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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”