By Dr Craig Stafford, University of Liverpool

For my PhD, I researched women committed for drunkenness to Strangeways Prison, Manchester, between 1869 and 1875. This was a period of great concern about drunkenness and I looked at how female drunkenness was policed and why so many women were committed to prison for the offence.

I started by examining the female registers for the prison, which are held at Archives +, Manchester Central Library and online at www.findmypast.co.uk. They contain a wealth of information, such as court, offence and sentencing data, as well as personal data such as age, marital status, place of birth, address and committal history. Furthermore, they detail the offence/s for which women were committed and their sentence/s.  If a woman was committed more than once then a reference number was allocated, which allows you to trace them back and forth through the registers.

I used the data in the registers to explore the policing and sentencing of female drunkenness in two Lancashire boroughs, Salford and Rochdale. I also explored the lives of women imprisoned for drunkenness and examined their social and economic backgrounds, in order to ascertain whether there were any common factors which made them vulnerable to imprisonment for the offence. The data held within the registers was a starting point. Although they hold a wealth of information it was necessary to try and find these women in other records, such as newspapers, the census and BMD.

One problem you may face when looking for a criminal ancestor is that, if like the women I looked at, they were poor and working class, then their voices will be hard to come by. They had little time, motivation or education to write down their experiences or give their side of the story. This is where newspapers can be vital, as you may be able to find reference to them in published court reports.

Often these were simply lists of people convicted of drunkenness and their sentence but some cases were reported on in detail, especially if someone had a reputation for drunken behaviour. The actions of women in court always made good copy and reporters would often pick up on these cases. Women were sometimes quoted, especially if their comments were deemed to be controversial, and so you may be able to ‘hear’ your ancestor’s voice through these reports.

Your local newspapers may have been digitised and available on www.findmypast.co.uk or the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). However, the newspapers I used most extensively are currently only available on microfilm at Salford Local History Library and Rochdale Local Studies Library respectively. Therefore, you may need a trip to your local archive or local history library to search the newspapers. Either way, whether you use online sources or not, knowing the date that your ancestor was convicted or committed will narrow down your search considerably.  This date can be found in petty sessions (magistrates’ court) records, if they are available.

One life I explored in detail was that of Theresa Wilson. Born in Maryborough, Ireland, c.1844, she was committed to Strangeways seventeen times between December 1870 and November 1874. She had been previously committed to New Bailey Prison, Salford and at least four times to Manchester’s City Gaol. In the main, her committals were for being drunk and riotous but she also served sentences for theft, prostitution and assaulting the police.

In 1861, she was living as a washerwoman with her son, Thomas, at 95a Bedford Street in Salford.  Wilson was an unmarried mother of two. At first it was difficult to find her as the enumerator had mis-spelled her name as ‘Tresa’, hence the importance of checking the ‘name variants’ box! There is no evidence that she was ever married, or that the children had the same father. Her first committal to gaol appears to have been in December 1867, when she was living in a cellar under 30 Union Street.[1] In May 1868, she was committed to Strangeways for six months for physically abusing her children.[2] Wilson was described in court as a ‘dissipated woman’, an appearance which may have been caused by excessive drinking. At the time, she was only twenty-four years old.

By 1871, she had already been imprisoned for six months for stealing clothing and for one month for stealing a looking glass. She had also been convicted several times for drunkenness, assault and indecent behaviour. In May that year, she was sentenced to eighteen months in Strangeways, with police supervision for seven years, for stealing a muffler. Released from prison on 21 November 1872, she was re-committed two days later for being drunk and riotous.

Another issue in tracing criminal ancestors is that they may have moved from town to town and/or used an alias, in an attempt to avoid prosecution, or greater sanctions when arrested. Although most of her committals came when she lived in Salford, in September 1873 Wilson was committed from Rochdale for being drunk and riotous.  Any attempt to conceal her identify failed, as despite giving an alias of Mary Ann Stansfield, the Chief Constable noted that ‘she was an old gaol bird, and quite accustomed to being locked up.’ Her lifestyle had evidently taken its toll on her health, as, at nearly thirty years of age, she was described as ‘an elderly-looking woman’.[3] In March 1875 she died of phthisis, a form of tuberculosis, whilst serving a sentence of six months for assaulting the police.[4]

The data held within the registers therefore, was ‘brought to life’ by looking at newspaper reports. Legal sources can be used to note when an individual was sentenced or imprisoned, as well as their offence and personal details. Newspapers can then take your research further. They provide a fascinating glimpse into life at the time and give context to the raw data.

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[1] This information is only available in the prison’s description books, also available at www.findmypast.co.uk.  As the description books did not record the offence, it is not known for what she was committed.

[2] Manchester Times, 2 May 1868.  Available online at www.findmypast.co.uk and BNA.

[3] Rochdale Times, 22 February 1873.

[4] Theresa Wilson Death Certificate, reproduced at <www.gro.gov.uk>[accessed 23 October 2017]

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