The Strange Case of James Carse and Horatio Nelson


“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced…

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Beyond the Old Bailey Online: Archival Sources for Trials

We’re often asked how to find out more about defendants than is contained in the digitised Proceedings. This guest post by Chris Barnes explores some of the most significant related records (particularly from the late 18th century onwards) held by The National Archives, London.

On the 10th June 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took their customary early evening drive up Constitution Hill in an open carriage. The Queen was four months pregnant with their first child and was fond of taking the air. As the carriage made its way around Green Park a young man stepped forward and fired two pistols at the Queen, neither hitting Victoria. The man was immediately disarmed and put up no fight stating ‘It was I, it was me that did it’.

This man was named Edward Oxford. On the 9th July 1840, at the age of 18, he was put on trial for treason at the Old Bailey; he was eventually to be judged not guilty on the grounds of insanity and spent twenty seven years of his life at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in both Bedlam and Broadmoor. You can read the proceedings of Edward’s trial on Old Bailey Online but it is the records of the Central Criminal Court which are held at The National Archives that I will be presenting today. These records can really help to flesh out the story of any proceedings you find on The Old Bailey Online. Using Edward’s case I’m going to show you how you can navigate through the different sets of records that we hold at the archives to gain the whole story.

Before Trial

HO 16-7

The first sets of records are the pre-trial lists ‘Returns of Committals for Trial at the Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court’ in record series HO 16 and the ‘Newgate Prison Calendar’ in HO 77. The lists of prisoners awaiting trial at the Old Bailey in HO 16 are arranged by month and list those from ‘London’, Middlesex, Essex, Kent, Surrey and those facing trial at the High Court of Admiralty. They give the name, age, charge, verdict and sentence.

The lists in HO 77 are similar, but pre printed, and they also have the advantage of being indexed. These records are lovely to look at as the verdict and sentence are hand written in at a later date. The HO 77 volumes also give monthly summaries of sentences handed out and the crimes which were heard that month.

CRIM 4-143

The indictments (formal statements of the charge against the accused) for the Old Bailey are in record series CRIM 4. These are again arranged chronologically not only by year and month but also by whether the crime is a felony or a misdemeanour. These records are typically filthy bundles of parchment and great if you want to look at a stereotypical ‘record’. The details included on the indictments are usually sparse but you can get information on the names of jurors and sometimes, as in this instance, the indictment is annotated with a list of witnesses.

For serious cases (including murder, treason and sedition) you may also find a set of depositions (testimony of witnesses
taken before trial) in record series CRIM 1. These records are name searchable on Discovery, our catalogue, so a quick check will reveal if any depositions survive which they do in this case in CRIM 1/1/15. The depositions include witness statements and affidavits which were produced prior to the trial and you may find details of some evidence or witnesses which were not presented to the court. Looking at these records may, therefore, reveal details of interest not found in the proceedings on Old Bailey Online.

CRIM 1-1-15

In this instance, for example, there is the sworn evidence of Lord Colchester who witnessed the attack on Constitution Hill but who was not called to testify in court. There are also affidavits produced by Mr Pelham, acting as attorney for the defence, who produced the text of a speech by the infamous Irish MP Daniel O’Connell which Pelham claimed would prejudice the mind of the jury against Oxford.

Similarly if the case was of some repute you may find either a Home Office (HO) or Metropolitan Police (MEPO) case file on any investigation undertaken prior to the trial. Edward later asserted that the pistols did not contain any bullets, only powder, and that the ‘assassination attempt’ had been nothing more than an attempt at notoriety. This may have gone some way to explain why neither the Queen nor Prince Albert was hit. Again a keyword search in Discovery returns a result for Metropolitan Police file MEPO 3/17  which includes a great deal of correspondence into the details of the criminal investigation, including the search for the elusive ‘missing bullets’.

After Trial

Of course, conviction does not mean the end of our quest for records. There are several series of registers, or calendars of prisoners, which confirm the sentences handed out by the court. The most easily accessible of these are the criminal registers in HO 26 or HO 27 which have been digitised by the website Ancestry. However, these records will not usually give you any further details than you will already have discovered in the proceedings.

Also, we must remember that those in prison do usually get released at some point. We have two sets of important records relating to those in prison seeking the revocation or reduction, or a remittance of a portion, of their sentences.

These records can be found in HO 17 or HO 18 (depending on the date of the petition) which is accessed via a chronological index in HO 19, available in hard copy at The National Archives. There is a bit of trial and error when searching for a petition as an application could be made at any point during the sentence. The index in HO 19/9 shows an entry for Edward Oxford dated 15th July 1840. You would use the date, along with a number code found in the index, to find the petition itself in the correct volume of HO 17 or HO 18.

HO 12-42-10963

HO 12/42/10963

In this case, the petition itself would usually have be found in HO 18/27 however as Edward’s was a case which generated lots of correspondence the petition has been extracted and can now be found in the papers of the Criminal Department of the Home Office in HO 12/42/10963.

If Edward had been held in a regular prison (instead of at Bedlam and Broadmoor) you may find a record of an early release amongst the records of prisoners released on license. These records are in series PCOM 3, which can be name searched from 1853-1863, otherwise available via a chronological index in series PCOM 6.

You will not find a record for Edward in this series of licences as he was eventually discharged under the opinion of the Doctors of Broadmoor that he was of a sound mind. Details of the deliberations surrounding Edward’s release can be found in the file HO 12/42/10963.

Edward was eventually released in October 1867 whereupon passage was found for him on the ship Suffolk departing London on the 20th November 1867. The Suffolk would take him to Melbourne where Edward lived out the remained of his days in peace under an assumed name.

The details relating to all the record series I have mentioned are described in some detail in our research guides Trials in the Old Bailey and the Central Criminal Court and Criminals and convicts.

If you feel inspired to make a visit to The National Archives to research a Criminal Ancestor please do read our Visit Us page specifically for details of our opening times and the identification requirements to obtain a Reader’s Ticket.

Chris Barnes has worked at The National Archives for over three years and is a Modern Domestic records specialist. He has an interest in a variety of topics including crime, disease and local politics.

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Gaol Fever

A guest post by Adrian Teal, who will be well known to some readers as a caricaturist with leanings towards the 18th century…

When you’re spending three years hunting down scandalous true stories for a spoof Georgian tabloid called The Gin Lane Gazette, it’s inevitable that crime and punishment will feature prominently in your endeavours. The Old Bailey itself certainly crops up regularly in a host of my favourite tales of 18th-century lawbreaking, and its rich history supplied me with many juicy headlines for my compendium of hack reportage.

The Monster

Renwick Williams, ‘The Monster’ © Adrian Teal

One of these favourites, and also one of the most discussed Old Bailey cases of the 1790s, was that concerning a knife-wielding maniac dubbed ‘The Monster’ by the gentlemen of the Georgian press. In December of 1790, one Renwick Williams was found guilty of bloody assaults on upwards of fifty women in London. The attacks began in May of 1788. An unidentified man was said to follow his victims, rant remarks of a lewd nature at them, and then stab them in the thighs or buttocks with a small knife. It was often reported that he also had blades fastened to his knees. As news and rumour spread, general panic ensued, during which armed vigilantes roamed the city’s streets, and ladies took to wearing copper pots against their backsides as protection. A group of men established a No Monster Club, and sported emblems on their coats to signify that they were not the feared felon. A theatrical number entitled The MONSTER, Or, The Wounded Ladies, was put on at Astley’s Theatre, and became hugely popular. Meanwhile, the up-and-coming caricaturist James Gillray used the furore surrounding the attacks as the basis for two of his brilliant engravings. One of these was a political satire showing the Whig Charles James Fox as the Monster standing in the dock at Bow Street.

Bow Street’s constables were hindered in their efforts to apprehend the Monster by the many different descriptions of him they were given, no two accounts of his appearance being the same. A fellow called Angerstein offered a reward of £100 for his capture, with the unhappy result of many blameless men being apprehended by avaricious citizens.

J. Gillray, Charles James Fox as the Monster, 1790

Gillray satire of the Whig Charles James Fox as the Monster, 1790

Williams was arrested in June, 1790, with the assistance of John Coleman, an admirer of one Ann Porter, who had been attacked in January of that year. Porter identified Williams, who insisted he was innocent of the charge laid against him, which was one of assault against Porter and other victims. His first trial was held at the Sessions House of the Old Bailey on the 8th July, during which many witnesses affirmed that he had been at work at the time of the alleged attack on Porter. In spite of these character witnesses, and doubts voiced publicly by Angerstein concerning his culpability, Williams was found guilty. However, the judge proved reluctant to sentence him, and expressed reservations concerning the evidence. He referred the case to High Courts, which overturned the conviction on a technicality, but the offence was nonetheless deemed a High Misdemeanour. A retrial was ordered, and lasted thirteen hours, after which Williams was at last found guilty, and sentenced to serve a six-year stretch in Newgate Gaol.

Williams was a former lawyer’s clerk, who worked as an artificial-flower maker in Dover Street before his indictment. He was often visited in his cell by curious members of the public, to whom he sold his flowers, having resumed his trade within the gaol’s formidable walls. Speculation persists as to whether Williams was guilty, and indeed as to whether the Monster’s crimes ever truly happened in the first place. Mass hysteria might have played a prominent role in this particular legal drama.

By a degree or two of separation, The Gin Lane Gazette has a slightly glamorous link to an incarnation of the Georgian judicial system’s most famous venue. My editor on the book was Justin Pollard, who, in addition to being a publisher, author, and QI researcher, is also a historical adviser to the film and TV industries. He has worked with Bettany Hughes, and countless other telly historians. He was a consultant on the sexy drama series The Tudors, although he’d probably tell you the principal reason he was involved in this was because it annoyed David Starkey, which is a good enough reason for doing anything, I suppose. He was also an adviser on a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. If you enjoyed the exuberant ‘re-imagining’ of the 18th-century Old Bailey’s modus operandi in the sequel featuring Ian McShane as Blackbeard, you have Justin to thank.

Death at the Old Bailey

Death at the Old Bailey © Adrian Teal

When I was first discussing the 18th century and the general idea for my book over a pint with Justin, we realised we were thinking along similar lines when we both expressed our delight that a tradition begun at the Old Bailey courtrooms in the middle of the Georgian age is still observed to this day.

In May of 1750 an outbreak of ‘gaol fever’ at the Old Bailey claimed the lives of many people, including some prominent public figures. It is thought that the contagion was carried into the court by prisoners brought to trial at the City Quarter Sessions, and commentators later observed that the victims all seemed to have been seated near the accused on the court’s left-hand side. Most eminent amongst the sixty souls who died were Sir Samuel Pennant, the Lord Mayor; three justices, one of whom was Justice Abney; an Alderman called Sir Daniel Lambert; an Under-Sheriff; and eight members of the Middlesex jury.

Gaol fever is now known as typhus, and is caused by bacteria in the bites of fleas and lice. Symptoms include fever, headaches, and a red, spotty rash. As preventatives against this virulent disease, court-goers began carrying posies of flowers in the weeks that followed, and sweet-smelling herbs were spread about the benches in the hope of quelling further outbreaks. Pleasingly, this is the practice that continues today.

Adrian Teal is a freelance caricaturist, and the author and illustrator of The Gin Lane Gazette, published by Unbound, £12.99.

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Locating London’s Past wins BSECS digital prize!

bsecs_logoThe British Society for Eighteenth-century Studies has awarded its 2014 prize for the best digital resource supporting eighteenth- century studies to Locating London’s Past.

The judging panel said:

This is a superb new free resource, which applies the latest digital mapping techniques to the study of London. It brings together a range of existing datasets, which are particularly useful for the study of ‘history from below’ – but which will also be of tremendous interest to the full range of disciplines that work on the eighteenth century, including literature, politics, theatre and music, to name but a few. The panel were impressed with the technical advancements represented by the site, but also with how easy it is to use. By making issues of urban space and historical geography so accessible, it promises to change the way that we approach the study of the capital in the eighteenth century.

Locating London's Past logo

(London Lives also won this prize in 2011.)

The prize is sponsored by Adam Matthew Digital.

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Trial of the Day from the OldBaileyBot

You might have recently seen the Mechanical Curator from the British Library Labs project which posts not-quite-random images from BL’s digitised books collections at hourly intervals, and the TroveNewsBot does a similar thing for Trove’s newspaper illustrations.

These inspired me to have a bit of fun with the Old Bailey API. Of course, we don’t have pictures, but we do have plenty of trial reports! And so the #OldBaileyBot has been posting one randomly selected trial every day around lunchtime in the UK at our old Tumblr blog and on the OldBaileyOnline Twitter account.

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CitC Zotero Bibliography

At the Old Bailey Online we use Zotero a lot. We use it for all our site bibliographies, and there is an Old Bailey Online translator so you can gather references into Zotero with a single click. We like it so much we even wrote a guide on how to use it to organise your research.

Over recent months, I’ve also been using Zotero to save blog posts I find that discuss Old Bailey Online/London Lives or use material from the sites. There is so much high-quality blogging out there that I decided it was time to turn it into a Group Library as a sort of companion to this blog. Feel free to go and explore!

OBO Crime in the Community @ Zotero

Later I may add substantial news articles and other online writing that is not formally academic. If you have a Zotero account and would like to be a co-editor, do get in touch with me (

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‘A snake into your chimney-corner’: early modern crime and the extended family

One of the striking things about the crimes described in the Old Bailey cases is the frequency with which they involved violations of ‘family’ trust. Most socio-economic and political interactions still took place on a highly personal level during the long eighteenth century despite the expansion of institutions and mass communication. The lives of the majority of Old Bailey victims, from tradesmen to gentlemen, centered upon the individuals encompassed by ‘family’ as well as diverse social and commercial ‘friends’.

Early modern family was often considered to encompass all of the dependents living in a household, even if the various types of family members were still treated differently. The majority of the shops and workshops of London craftsmen and tradesmen of all stripes were still based in or near the home. Therefore family for many people included not only servants, relatives and long-term guests – but also apprentices and sometimes journeymen and employees. Business partners sometimes lived together as well, especially when one was younger and had married a relative and/or previously been an apprentice or employee of the elder. It was in fact grasping commercial partners about whom Daniel Defoe warned, ‘you bring in a snake into your chimney-corner, which, when it is warmed and grown vigorous… hisses you out of the house’ [Daniel Defoe, The complete English tradesman (1727), 213.].


‘A Family Piece’ after Henry William Bunbury, published by William Dickinson in 1781.

Many of these familial relationships were officially governed by written and oral agreements entered into by householders, including for marriage, the indenture of apprentices, the hiring of servants, and the boarding of relatives. These agreements required them to care for and to guide the individuals involved while receiving ritualized ‘Love and Submission’ in return [Samuel Richardson, The Apprentice’s Vade Mecum: or, Young Man’s Pocket-Companion (1734), 46]. This was of course the ideal rather than the constant reality. Sometimes early modern family members conflicted with each other or even severed their bonds, as when an apprentice ran away from his or her master.

Already in the 1720s, Defoe bemoaned the purported breakdown of the traditional paternalistic relationship between master and apprentice – much as adults of every era have bemoaned the waywardness of contemporary youths. The author described how proper masters should include their apprentices and other shop employees in family prayer, and oversee their leisure time and acquaintances, much as would a parent. He blamed the breakdown of this type of relationship, and the resulting lazy and boorish behaviour on the part of apprentices, on the payment of monetary ‘considerations’ to livery company masters at the time of binding the youths: ‘it gives the servant a kind of a different figure in the family, places him above the ordinary class of servants hired for wages, and exempts him from all the laws of family government [Daniel Defoe, The complete English tradesman (1727), 152].’


Christopher Gibson’s early eighteenth-century upholstery shop in St Paul’s Churchyard, with employees scurrying about; it was probably not so spacious nor so whimsical in real life.

Since an array of individuals beyond relatives by blood and marriage could be installed in the home – including apprentices, employees and servants – there was increased risk of crime there. This included crimes committed against the home or home-based shop by people living on the premises – but also by people who used to do so and were thus familiar with their layouts, contents and security measures. For a quick look at many such crimes, one only has to search for ‘apprentice’ in the court cases.

One heart-breaking aspect of crimes committed or thought to have been committed by apprentices, is that the accused could be very young. For example, a boy was tried on 14 April 1675 for having taken money from and set fires in the house of his master, a linen draper. ‘The Master affirmed that he did prosecute him to no other end but to get a discovery of what persons were accessaries with him, and that should put him upon the Design, as supposing it very unlikely that a young boy about 13 years of Age, should enterprize so mischievous an undertaking of himself’.

On 17 January of the following year, there was the ‘Tryal of a very Young Youth, who was Indicted for Stealing one quarter of a Yard of Silk-Lutestring, and a quarter of a yard of Mascarade from a Taylor, to whom he was a Probationary Apprentice: upon his Indictment he Childishly and Innocently pleaded Guilty to the Fellony: but the Court, by reason of his Youth, ordered him to be brought back to the Barr to plead to his Bill, and he pleaded not Guilty, and was quitted.’


A Troughton sextant of c. 1790, now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

When it comes to my own research on the ‘scientific’ instrument trade of early modern London, there are a number of instances of current or former apprentices and employees violating the trust of their masters. As I discussed in my blog post for the tenth anniversary of the Old Bailey Online, this sometimes took the form of workmen skimming metal or even partial or whole instruments from the workshop. (This would have occurred even more frequently than is mentioned in the court records, since it usually did not seem worthwhile in terms of time and money for the master to try to pursue the matter in court.)

There are also instances of apprentices or employees having used their knowledge of the family home and shop to aid burglaries. As I first mentioned in the anniversary post, on 17 February 1802 the famed mathematical instrument maker Edward Troughton told an exciting tale of how tried to chase down and bayonet one of the men who broke into the family workshop in Fleet Street. Troughton’s statement lays bare the betrayal that he felt when 28 year-old William Bean made nefarious use of his recent employment with the family:

‘[A]bout this time they brought the prisoner to ask if I knew him; I found the watchman pushing up his face forcibly for me to see it; I called him inadvertently by a wrong name, but finding I knew him, he went down upon his knees, and begged I would forgive him; I would not hear him, but ordered them to carry him to the watch-house; he had been in my service five or six months, and had quitted it about a month or five weeks; he knew the house near as well as I did.’


The infamous thief Jack Sheppard before his fourth escape from Newgate Prison, from the frontispiece of the ‘Narrative’ of his life published in 1724.

One such case actually turned out surprisingly well for the criminal in the end. Anthony Lamb was apprenticed to the mathematical instrument maker Henry Carter near the Strand in 1720, but was convicted at the Old Bailey four years later of having apparently helped the infamous thief Jack Sheppard to burgle one of Carter’s lodgers. He was awaiting hanging at Tyburn with Sheppard when his sentence was commuted to transportation to Virginia for seven years.

Thereafter Lamb moved to Philadelphia, where he worked as an instrument maker and teacher of mathematical subjects – embarking upon what would become one of the most illustrious careers in the colonial American instrument trade. He highlighted his connections to the London trade in his advertisements and said that he made and sold ‘all Sorts of Instruments for Sea or Land, as Compasses, Quadrants, Forestaffs, Nocturnals, Sectors, Protractors, all sorts of Scales, Gauging Rods, and Rules, in Wood, Ivory, Brass, or Silver; also any other small Work by Wholesale or Resale’ [Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 December 1730]. Lamb moved on to New York by 1749, achieving such respectability that when he died 35 years later, The New York Packet called him ‘a steady friend to the liberties of America’ [Silvio Bedini, Early American Scientific Instruments and Their Makers (2012 ebook), 29].

Image credits: A Family Piece – National Portrait Gallery; Sextant – National Maritime Museum; Gibson shop & Jack Sheppard – Wikimedia Commons.

Alexi Baker, History & Philosophy of Science / CRASSH, University of Cambridge

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Bloody Code: reflecting on ten years of the Old Bailey Online and the digital futures of our criminal past

Early Modern Notes

Talk given at Our Criminal Past: Digitisation, Social Media and Crime History Workshop, London Metropolitan Archives, 17 May 2013

My academic apprenticeship, in Aberystwyth, was spent engrossed in two things: first, early modern Welsh and northern English crime archives, and second, the potential of the Internet for research and teaching and simply opening up early modern history to as many people as possible. That wasn’t a completely respectable interest back in 1999, and I’m still amazed sometimes that I’ve been able to spend I’ve spent the last 7 years indulging shamelessly in that obsession and get paid for it.

But what about the first of my obsessions? A couple of weeks ago, the Financial Times told us that more cranes have been erected in London in the past 3 years than everywhere else in the UK put together. I have a nagging worry that I’ve unwittingly contributed to a…

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Murder of a Ghost

By Paul Emanuelli, reposted with permission from unpublishedwriterblog.

In the winter of 1803, everyone in Hammersmith had seen the white ghost, or knew someone who had. It haunted the churchyard and the narrow passage that ran into Black Lion Lane. Many believed it was the spirit of a man who had committed suicide the previous year, his soul unable to find rest. Rumours spread, some said that the spectre had “horns on its head, and glass eyes,” while others said, it had no head at all. Thomas Groom told everyone who would listen that he had been walking through the graveyard when the spirit had attacked him,

“from behind a tomb-stone, which there are four square in the yard, behind me, and caught me fast by the throat with both hands, and held me fast; my fellow-servant, who was going on before, hearing me scuffling, asked what was the matter; then, whatever it was, gave me a twist round, and I saw nothing.”

At 10-30p.m. on the 3rd of November Francis Smith set off to hunt down the ghost. It was a cloudy night, with no moon, and the high hedges that lined the lane (that the spirit frequented) made it as dark as any cave. Within minutes Francis saw the white shape approaching. He drew his pistol and called out to it. But the white ghost came nearer. He  shouted to it again, but it would not stop. Francis panicked, aimed the gun and fired. The white shape crumpled to the ground. Approaching tentatively, the gun still in his hand, Francis saw the body of the man he had just killed.

It was Thomas Millwood, a brick-layer, his face covered in cement-dust, wearing as a witness later testified,

“linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him; his trowsers came down almost to the edge of his shoes.”

Francis Smith gave himself up and confessed to the killing of Thomas Millwood. At his trial 12 witnesses testified to his “good character.” Others confirmed the darkness of the night, the prevalence of the ghost-sightings and Smith’s good intent. The woman who had lived with the deceased victim, even recounted a conversation they had had on the previous Saturday.

“he said he had frightened two ladies and a gentleman who were coming along the terrace in a carriage, for that the man said, he dared to say there goes the ghost; that he said he was no more a ghost than he was, and asked him, using a bad word, did he want a punch of the head; I begged of him to change his dress; Thomas, says I, as there is a piece of work about the ghost, and your clothes look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger; I don’t know what answer he made; he said he wished the ghost was catched, or something of that sort.”

Francis Smith was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Thankfully the King later commuted the sentence to a year’s hard labour. The publicity surrounding the case also prompted Mr John Graham, an elderly shoemaker. to come forward and admit that he had started all the rumours by pretending to be a ghost. He had dressed in a white sheet to “frighten his apprentice,” who used the lane and churchyard on his way home. The apprentice had apparently been scaring the Graham children with ghost stories.

Researching my historical crime novel “Avon Street,” I came across accounts of many strange crimes, but this was perhaps the strangest.

via Murder of a Ghost

Trial reference: t18040111-79

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The Bank of England’s £5 note, Elizabeth Fry and the Women of Newgate

A guest post by Helen Rogers

Elizabeth Fry £5 note

Current £5 note depicting the philanthropist and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry

Last Friday (26 April 2013) the Bank of England announced it is replacing the image of Elizabeth Fry on its five pound note with Winston Churchill. Instantly there were calls on Twitter to reinstate the Quaker prison reformer, the only woman currently commemorated on its banknotes with the exception of the queen who, one day, will also be replaced, most likely by a male heir. Already there is a petition to find another female face to grace the Bank of England’s pantheon of great Britons. Mary Wollstonecraft has my vote.

But Fry’s removal does not only mark the erasure of women’s history from our currency. Other banknotes celebrate heroic individuals: intellectuals (Charles Darwin, Adam Smith) and inventors (Matthew Boulton, James Watt), though the Bank makes room to honour its own; Sir John Houblon, founding Governor on its £50 note – I had to look him up!1 By contrast, the £5 note gestures, albeit obliquely, to a broader and yet more conflicted social history.

Alongside the head of the matronly Elizabeth Fry in her plain Quaker bonnet, the banknote portrays a group scene at Newgate Gaol in 1816. The pioneering prison reformer is reading the Bible to women prisoners and their children, looked on benevolently by Christian visitors. Few of us will have given the image much consideration. My students look nonplussed when I ask them what is on the £5 note. But before the Bank discards this group portrait, it is worth us looking more closely at the history it might reveal to us. It presents an idealized scene, to be sure: the outcast redeemed by kindness; rich and poor united by faith. But it evokes nonetheless a vital part of our national traditions – the collective struggles for social inclusion and welfare, for justice, fairness and compassion. Implicitly, it hints at the illegitimate economy that was so enmeshed with the commercial system represented and regulated by the Bank. Among Fry’s audience were the women we can find here in the Old Bailey Online who supplemented meagre wages or just about scraped a living by trading in stolen goods, lifting pockets, passing false coin.

Fry reading

Jerry Barrett, Mrs Fry Reading to the Prisoners in Newgate, in the year 1816 (1863) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The engraving is based on Jerry Barrett’s painting, Mrs Fry Reading to the Prisoners in Newgate, in the year 1816 (1863). At its centre, the prison philanthropist fixes her eyes on two women while pointing to the Bible, as if appealing directly to them. The women stand arm in arm. One, we are to be in no doubt, is a fallen woman who will have plied her body on the same streets from which she stole; her dress falls Magdelene-like off her shoulder and she looks shamefully at the floor. The other woman appears to be consoling her friend, yet behind her back conceals a pack of cards from Mrs Fry’s penetrating gaze. At their feet, two young boys – possibly their children – are playing dice, a warning about the evil of gambling and the corruption of innocence in England’s most notorious gaol. Behind them, some women are listening and weeping but, ominously, others are gossiping over a bottle of porter.

Barrett’s picture poses troubling questions: Can the women be saved? Will they defy intervention? Are some beyond redemption? Prison philanthropists were repeatedly called to answer these questions. Fry insisted that kindly, personal engagement with the convicted, Christian teaching and useful occupation were the most effective means of reforming prisoners. Those advocating more deterrent and punitive methods of correction won the argument. Challenging the growing use of the treadmill, silence and solitary confinement, Fry told the House of Lords in 1835, ‘I think there is more cruelty in the gaols than I have ever seen before.’2 By 1860 when Barrett painted the Newgate picture, humanitarians had lost their hold on policy. The 1865 Prison Act enshrined in statute the regime of ‘hard labour, hard bed and hard fare’ that already characterized the prison system. Barrett’s painting reminded viewers of a gentler, more forgiving approach.3

It is telling, however, that the watermark on the £5 note obscures the disreputable side of the Newgate ward depicted by Barrett and, with it, the more troubling responses of inmates. Instead of the ‘fallen’ girls, a seated woman bends maternally over the small boys at her feet. This sanitized image suggests we are no more at ease with prisoners and their rehabilitation than were Fry’s or Barrett’s contemporaries; we want them penitent and compliant. Our version draws on the mythic narrative of Fry’s miraculous achievements in transforming prostitutes and thieves into good wives and mothers, spun ever since news of her work at Newgate hit the headlines in 1818.

Quickly Fry became the face of female philanthropy. Smiling benignly from the pages of books and magazine articles, she was held up to generations of girls to admire; only Joan of Arc received more coverage in popular popular biographies of ‘women of worth’.4 As a woman who stepped so spectacularly out of the domestic sphere, her model of religious voluntary activism became a blueprint for public-spirited women who saw their mission lying not only in the home but in prisons, workhouses, hospitals and even government. Women suffragists honoured Fry in their pageants, rightly claimed her as a pioneering figure in the history of female citizenship even though, perhaps tactfully, she had always avoided the controversial issue of women’s political rights.

Despite the current outcry about Fry’s removal from the £5 note, however, she has long been a troubling figure for feminist historians who have done much to challenge her popular saintly reputation. The model of Christian sisterhood she pioneered empowered middle- and upper-class women activists, they have argued, but all too often by infantalizing and schooling less privileged women.5 Soon after she organized the Newgate women into classes, Fry proclaimed, ‘Already, from being like wild beasts, they appear harmless and kind.’6 Recognition of the outcasts’ humanity – that they were ‘poor’ rather than ‘beasts’ – depended on prisoners adopting appropriate gender roles, befitting their class. Fry’s programme of compassion mixed with strictness, devised in her early visits to Newgate, constituted a ‘powerful sympathy’, claims Randall McGowen, defined as much by class ideology as by Christian piety.7 For feminists and Foucauldians, philanthropy masks discipline and surveillance.


Unknown, ‘Mrs Fry visiting a female prisoner at Newgate’ © National Maritime Museum, London

Historians have rightly scrutinized the unequal power relationships that structured encounters between philanthropists and those they hoped to serve, in and beyond the prison. But their focus on discipline has led many to overlook the varied responses of inmates and the poor to such interventions. While firsthand accounts of Fry’s work seldom reproduced the words spoken by inmates, they provide some evidence of prisoner voices and agency.

From the outset, Fry believed reclamation depended on the consent of inmates and she developed her programme in answer to their demands: ‘Want of employment, was the subject of their continual lamentation’, she recalled; ‘They complained that they were compelled to be idle, and that having nothing else to do, they were obliged to pass away the time doing wrong’. Initially Fry planned only to open a school for their children. The Governor declared no room was available but the women took matters into their own hands and showed Fry where the school could be located. The adult schools came at the request of inmates: ‘Their zeal for improvement, and their assurances of good behaviour, were powerful motives and they tempted these ladies to project a school . . . for teaching them to read, and to work’.8

The schools at Newgate, then, were not just of Elizabeth Fry’s making: they were a joint, if unequal, enterprise driven by prisoners as well as their teachers. With a unanimous show of hands, Fry’s earliest scholars consented to rules devised by the ladies, renouncing reading novels, gaming, singing popular songs, dancing, and ‘dressing up in men’s clothes’ in return for Bible reading, education, and needlework.9 They had powerful incentives to follow the ladies’ instruction – the acquisition of new skills and learning – but they also seem to have acted according to their own sense of mutual responsibility. Forming inmates into groups, Fry left them alone to elect monitors and ‘the most proper person’ from their ranks as schoolmistress. They chose Mary Connor, ‘a young woman of respectable appearance’, recently committed for stealing a watch. From the record of her trial in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, she may have worked with women associates, soliciting men to rob them. ‘Assiduous in her duties’ in the schoolroom she was given a free pardon after fifteen months but died – a godly death, Fry tells us – of consumption contracted in gaol.10

Not all women were so enthusiastic. Barrett’s painting stages one of the most famous incidents related by Fry in 1818 to the House of Commons select committee ‘On the Prisons of the Metropolis’. The story, told the same year by Thomas Foxwell Buxton in the first public account of the work of the ‘Ladies Committee’ and widely circulated by the press in 1818, formed part of the dramatic core of the Newgate legend, repeated ever since. Suspecting many women stuck to their old habits, Fry asked them to hand over their playing cards out of kindness to their teachers as well as themselves. Six packs of cards were dutifully surrendered for ceremonial burning. The women were each rewarded with a new muslin handkerchief. One girl, however, ‘looked disappointed’. She had hoped for a Bible with her own name written inside it, ‘which she should value beyond anything else, and always keep and read.’11

For Buxton and Fry, the girl’s wish proved the successful and unprecedented ‘experiment’ in ‘humanizing’ the outcasts of Newgate.12 We might be more cautious in our interpretation of this episode. Did the girl feel under pressure to prove her commitment to reform? Was she seeking approval and the chance of more employment or a good report? Maybe the student was outwitting her teacher by claiming the moral high-ground? Or did she simply long for a book of her own inscribed with her name that perhaps, thanks to the ladies, she could now read or write? She had been one of the ‘worst’ of the women but afterwards was ‘amiable’ and sent to a Penitentiary, from which Fry trusted she would leave ‘a valuable member of society.’13

One of the most radical insights of Fry’s programme, illustrated by the above account, was that women could help each other reform. She insisted they benefitted from eating, working and learning together rather than in separate confinement.14 In 1819, eleven women awaiting transportation who had been involved in a disturbance wrote to apologize to their ‘respected friend and benevolent benefactress’ for bringing their ‘fellow-prisoners’ into ‘general disgrace’. They wished to ‘contradict the bad’ opinion ‘impressed on the public mind’ of women like themselves.15Fry’s reply suggests how she urged the prisoners to see themselves as active participants in the cause of prisoner reform: ‘for you sadly hurt the cause of poor prisoners . . . and you thus enable your enemies to say, that our plans of kindness do not answer, and therefore, they will not let others be treated kindly.’16

Harriet Sleigh, transported in 1818 for stealing poplin from a draper’s appears to have learned the lesson. From New South Wales, she wrote to Fry: ‘Believe me, dear madam, although I am a poor captive in a distant land, I would not give up having communion with God one single day for my liberty’. Sending her love to ‘all poor afflicted prisoners’ she wished Fry to make her ‘sincere sentiments’ known to the public, ‘that the world may see that your labour in Newgate has not been in vain’.17 Recently exiled, Sleigh used the contrite and devotional language, she had learned at Newgate, and cited Scripture. To gain Fry’s approval, prisoners had to adopt this penitent tone; ‘bad language’ was one of the main offences for which they were reprimanded and for which the disruptive women above apologized. We can be certain, I think, that Sleigh was sincere in her sentiments for she had nothing to gain in writing to Fry from Australia. But to demonstrate her gratitude, perhaps she took care to express these sentiments in the language she knew her benefactress would understand.

Over twenty years since her transportation in 1823 for shop-lifting, Hester Clark also wrote to Fry, unaware her ‘benefactress’ had recently died. Her letter was reported in Fry’s memoir. Though Clark’s words were not quoted directly, she seems to have struck a different note to the penitent letters above; more conversational, happily relating domestic detail. At Newgate, Clark had been elected Schoolmistress by fellow prisoners. On departure, Fry had given her a little luxury, ‘a pound lump of sugar, and half a pound of tea’. Clark now wished Fry to know she had been married for twenty years, had ‘plenty of pigs and fowls’ and could afford ample tea of her own which she bought ‘by the chest’. Her bed was still covered by the patchwork quilt she had stitched while aboard the convict ship, from pieces given to her by the Quaker ladies. In her letter, Clark expressed gratitude, but not in the language of contrition. Instead she weighed up her success and shared her contentment, one woman to another.

To demonstrate her thanks, she sent her former teacher a calabash (or gourd) from her own garden.18 It was a fitting if idiosyncratic gift. In 1876 Henrietta Ward painted ‘Mrs Fry Visiting Newgate’, showing Fry descending into the gaol’s netherworld with her fellow Quaker Mary Sanderson. The prison heroine clutches a red rose and the bible to her chest. The rose had been given to the artist by Fry’s daughter. It came from the same plant that her mother used to pick to give flowers to the women in Newgate. The roses had proved, Elizabeth Fry had said, ‘a means of softening their hearts and giving them a vision of beauty’.19


E.M. Ward, ‘Mrs Fry Visiting Newgate, 1818’ (1876), exhibited at World Columbian Exposition, 1893

Evidence of the Newgate prisoners’ feelings, filtered through the moralizing literature by Fry and other philanthropists, is fragmentary and defies certain interpretation. It is important, nonetheless, to acknowledge. Though Fry emerges from such works as heroic reformer they hint also at the agency – and courage – of prisoners in making the most of opportunities provided by the Quaker ladies, and in enduring and surviving captivity.

Recent historians have not looked too kindly on Elizabeth Fry. As popular interest in the reformer is briefly revived by her removal from the £5 note, it is perhaps time for us to re-evaluate her work and the significance of early prison philanthropy. This is not to advocate we return to the sentimental and heroic narrative evoked by the picture on the £5. But it is to suggest we take account of the fact that for many prisoners – though by no means all – Fry’s intervention amounted to something more than discipline alone. And it is to recognize that, as Fry disappears from our currency, many of her concerns remain current.

In the same week we learned of Fry’s demotion by the Bank of England, the crime statistics for England and Wales, 2011-12 revealed an overall drop in sentencing by 19% compared with 2006-7.20 Last year, as the Howard League notes, the prison population dropped by only 3.5%.21 The Howard League’s campaigns demonstrate the continuing relevance of Fry’s intervention: meaningful work for prisoners, the particular needs of women and children in prison, the active participation of offenders in rehabilitation and community engagement. They also shows that, as a society, we are no more comfortable with rehabilitation and little more compassionate to the convicted than were Fry’s contemporaries.

Helen Rogers



For names of people recommended by the public for inclusion on bank notes, see

2 Evidence of Mrs Elizabeth Fry, Mrs Elizabeth Pryer, Mrs Jane Pirie and Miss Catherine Fraser to the Select Committee on Gaols and Houses of Correction (1835), pp. 327-343, citing Fry, p. 332. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, images 521-537.

3 Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (eds), The Oxford History of the Prison: the Practice of Punishment in Western Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapters by Randall McGowen (71-99) and Seán McConville (117-50)

4Alison Booth, How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 147-51. For example, see title page Women of Worth: A Book for Girls, illustrated by W. Dicks, (London: James Hogg, 1859).

5Eileen Janes Yeo, ‘Protestant Feminists and Catholic Saints in Victorian Britain’, in Radical Femininity: Women’s Self-representation in the Public Sphere, ed. by Eileen Janes Yeo (Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 126–48.

6Fry’s diary, 14 April 1817, cited in Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry, with extracts from her journals and letters, edited by two of her daughters 2 vols (London: John Hatchard, 1847), p. 261.

7 Randall McGowen, ‘A Powerful Sympathy: Terror, the Prison, and Humanitarian Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1986), pp. 312-334.

8 Thomas Foxwell Buxton, An Inquiry, Whether Crime and Misery are Produced or Prevented, by Our Present System of Prison Discipline (London: John and Arthur Arch, 1818), pp. 114, 117, 118-9.

9 Buxton, Inquiry, pp. 123-6.

10 Memoir, pp. 260 and 277; Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 May 2012), September 1816, trial of MARY CONNOR ANN RYMER (t18160918-183)

11 Buxton, Inquiry, p. 130-1; Memoir, pp. 297-8.

12 Buxton, Inquiry, p. 133; Memoir, p. 261.

13 Memoir, pp. 297-8.

14 Memoir, p. 297 from evidence delivered to select committee, 27 February 1818.

15 Memoir, pp. 355-6.

16 Memoir, pp. 356-7.

17Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 May 2012), January 1817, trial of HARRIETT SLEA (t18170115-25); Letter to Fry, 10 July 1820, Memoir, pp. 267-8.

18 Memoir of Elizabeth Fry, pp. 445-6; Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 09 May 2012), April 1823, trial of ESTHER CLARK (t18230409-103).

19 Cited by Annemieke van Drenth and Francisca de Haan, The Rise of Caring Power: Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler in Britain and the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999), p. 195, n. 7.

20 Statistical bulletin: Crime in England and Wales, Year Ending December 2012,–year-ending-december-2012.html

21 accessed 28 April, 2013.

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