingham Daily Post, 12 January 1895; The Derby Mercury, 16 Jan 1895; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 January 1895; Ancestry, The Genealogist.