Have you ever considered the reasons why convicts were driven to a life of crime, or how being imprisoned in a penitentiary, had an impact on the mindfulness of prisoners?
In this research blog, I will explore the significant factors behind the behaviour of convicts, and how through strict rehabilitation they were expected to be released and become a intellectual and respected member of society. I bring together the portrayal of prisoners in the novel Affinity (1999) by Sarah Waters with the cases of actual women tried for offences in the 1870s, when the novel is set.
The protagonist in Affinity is a Margaret Prior, a woman struggling with her own troubles, who wishes to escape the anxieties and tensions of living with her mother by visiting prisoners at Millbank female Penitentiary. Through Margaret’s eyes, we are introduced to Millbank prison, with its monotonous corridors and dismal interiors. From above, the Penitentiary appears like a geometric flower made up of pentagon petals. However, its appearance is far from the realities within the prison, as Margaret explores:
The prison, drawn in outline, has a curious kind of charm to it … Millbank is not charming. Its scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. (p.8).
Here, the novel suggests that the prisoners in Millbank Prison were directly affected by the dismal and devastating conditions that they had to tolerate during their imprisonment. Many convicts would do their time in prison, and be released into the streets of London, once they had been reformed. However, a small number of convicts would be released and revert to their previous traits and criminal behaviour. In Affinity, we are introduced to numerous female convicts and many of them imprisoned for petty crimes, such as common thievery. As in many prisons, however, some are imprisoned for much more brutal crimes, such as the murder of infant, as one of the wardens tells Margaret: ‘Jane Hoy, ma’am: child-murderer. Vicious as a needle … they had matrons blinded in the past. One girl worked at her supper-spoon until the wood was sharp’ (p.23).
Although not many women were found guilty of infanticide in the 1870’s, there were many who were accused of the crime in the Old Bailey. However, due to insufficient evidence, many were found not guilty of their crimes by a jury. Some of these women were viewed as having insanity, a mental behaviour where the sufferer cannot justify the difference between right and wrong. One individual who was considered insane was Mrs Adelaide Freedman, a woman who was indicted for the wilful murder of her own daughter. When Adelaide Freedman was cross-examined in the Old Bailey, the evidence suggested that she had poisoned her child. However some witnesses suggested that she was incapacitated and that her mental condition, described as ‘puerperal mania’ – or what we would term postnatal depression-was the cause for her rash and thoughtless attack on the child that she appeared to care deeply for. According to one witness, a surgeon, the disease ‘develops itself sometimes by acts of violence to the nearest and dearest, and to the offspring of the woman’ (1). The accused was described as ‘always having a vacant look, both before and after the birth of the child’, (2) further suggesting that Adelaide Freedman, most probably would have been suffering from a mental illness, rather than intentionally harming her own child.
Of course it is difficult to tell from this moment in time if Adelaide was entirely unaware of her actions. Perhaps she viewed the child as a strain on expenses, as she could not afford to care for and support the child. Through exploring the Digital Panopticon, I found that Adelaide Freedman was in fact later charged with murder and imprisoned. Yet the records reinforce how Freedman was found ‘non-compos mentis’ and that most likely she was suffering from a mental condition.
Although penitentiaries did contain convicts who had committed the most heinous crimes, it mostly held criminals who had been found guilty of petty crimes, such as common thievery. The initial conception of the penitentiary came around, due to the overcrowding of prisons in London, and the high rate of convicts who were being sentenced to the harshest penalties, even though their crimes were minor compared to the scale of the punishment that they received, ‘No other moment was as dreadful as the speaking of death sentences by judges except for the time it took for a hangman to slip a noose over an unlucky felon’s head and open the hatch’ (Devereaux, S). The execution of criminals was a common occurrence among the crowds of London up until the 1870’s, as many criminals who were found guilty were hung on the gallows or if more fortunate transported for their crimes. The purpose of the penitentiary was to rehabilitate convicts, so that they could ultimately be released, and resume their position as a respected member of society: ‘A prison cell was a chilling prospect, but at least it offered a glimmer of hope that people may one-day change for the better with the right sort of moral coaching and discipline’ (Devereaux, S).
One convict of interest at the start of Affinity is Susan Pilling who has been imprisoned for thieving:
Say who you are and why you are here’, and the woman said at once-though stumbling slightly, over the pronunciation of it- ‘Susan Pilling, m’m. Here for thieving. (p.21).
It is clear from exploring the relationship between the wardens and the prisoners, that the prisoners in many ways are manipulated by the staff at the penitentiaries, rather than shown kindness. Though the wardens appear to show an interest in the convicts, they also call the prisoners, ‘a horrible breed’. The quick response of the prisoner, suggests that the convicts will be disciplined, if they do not obey the rules of the wardens. Yet in her study of Great Yarmouth Gaol, Helen Rogers has found many inmates responded positively to the firm but kind instruction of the prison visitor Sarah Martin. This visitor found the prisoners improved in both their manner and appearance,
No singing, laughing, bad language, or loud talking is allowed. No gaming, fighting or playing is permitted… Their rooms, forms and tables are always clean and they are clean in their persons. (Rogers, H.)
From exploring records on the Old Bailey Online, it is clear that the majority of women who were released did not reoffend and appeared to live a fulfilling life post-release. Sarah Bryant, for example, was found guilty when stealing a pair of spectacles, an opera-glass and a time piece. She was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment penal servitude but was granted a prison license after five years of imprisonment, allowing her to be released, but under observation. There are no records after Bryant’s release, suggesting that like many reformed criminals she had moved on from a life of crime.
Nonetheless, there were some convicts who were imprisoned numerous times after being released, suggesting that some individuals are drawn to crime, either because of their background and upbringing or circumstances that have forced them to turn to crime to survive. In Affinity, the protagonist Margaret Prior observes the arrivals of prisoners, and it seems that one convict is well acquainted with the staff at Millbank Prison:
You again, then, Williams,’ she said; and the woman’s bruised face seemed to darken … She too looked hard at the woman with the bruise, ‘No need to tell me your name. (p.75-76).
An example of a criminal who was imprisoned on multiple occasions was Martha English, who deceived people with counterfeit coins. On her first offence she was found in possession of counterfeit coins, and arrested for her intent to use them. She was found guilty at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to five years. During her imprisonment she was likely reformed before being given a prison license. However, just after a year of being released for her previous convictions, she was accused of using counterfeit coins in a butcher’s, and arrested yet again and sentenced at the Old Bailey to seven years imprisonment. English was twenty-nine at the time of her conviction. By the time she was finally released from prison she was forty. Her offences cost her a large portion of her life, that she would never get back. Another individual who was not successfully reformed was Sarah Rands, imprisoned at Great Yarmouth. Desperate to escape the same routine of service, she hoped to make a living by fancy needlework when she was released. The prison visitor, however, thought she would be better finding work as a servant:
‘If she proves willing to reform, the teacher promises, she shall be given employment … You had better on becoming reformed seek to obtain a service. But Sarah Rands has had enough of service. She turns back sullenly to the jacket and carries on stitching’. (Rogers, H).
The reality of continuing with service proved devastating for Rands. When she was released, she returned to a life on the streets, before committing further crimes and losing her own baby. It is clear from exploring these two sources that prison rehabilitation was not always the solution to preventing convicts from committing further crimes and saving them from a devastating future. In many ways there are always different circumstances and influences that may affect how an individual behaves and their motives. It is clear from my research that many female convicts during the 1870’s, were a victim of the time and overwhelmed by anxieties, relating to mental health, their upbringing, and poverty which pushed them into crime.
If you were fascinated by the detail concerning convict’s trials in this blog, and want to explore further, why don’t you take a look at this blog post –
(1) https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=186911220035 , accessed 5 Jan 2018.
(2) https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=186911220033 , accessed 5 Jan 2018.
https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18690503-502 , accessed 6 Jan 2018.
https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/life?id=obpdef2-502-18690503 , accessed 6 Jan 2018.
https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/life?id=obpdef1-614-18690712 , accessed 6 Jan 2018.
https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18731027-692 , accessed 6 Jan 2018.
Waters, Sarah (2012). Affinity. London. Virago Press.
Devereaux, Simon and Paul Griffiths (eds) Penal Practice and Culture, 1500-1900: Punishing the English, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004
Rogers, Helen. Plain work and stolen finer, Conviction stories from a nineteenth-century prison, 15 Aug 2016. https://convictionblog.com/2016/08/15/plain-work-and-stolen-finery/, accessed 10 Jan 2018.
Rogers, Helen. Mewing like cats, Conviction stories from a nineteenth-century prison, 4 Sept 2016. https://convictionblog.com/2016/09/04/mewing-like-cats/#_ftnref7 , accessed 10 Jan 2018.
Works Cited: Images.
Title Image: Unknown artist ‘Female Convicts Reform’ http://gallery.nen.gov.uk/asset662645_14406-.html
Panopticon design of Millbank Prison viewed from above. Photograph by Griffith Brewer, 9 May 1891. Initially used in the publication, the Strand Magazine. Used in-
Barber, Martyn & Wickstead, Helen. ‘One immense black spot’: aerial views of London 1784-1918. The London Journal, Vol. 35 No. 3, November 2010, 236-254.
http://eprints.kingston.ac.uk/16434/1/Wickstead-H-16434.pdf , accessed 10 Jan 2018.
Image of Elizabeth Fry visiting a prisoner in Newgate prison. Unknown artist.
Exhibited at the National Maritime Museum, London.
Image of records concerning Laura Reardon:
https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/images.jsp?doc=186907120011, accessed 10 Jan 2018.