There are those moments in research when your own work links with that of others working in a similar area. Because I know several of the wonderful people behind the Digital Panopticon website and database and was present when they launched in 2016 I remember the exhibition that accompanied it. The site allows you to trace individuals caught up in the English criminal justice system from the later 1780s to the beginning of the twentieth century through their prison and transportation records. Within the site the team have managed to create ‘life archives’ of a number of criminals which reveal the mishaps and opportunities that led them to feature in a number of institutional records.
One of these was Lydia Lloyd who first appears in the DP in 1865. Her life story reveals a woman who first got in trouble in her teens and went to on prostitution and a number of encounters with the summary courts before, in 1870, she was sent to prison for eighteen months for theft. As Dr Lucy Williams notes, Lydia was one of ‘many women living on the margins of society, trapped in prison’s ‘revolving door’.
Whilst in prison she continued to break the rules, and the system was hard on those that it didn’t break quickly. Lydia (pictured in 1879 below) was punished for laughing in chapel, and for striking another inmate with her tin mug. Both infringements resulted in her being denied daily exercise for three days. She didn’t learn from this and continued to offend inside, and then again once she’d been released.
Lydia turns up in my daily search of the Police court, in February 1879. She appeared at the Hampstead Police court, described as a laundress, accused of burglary and the theft of a shawl. The alleged victim was Charles Augustus Mackness, the landlord of the Railway Inn, Church End, Finchley in north London.
Mr Mackness told the magistrate (Mr Marshall) that between half past five and six that morning he’d been awakened by a ring on his doorbell. A policeman was at the door and explained that he’d been alerted to a light passing several windows and thought he might have an intruder. Mackness searched and found Lydia under the bed in the tavern’s ‘best bed-room, which they kept for visitors’. Lydia was arrested.
Looking around the room it was evident that she’d been through several drawers and the wardrobe and had stolen a shawl and possibly, a blanket that had been on the bed. I wonder if the latter was just to keep her warm as I doubt the room was heated and it was February.
Lydia denied taking the shawl but she could hardly explain why she was in the landlord’s rooms. Moreover her ticket of leave, which she carried with her, was produced in court showing she had been given seven years imprisonment in 1873, with a further five years’ of police supervision. That was six year’s earlier and Lydia had failed to comply with the terms of her parole. Not that it was easy for a former offender to ‘go straight’ even if she’d wanted to. For Lydia there was only going to be one outcome here: the magistrate remanded her and she was later formally indicted to appear at the Old Bailey for breaking in to Mr Mackness’ house.
The jury convicted her in early March and the judge handed down another custodial sentence, this time ten years’ penal servitude. Once inside Lydia again continued with her disruptive behaviour, fighting, talking in chapel, arguing with other inmates, and damaging prison property. None of this would have helped her, fighting the system was pointless, as the prison diarist Austin Bidwell recognized:
‘An English prison is a vast machine’, he wrote. ‘Move with it and all is well. Resist, and you will be crushed as inevitably as the man who plants himself on the railroad track when the express is coming’.
(From P. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, (London, 1985. p.229)
Lydia came out of gaol in September 1884 when she was 43 years of age, again released on license. The Panopticon believes she died just seven years later at the age of 50, she’d spent much of the past 28 years inside. At some point she managed to have three children but her brushes with the law, and a lifetime addicted to alcohol, meant she must hardly have known them.
This sort of construction of a ‘criminal life’ is invaluable in demonstrating the affect that the criminal justice system had on the lives of ordinary working-class men and women who while far from perfect individuals, never really did much more than break the laws surrounding petty theft. Today our prisons are full of very similar neglected and damaged people, who have ‘failed at life’ and/or been let down by society.
As a footnote, I grew up in Church End, Finchley. The Railway Tavern was demolished in 1962, the year before I was born. The Minstrel pub was built on that site and my friends and I used to drink in there in the early 1980s. It too has gone now, and another bar has taken its place. Dr Williams studied for her first degree in History at Northampton, where I taught her.
It is a very small world.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 25 February, 1879]