Archives can often reveal the harsh realities of the 19th century criminal justice system, where serious offences and even minor transgressions were met with what now may seem to be overly severe punishments. And this could be the case for all types of offenders, male and female, adults and youngsters.

But these same archives can sometimes reveal what appear to be interesting instances of clemency, where the particular social circumstances and background of an individual were seen to be at odds with the seemingly harsh sentences meted out by the courts. This could result in apparent acts of leniency by judges and magistrates and even precipitate calls for the early release of prisoners who had received, unjustly it was claimed, extended prison time for their transgressions.

This is what appears to have happened to 17-year-old servant girl Edith Jennings from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, who was charged with setting fire to a number of haystacks belonging to her employer and sentenced to five years’ penal servitude by judges at Gloucester Assizes.

In 1885, Edith had been working as a servant at Tardebiggs, near Redditch when she was charged with the offence. She was subsequently committed to the assizes by Redditch magistrates and then released on bail.

The hay that she had been accused of burning belonged to Mr Herbert French, at Wright’s Farm. Arson was said to have taken place on two occasions on 23 and 23 August, with around 60 tonnes of hay destroyed in the incidents. This was valued at about £160, and unfortunately the property had not been insured.

When arrested and questioned about the incident, Edith had initially claimed that a passerby had committed the offence. But it wasn’t long before she admitted to the police that she was responsible for the arson attack, although she was at a loss as to why she had set fire to the hay.

In an almost cruel twist to the case, Edith’s father was also caught up in the incident, being one of the members of the fire brigade who extinguished the blaze and narrowly escaping serious injury when the hay rick he was working on collapsed.

Arson was, of course, a serious offence and one that was deemed to be on the increase. So the judges that Gloucester Assizes acted accordingly and sentenced Edith to five year’s penal servitude, even though it had been Edith that had raised the alarm when the blaze took hold. But she had committed the offence in secret and tried to implicate another person when questioned.

Edith was initially sent to the local prison in Worcester before being transferred to Woking Prison. As she had no previous convictions and no known criminal connections, she was categorised as ‘Star Class’.

And this appears to have been part of a ‘respectability’ that went a long way in helping secure Edith’s early release from prison.

The Home Office had asked the governor of Woking to prepare a report on Edith after she had served fifteen months of her five year sentence. The report stated that she was of ‘good’ industry, ‘sober’ and ‘respectable’. Mrs Glossop, who had known Edith for seven years, was named as somebody who would vouch for her respectability, adding that she was ‘industrious’ with parents that were also ‘industrious’ and ‘honest’.

And it looks like she had friends in high places. A letter from the High Sheriff of Worcestershire, Mr Victor Millward, who employed her father and was on good terms with her employer, had requested that Edith be kept from ‘contamination’ during her time in prison and reiterated the fact that she was the daughter of ‘highly respectable’ parents.

At the same time, Edith’s case appeared in the newspapers and a petition was raised for her release, claiming that the original sentence had been much too harsh. The newspaper reports of the court case had described the defendant as a ‘very smartly-dressed girl’, perhaps in an attempt to accentuate her respectability further.

In fact, all of the magistrates in Redditch and around 1,000 local manufacturers had signed the petition. Her former employer and prosecutor, Mr French, had also signed. It was claimed that Edith had committed the offence due to hysteria and had no apparent motive against Mr French.

And the campaign worked. The Home Secretary personally authorised the release on licence of Edith Jennings due to the special circumstances of her case. She would be discharged from Fulham Prison, where she was being held, as soon as was practicable.

This happened on 19 November 1886. Edith returned to the family home in Redditch after serving just 13 months of her five year sentence.

Records show that in 1891 Edith, who is now aged 22, is living with the family of her aunt in the West Ham district of London. She is once again employed and working as a parlour maid.

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Information taken from Victorian Convicts: 100 Criminal Lives by Helen Johnston, Barry Godfrey and David J. Cox.

Gathered from Census records, newspapers (Berrow’s Worcester Journal; Birmingham Daily Post; Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle; Hampshire Advertiser; Illustrated Police News), and licenses records at The National Archives (PCOM) and Ancestry.co.uk

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