Women and Children

Females in Newgate Prison
Eighteenth century Newgate was a hellhole for both men and women. The turnkeys profited on the misery of the convicted, who faced disease, abuse and most likely death in the grotty dungeons of London's most infamous prison. William Hogarth painted scenes he witnessed in 'A Harlot's Progress'.
Jane Farrell stole 2 boots and was sentenced to do 10 hard days labour. Age 12
Rabbit Hole: Victorian Child Criminals of Newcastle City Gaol and House of Correction
Elizabeth Murphy (left) was sentenced to 5 years hard labour for stealing an umbrella and Mary Richards was jailed for 5 years for stealing 130 oysters
The Telegraph
Henry Leonard Stephenson was convicted of breaking in to houses and was sentenced to 2 months in prison in 1873. Age 12
Rabbit Hole: Victorian Child Criminals of Newcastle City Gaol and House of Correction

Children in Prison

Children usually found themselves in prison because they were either born there or arrived with their nursing mother. Of course some were sent, like eight year old Sarah Ann Franks who was sentenced to three months in 1857 for stealing peppermints. It was not until the children act of 1908 that imprisonment for children under 14 was abolished.

Victorian England

In Victorian England there were only a few children under the age of 10 in prison, though the number of young criminals in jail aged more than 10 rises steeply.  In the early years of the century all criminals were more or less thrown together in the common jail regardless of crime or age.  But change was in the air and concern was rising over the rapid increase of petty crime.  The first significant move came in 1823, when laws were introduced that provided separate lock-ups for those awaiting trial and the convicted and hardened criminals. Then it was recognized that a distinction should be made between the habitual and the casual criminal.  Separate prisons were designated.    

Petty crime, especially among children, had increased sharply at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Looking for reasons is not simple, but the short answer has to be the increase in urban poverty as a result of the growing industrial revolution that was turning British society on its head. In 1816 Parliament set up a committee ”for investigating the alarming increase in juvenile crime in the metropolis (London)”. As people poured into the cities in the hope of finding work, so poverty increased and the slums proliferated. The Law was inadequate to deal with the new class of urban unemployed. Mass unemployment led to desperate poverty, overcrowding and squalor with the accompanying vices of crime, drink and prostitution. The children suffered through violence at home and poverty meant that many never went to school and took to the streets in gangs to engage in petty thievery and pickpocketing, the ‘prince of crimes’.

Women in Prison

In Victorian England far more women were sentenced to prison than nowadays. Women constituted around 17% of the prison population as opposed to approximately 4% these days. In late Victorian England 90% of female prisoners were given short custodial sentences. Conditions were relatively pleasant and many women saw it as an improvement on life in the workhouse. As one inmate put it, ‘I can have a room to myself, and what with three meals a day, and the doctor whenever I want him, I’m better off here.’ Women prisoners refered to a sentence of a few days as ‘a wash and brush up’.


The Illustrated Police News, covering all the most shocking crimes and curious cases of the day.

Children severely flogged

‘Two ragged and helpless urchins, named John Levitt and Frank Rafferty, aged eleven and nine years respectively, were brought up in custody charged with stealing two pigeons, the property of Mr. John Rhodes of Knottingley, Yorkshire, England on the previous Thursday. It appears from the evidence of the prosecutor that on the day in question he had two pigeons that were valued at 3/6d. taken out during the day.

‘On being apprehended by the police who found one of the pigeons at the house of Levitt’s parents, the juvenile prisoners first denied stealing them, but afterwards confessed their guilt.

‘Mrs. Levitt said she was the wife of a labourer and had four children. She had recently been very ill and during her sickness the boy had not behaved very well. Rafferty’s mother informed the bench that she was a hawker, and had eight children all of whom attended the Church Sunday School.

‘In addressing the parents of the boys, Mr. Peel said “It’s a serious thing to bring up children in the way that you are doing and you don’t know what it might lead to. We must punish them and we must send them to a reformatory, but we now order them to receive ten strokes each with the birch rod.”

‘The punishment was not, however, inflicted with a birch rod as ordered, but with a number of strong willows plaited, about four feet in length, which were fastened together at the extreme end with a piece of hemp cord. The backs of the destitute, miserable and helpless urchins were bared from the shoulders to the calves of the legs.

‘They were than stretched upon a wooden table with a police officer at one end holding down the head and arms, whilst another member of the force officiated at the other end by holding down the legs and feet.

‘Whilst held in this position Police-Sergeant Grimshaw wielded the heavy weapon across each of the prostrate forms, taking Rafferty, who was the younger of the two, first. The ten blows dealt in his case were excessively severe and the piteous cries of the helpless child during the first two or three strokes were heart-rending to hear. After these, however, he was unable to scream, and at the conclusion he was unequal to the task of readjusting his rags, and reeled against the back of a seat in a fainting condition.

‘Levitt was next stripped and placed upon the table in the manner described, but for some reason unknown the blows in this case were dealt with less severity, and the miserable youngster was enabled to scream with increasing piteousness, until sometime after the tenth lash was inflicted.

‘This is the second case of child flogging ordered by the West Riding Justices during the past two months.’                                                   

Article taken from The Illustrated Police News.

Reflects the tastes of the period


‘Victorian and Edwardian Prisons’ Trevor May

Illustrated Police News

Rabbit Hole: Victorian Child Criminals of Newcastle City Gaol and House of Correction

Ian Swift

Females in Newgate Prison