In the late 19th century the British Empire was ruled by a woman, the suffragettes’ campaigns to win women the right to vote were under way, and Florence Nightingale was a household name. In Liverpool’s Vauxhall community however, thousands of nameless and faceless women went about their lives behind the scenes in one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of Victorian England. One of these women was Emma, who was born in Liverpool in 1873 from an unusual yet undistinguished background, and by 1889 was now a 16 year old attempting to find her own way in the world.
Behind many closed doors in the more prestigious parts of Liverpool and other cities and towns, there will have lived many women whose only evidence of their very existence is birth, maybe marriage, and death certificates. Without the right to vote or sit on a jury, Victorian women were very much subjected to societal limitations on what they wore, where they went (and with whom!), whether they worked, and what businesses they owned.
Women were more or less expected to keep quiet and not attract attention, and as such their lives were seldom documented unless they were from the ruling elite or otherwise broke these rules of Victorian etiquette by embarking on a career in the arts or music (bit risky), making the papers (nearly always bad news unless you’re Queen Victoria herself), or daring the change the world (please ladies, know your place).
For the many unremarkable women who didn’t change the world in the fields of healthcare, social reform, or attract fame through the arts or simply by being a member of the aristocracy, their stories in between the census takers’ 10-yearly visits remain largely unheard.
Fortunately for me, in terms of wealth of family history at any rate, I don’t come from that world. I come from a long line of women who occasionally made the papers – just not necessarily in a good way.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
Emma had been brought up in a household that bears little resemblance to our modern idea of a stable family home. In fact, even in those days it’d probably even have a respectable lady reaching for her smelling salts. We know that Emma’s mother was a sex worker and she spent at least some of her time growing up in Mrs Singleton’s boarding house amongst several adults to whom she was not apparently related. These days, we’d have Emma pegged as a vulnerable young person, and there’d likely be several agencies involved in attempting to better her chances in life. In the Victorian era though, the only organisations able to exert any influence on a child’s upbringing in lieu of their own parents is the school, the church, and the parish authorities who acted as a sort of patchwork forerunner of social services, the DWP and the NHS.
By the late 1880s though, Emma had left school and was presumably out of the clutches of teachers and priests. While my previous research had led me to discover Emma’s Double (with the same name, living not too far away, but three years younger) I’d left this namesake behind as a schoolgirl receiving the Catholic sacrament of Confirmation in her parish church. Our Emma meanwhile was branching out on her own as a teenager (hopefully never to be confused with the Double again) and it’s perhaps no wonder that with her tough start in life and new found independence I discovered she had been up in court.
In 1889 when Emma was 16 she appeared at the Liverpool Petty Sessions (the equivalent of today’s Magistrates Court). There were a number of courthouses across the city with names that won’t mean much to most of us today, including the Police Courts at the Main Bridewell (police station), the County Quarter Sessions (the home of which still survives today, now used for storage of museum collections next door to the Walker Art Gallery), and the Quarter Sessions for the City of Liverpool (City Sessions) at the magnificent and imposing St George’s Hall.
After probably spending a night or two in the Bridewell, Emma was charged with Riotous behaviour, further examined, and discharged. Despite its name, ‘riotous’ doesn’t necessarily mean that Emma was involved in a riot. Although there was a background of sectarian violence in Liverpool, (fuelled in part by mass immigration from Ireland during the Great Famine and an intolerance of – and resentment towards – Irish and Catholic people, whether new arrivals or second generation) there’s no evidence of Emma being involved in any sectarian demonstrations or altercations.
Even if she had been involved in something of that nature, it wouldn’t necessarily be indicative of her politics – contemporary reports show that sometimes entire streets full of residents could get swept up in such events, with pitched battles involving rival factions and violence against the police not being unheard of. We do know that she was Catholic, so if she had entered into such a fray then we’d know which side she’d have been on.
More likely, Emma’s riotous behaviour was the type of conduct you might normally expect from a ‘drunk and disorderly’ charge – except it occurred to me that the omission of the word drunk from the charge suggests either she knew exactly what she was doing, or that she could handle her drink sufficiently that it wasn’t alcohol which was the arresting officer’s cause for concern.
Similar charges from the period – more often with drunkenness as part and parcel of the charge – included smashing windows and kicking in doors, having a barney in the streets, throwing bricks and tiles from rooftops at the people below, brandishing weapons, threatening neighbours, violent behaviour, spitting at people, abusive language, throwing shoes, chasing people with pokers, resisting arrest and generally kicking off at the police.
It’s not clear whether this was Emma’s first brush with the law although it’s always possible she’d been arrested as a younger teenager or even a child. It wasn’t unheard of for young children to be booked into a local Bridewell – and there were a few of them dotted about – for all manner of trivial crimes. There was even a report in the Liverpool Mercury of a 5 year old child being arrested for begging with her blind father. It took until the next morning for the magistrate to point out to officers that keeping such a young child in overnight was “ridiculous” and that the police should send her home to her parents. Life was very different for 5 year olds in Victorian Britain than it is today.
Certainly Emma’s Riotous charge in 1889 is her first documented appearance in court, but it wouldn’t be her last spell in the cells. Before her appearance at the magistrates courts she will have likely been held in the Main Bridewell – now Caro Short Stay Hotel on Cheapside. After sentencing, she will have been moved in a horse drawn ‘Black Maria’ to Walton Gaol, or HMP Liverpool as it’s now better known. The prison housed male and female prisoners back then, and might as well have had a revolving door given the frequency of short sentences handed out to the criminal and working classes of Victorian Liverpool.
Transportation overseas had been abolished in 1857 because the Australians and others had essentially got sick of the influx of convicts to their shores who seldom made it back to their own countries, with ‘tickets of leave’ having been issued in its place for some time, thereby paroling convicts posing little risk or nearing the end of their term, to alleviate the burden of the prison population.
Instead, back in Britain, youngsters were thrown into industrial schools and onto harsh reformatory ships, and adult prisoners could expect penal servitude (long prison sentences) or short bursts of Hard Labour for lesser convictions, ranging from a few days to many months. Hard labour – all at once boring, lonely, and physically gruelling – could entail anything from picking oakum, to walking the treadmill, or turning a crank by hand. It’s this crank – which could be manually tightened by prison guards to make it more difficult to use – which earned them their nickname ‘Screws’. In addition, strokes of “the Cat” (flogging by a multi-stranded, knotted whip called a Cat O’ Nine Tails) or birching could be handed down to (usually young male) prisoners alongside their custodial sentence. Corporal punishment had long been customary in the Navy (and subject to its own rules and laws) and still seemed a popular choice in the port city of Liverpool in the Victorian era.
Later that year (1889), a few months after the Riotous incident, Emma would be back at the Petty Sessions and this time she’d receive 5 days imprisonment for fighting. There’s no information on who she was fighting, or why, or what happened to the other person. I would have loved to know more – was she the trouble maker or just sticking up for herself? Women of all ages fighting was nothing unusual in poor areas – they all seemed to be kicking each other’s front doors in and throwing jugs at each other’s heads – so I wasn’t surprised or disappointed in Emma. From contemporary reports of crime in the area it was apparently rather easy to get arrested too – there seemed to be police constables on the beat all over the city with a special concentration in the slums, and Bridewells aplenty in which to jail them overnight before they appeared at court in the morning. It seemed you only had to tell a constable that Mary Ellen McWhatsherface had stolen a shilling off you and he’d go round there and drag her to the Bridewell and ask questions later.
I started to think about whether it was easy for police and accusers to point the finger at Emma, whether she stood out amongst the majority white community. Amongst the pale Irish skin and the pallid complexions of the sick poor. Whether she was an easy target for arrests, whether she was considered on a par or even less than the already dehumanised people amongst which she lived. I might be overthinking it; there might have been dozens of occasions she’d got away without being nicked.
Even so, I wanted to know what she looked like. My family said she was ‘Black’ – they had long since learned not to say ‘Coloured’ of course (and I’ve never heard anyone in my family say that in my lifetime I don’t think) although that itself and ‘Woman of Colour’ were both acceptable phrases in the late 1800s. Nobody ever described her more helpfully or accurately than that; no ‘mixed race’ or ‘bi-racial’ or ‘dual heritage’ but certainly nothing worse than just ‘Black’. I grew up knowing that other families (not the type we mixed with, as far as I know) used other words. I have always been proud that we were not one of those families. I hoped that applied to us even 150 years ago.
I would’ve loved to have seen a photograph of Emma but photography was the realm of the wealthy. Even my maternal grandparents who married in the 1930s didn’t have a wedding photograph. I’d searched Pinterest for old portrait photographs that might have been recovered from the photographers on Shaw Street or Bold Street; the type where you could get a visiting cards printed, or wedding pictures, or even a photograph of your dead child all dressed up in their best clothes.
I wondered about Emma. Did she ever feel the need to try and ‘pass’ for white? Could she ‘pass’ as white? Did anyone teach her how to care for her hair when she was a little girl? For some reason I doubted Mrs Singleton’s skills in that area. I know that Mrs Singleton’s older daughter was probably biracial too and I wonder how many other people in Emma’s life reflected her own identity. Did Emma feel she had to try and emulate the European hairstyles of the day – a short fringe and a bun? How achievable would that have been, I wondered. I hope she didn’t care.
I can’t know, and in place of knowledge there’s danger of conjecture; of projecting your own feelings and experiences onto your vision of someone. I visualise Emma as someone friendly, hardened, a victim of the system, but tough. Some of these characteristics I know I have borrowed from my earliest memories of the elder women in my family. I assume that she’s neurotypical and had her wits about her. I have no evidence of any of this, of course, it’s just me filling in the blanks with characteristics that I want her to have. She could have been vulnerable, or mean, been easily-led or manipulative. She could have been a combination of any of these things and more. I’d never know. How we interpret this information says a lot about us.
Show me your friends
What I do know, is that within 12 months Emma was re-offending aged 17 and would appear at the Quarter Sessions held at St George’s Hall. This time with her friends Mary, aged 16, and Susan aged 18. I say friends, but we don’t know if they were friends in the real sense of the word. It’s a teenage predisposition to hang around the streets and get into trouble, but in those days and in that area, taking to the streets was almost a necessity; the housing conditions were so cramped, overcrowded, damp and dark, that you’d be better off going outside to socialise.
Despite their young age, these young women had already been catapulted into adulthood, and although Mary and Emma were documented as having ‘no occupation’, Susan was listed as being a Hawker (a street seller – often of fruit, fish, or flowers). They were out and about with things to do – just not all of it legit.
Their charge was Larceny from the Person – an offence which would usually involve theft by means of pickpocketing or mugging. In this case they were charged with stealing 1s 4d and five cigarettes from a local girl called Sarah Lomas. Remarkably the grand jury decided there was ‘no true bill’ – meaning there was no case to answer – and the girls were dismissed. Jury service in those days was only open to men of the ‘respectable classes’ – property owners, the gentry, merchants, insurance brokers, accountants, and factory owners. The members of the jury and Emma and her friends would have been worlds apart in terms of class, education, wealth and opportunity, and I was surprised that the case was thrown out given how easy it must have been just to throw the book at the working classes (especially the demonised Irish and their descendants) with little evidence.
When I looked at the original court lists at the Records Office at Liverpool Central Library I made sure to check the back of each sheet of paper (as many years working in legal offices taught me to do) for extra snippets of information and I was pleased to find a list of witnesses – one of whom was a police officer. I found it even more surprising that there was no true bill against the girls, but back in 1889 I’m sure Emma wasn’t complaining.
Whether they were truly innocent or merely got away with it we will never know, but just a few months later Emma and another group of friends – Margaret, Catherine, and a different Mary this time – were arrested after being spotted on the ferry across the Mersey divvying out supposed ill-gotten gains after allegedly robbing an old man in Liverpool. Whether there was violence involved or they tricked him or picked his pocket is unclear; crimes were often reported in the news as ‘robbery’ where items were stolen from drunk or sleeping (or even dead) people without there being any violence involved, so it certainly doesn’t have the connotations that it has today.
The sum in question was over £8. This amount would be equivalent to over £700 today which is a lot to me even know but crucially the real life value in those days was so much more. £8 could pay a housemaid’s wages for nearly an entire year or over six month’s rent in and around Vauxhall and Scotland Road in Liverpool.
The victim of the theft was thought to be a farmer in town on business (which would explain carrying such large sums of money with him) but fortunately for the girls he couldn’t be identified and therefore couldn’t be brought to court as a witness for the prosecution. They had already been remanded in custody at the Bridewell pending their court appearance, but their incarceration didn’t end there. The sum of money was apparently significant enough that the magistrate was convinced that they had stolen the money and didn’t want to see them go unpunished. He sentenced Emma and her three friends to 14 days’ Hard Labour and the newspaper reported the next day that “upon hearing the sentence each of the prisoners commenced to shriek loudly, and continued to do so until they were removed”.
More double trouble
So far there’d been no confusion as to ages and dates, which leads me to believe that Emma knew her date of birth and gave it honestly to the authorities, which not everybody did in those days; often variations in surnames would be given and sometimes completely different aliases altogether. However, later on I’d find some discrepencies in census entries that would make me question how easily these things could be confused.
It appeared that Emma’s life of crime was behind her, and I began to search for her in the 1891 census to see where she was living as an 18 year old. This proved to be very hard to do, and after scouring the entire country, the only clue I could find was an ‘Emma’ with no surname but of the correct year of birth living and working as a general servant in the Lisbon Public House on Victoria Street, which you can still visit today as one of Liverpool’s favourite gay pubs with ornate interior and even rumour of its own ghost.
In its prime however, pubs like the Lisbon were more a haunt of a different type: police would often mount stakeouts and raids in order to catch prostitutes plying their trade. Victorian society couldn’t handle the idea of women in pubs – they should all be at home praying and doing cross stitch and managing their households as they’d like their children to be: seen and not heard. The police were absolutely obsessed with monitoring how many women were in pubs at any one time, how long they spent ‘seeking refreshment’ and when they left the premises and who with. They seemed to care less about what happened in the gin palaces and ale houses of the slums however; perhaps they didn’t care what happened to them as long as it didn’t spill over into the fashionable areas where the respectable gentlemen could fall victim to ‘disreputable women’.
It was a long shot, whether this was our Emma or not, but in the absence of literally anyone else fitting the criteria, it’s a likely possibility. Meanwhile, across Liverpool, her Double was showing up on the same census of 1891, still at home with her parents but with a discrepancy on her date of birth. For the first time, confusion as to the true ages of these two Emma’s on official documentation as adults surfaced.
Star Crossed Lovers?
Around the same time, a young man from the same area as our Emma was experiencing his own brushes with the law. This local lad would commence a 5 year spell on The Clarence Reformatory Ship as Emma and her friends avoided further jail time, and time would tell whether it would be this young ne’er do well who’s cross paths with Emma back on the streets of Vauxhall on his release.
The dock labourer had a much more common name than our Emma and so perhaps unsurprisingly had his very own possible Double and own share of inaccurate dates of birth. Either he or his namesake boasted a list as long as his arm of petty offences (theft of clothing, playing cards and bags of coal, illegal gambling in the street, and loitering) – an arm in fact which is described in detail in court records as being heavily tattooed and as “slightly crippled”. Charming.
Keeping Up Appearances
Before routine photographs of prisoners, written descriptions like this were commonplace and especially helpful where aliases might have been used. I could only dream of something as helpful to describe Emma, but sadly mugshots weren’t yet in existence at the Bridewells when she was misbehaving, and there was no description of her in the Liverpool court records to build up a mental picture of her.
However, just when I was convinced that Emma’s criminal past was behind her, I happened to find a West Yorkshire prison record from 1896 cataloguing prisoners who were transferred from Liverpool prison to Wakefield prison. Amongst them was an Emma with the correct surname whose age was closer to the Double’s but was listed as having no previous convictions, now sentenced to two months Hard Labour.
The charge was Brothel Keeping.
Common sense told me that it would be easier to mistake or omit the previous convictions than to get the age wrong. But I couldn’t be entirely sure. After all, some of the censuses I’ve read in all the time I’ve been doing family history I’ve seen some wildly inaccurate ages documented.
The prison records described this Emma as aged 20 (our Emma would have been 23 and the Double would have been 20) 4ft 10 & 1/4 inches tall, with black hair. Unlike other similar records, the document doesn’t describe race or ethnicity or even ‘complexion’ which was a common descriptor (‘fair’, ‘dark’ and ‘sallow’ being typical entries on documents of this type).
This was my one chance to find out what Emma looked like, and I couldn’t be 100% sure whether it was her or not. The Double had no other convictions, no news reports mentioning her, no brushes with the law. I had nothing to cross-reference her against. I was furious.
In an attempt to verify the accuracy of the information in the court list, I had a look at two women also listed, transferred from Liverpool to Wakefield on the same day. They weren’t necessarily co-accused but there’s a chance they could have been arrested on a raid on the same ‘house of ill fame’. One of them, Catherine, I didn’t find many clues for, except for her date of birth on censuses being a few years out. The second, Elizabeth, not only was much younger in real life than the 40 years she was recorded as (I don’t know whether this was due to not knowing her own age or appearing to have had a very hard life or a mixture of both!) but that she’d had over 50 previous convictions including prostitution. Yet, when she was listed alongside Emma it was stated that she had none. This means that the Emma listed could have also had previous convictions.
It had to be one of them: it was either our Emma or the Double. Was it our Emma, daughter of a prostitute, tough and free, off the rails, with no close family to inhibit or guide her? Or was it the Double, from a stable home with married parents and a question mark over there being any previous convictions?
It’s easy to assume that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and that the looks-good-on-paper family that the Double belonged to couldn’t possibly have spawned someone who’d stoop so low. From researching the Double fairly thoroughly though, I’d found out that she’d later had a baby with her own sister’s husband. It just goes to show that you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in between the censuses.
It seems typical of Emma’s story that nothing is ever quite as it seems, never truly conclusive, and that there are question marks and loose ends left hanging in the air.
One thing’s for sure though, and that’s that we can finally close the chapter on her life of crime, and as she grows up we find out whether the turn of the century can bring Emma a Happily Ever After moment.