Silena Salter was by all accounts an ‘extraordinary’ young woman, By the age of 18 she was already a well known character at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. She had appeared there on no fewer than 19 occasions charged with disorderly conduct but although she was possessed of a ‘violent and uncontrollable temper, that amounts almost to madness’ she was otherwise ‘honest, sober, and virtuous’.
On the 24 April 1866 she had again rung the bell in the vagrant ward at the West London Union workhouse despite promising never to do so again. This was the charge that kept on bringing her before a justice and it seemed the authorities were completely unable to prevent this young woman from misbehaving. One magistrate had refused to even take the case and left it for Alderman Waterloo, to whom she had last made her pledge to behave. He saw her on the 28 April and was joined in court by the governor of the City Prison, Mr Weatherhead.
The governor handed the justice a pamphlet detailing the ‘Sad Story’ of Silena’s life. The girl had been born in Bath, the daughter of a gardener and her mother had died when she was very young. Her father remarried but Silena’s stepmother ‘possessed little, or no, control over her’ and she was ‘left to her own inclinations’.
She went to school and then into service as a domestic but she didn’t take to either of these attempts at improving her character. She ran away, stealing money from her stepmother and came to London in search of a new life. A young man who was sweet on her followed after her but she wanted nothing to do with him. Left alone she ended up homeless on the streets of the capital, wandering from workhouse to workhouse until her ‘refractory’ behaviour earned her a spell in Holloway Prison.
Several times the authorities sent her back home to Bath, but each time she ‘escaped’ and returned to London. This girl was a force of nature and it seemed no one was going to tame her rebellious spirit. A drastic situation called for drastic measures and the authorities in London decided to send her abroad, to America.
On the 29 November 1865 she sailed from Liverpool to New York where ‘hopes were entertained that in another country she would become a better girl’. But ‘such hopes were futile’ the pamphlet observed.
Silena upped sticks and worked her passage back to Britain and to London.
Despite the best efforts of the magistracy, the Poor Law authorities and several well-meaning ‘charitable ladies’ it seemed that the obstinacy of this young woman was such that she was determined not to be ‘saved’ from herself. She was ‘a living witness to the waywardness of the human heart’ and Alderman Waterloo said there was really nothing else he could do for her but to send her to Holloway once more.
He did so ‘not in the expectation that the punishment would do her any good, but I the hope that some of the kind friends who visited the prison might devise some means of reclaiming her’.
Silena was taken down to the cells where she kept up a steady protest by kicking at the doors until the van came to take her to prison.
[from The Standard , Monday, April 30, 1866]