Grantham Journal, 7 November 1885.
In November 1885, regional newspapers published a few lines regarding Mary Kelly, a tailoress from Rochdale, who had been convicted of drunkenness at the town’s borough police court for the 102nd time. That, as far as these papers were concerned, was that, and outside Rochdale it appears that Mary’s life was distilled into these few words. There was, however, so much more to Mary’s life than a throwaway remark in a local newspaper and, in fairness, no one blog post can do justice to her. Over the course of this post though, I’ll pull out what I feel were some of the most interesting points of her life, and how she differed in one important way to many of the unfortunate women convicted of drunkenness during the Victorian era – she survived.
Born in Ireland in the mid-1830s, Mary first appears in the English census in 1861, living at the back of Toad Lane, Rochdale, with her husband Thomas, an iron bolt maker, son Patrick, aged four and daughters Mary Ann and Elizabeth, aged two and three months respectively. In 1863 another daughter, Annie, was born and in 1865 Edward followed. Tragedy struck the Kelly family in the 1860s. In 1862 Patrick and Elizabeth both succumbed to measles within a week of each other. In 1867 her husband Thomas died of TB at the age of thirty and son Edward was lost to whooping cough just five days later. A second son, also called Edward, was born in 1873 but, like his siblings, a birth certificate cannot be traced and therefore his parentage remains unclear. Mary remained with her surviving children, Mary Ann, Annie and Edward.
Her offending ‘career’ appears to have begun in 1859, when she was sentenced to four months imprisonment for stealing a pair of trousers. In 1863 she served six months for the theft of a shawl and, in 1864, one year for stealing a roll of calico. In addition, by 1886 she had been summarily convicted twenty-three times for drunkenness and assault. It was for these latter offences that Mary became associated. After 1864 she did not serve any more sentences for theft, as she developed a reputation for drunkenness and minor violence. She had a fractious relationship with neighbours, dating back, possibly, to the mid-1850s, when a Mary Kelly appeared in court for assaulting Mary Conroy with a clog and later having her windows smashed by John Burke. Although these newspaper reports can’t be verified, the description of Mary does feel rather familiar. Regardless, she became, in many ways, a local celebrity, and the newspapers began to publish more and more detailed descriptions of her exploits. On several occasions crowds gathered when she was arrested and she appeared at times to have been ‘egged on’ by onlookers when drunk. In July 1876, she made her fortieth appearance before the town’s magistrates. In October that year Mary summoned Mary Higgins and Ellen Conway for assault, claiming that Conway had held her down whilst Higgins had hit her with a rolling pin. The case was dismissed when the defendants alleged that they had come across Mary when she was drunk and that she had thrown beer at Higgins before hitting her with the beer jug.
Rochdale Observer, 14 October 1876.
In 1877 Mary signed the pledge and for around three years was teetotal. She really did make an effort to give up drink. Addressing a meeting at Rochdale’s Temperance Hall in March 1878, she laid the blame for her drinking at the feet of her fellow workers. She didn’t drink before coming to Rochdale, she claimed, and was led into it by her fellow tailoresses. She was led into the habits of drinking by the example and pressure of co-workers ‘till she could drink as freely and spend as recklessly as they.’ There certainly does appear to have been a drinking culture amongst her colleagues and neighbours, as Mary’s newly reformed character led to a backlash against both herself and her children. A month after the temperance meeting, daughter Annie was discharged with a caution for drunkenness. The magistrate declared that someone had plied Annie with whisky ‘It appeared that there are some people who did not like to see the mother prosper, and who did tricks of this kind in order to cause the mother to break out’. Mary put up with personal and physical abuse for another two years, which culminated in a fight with Julia Carney in the salubrious surroundings of a Rope Street tripe shop in May 1880. Once again the magistrates showed sympathy to Mary, stating that she was constantly the victim of foul and abusive language from Julia and ‘some of the girls she kept company with’. Mary was ‘constantly annoyed by those who had far better follow the example she is setting them.’ In July 1880 Mary and Jane Lowther were summoned for fighting in the market. Lowther had insulted Mary about teetotallers.
Rochdale Times, 3 February 1883.
The pressure finally told and two weeks later she made her first appearance in court for drunkenness in three years. Again, the court showed understanding. Speaking for Mary, H. Brierley stated that
In spite of that unparalleled and cruel persecution she had endured in the neighbourhood where she lived she had managed to keep the pledge which she took three years ago. Arrangements were being made for her to leave the neighbourhood, where the people sought to put as much temptation in her way as possible – the present case arose out of the cruel taunts of the people by whom she was surrounded. They exasperated her to do what she did, and it was only a very little drink that she took.
On this occasion, she was discharged. After this, however, Mary’s life became once again littered with incidents of drunkenness, violence, obscene language and, on at least one occasion, indecent exposure. In September 1883, she was summoned for being drunk and disorderly and refusing to quit the Harp Inn beerhouse in Penn Street. Fining her 21/ or a month in prison, the court christened her ‘the worst woman in Rochdale.’ In 1886 she made her first and only appearance at the sessions, when she stood trial for attacking William France, a local butcher, with a bottle, causing a wound to his cheek ‘four inches long and two inches deep.’ Pleading guilty to common assault, Mary was bound over in her own recognizance to the sum of £20. Reading between the lines it appears that France tried to rape Mary after spending all day drinking with her daughter Annie, which says much more about the Victorian legal system than it does about Mary. Her reputation counted against her.
It would take several more pages to detail the amount of times Mary appeared before the court in Rochdale between 1880 and 1888. Despite signing the pledge on at least three more occasions, and despite assistance from Rochdale’s Temperance Society, her offending continued.
Then, in 1888, it stopped.
Rochdale Observer, 31 December 1870.
In the mid-1880s Mary made several references in court to a daughter in Canada. Her attempts to reach her, which on at least one occasion included attempts to procure money from the court for passage, met with ridicule. However, in 1889, this is exactly what she did. Emigrating to Canada that year, Mary spent the rest of her life living with her daughter Margaret and her family in Ottawa. Here, Mary appears to have stopped offending. Her other children, Annie and Edward (but not Mary Ann it seems), also followed her to Canada and appear to have put down roots. When she died in 1913 the local newspaper published an account of her funeral, attended by a multitude of respectable mourners, family and friends. There was no mention of her previous life in Rochdale, or any suggestion that she had committed any offence once in Canada.
This blog can’t do justice to Mary but it’s satisfying to detail a life far removed from the stereotypical ‘drunken woman’ portrayed by the contemporary press. Here was a woman who was strong, determined, clever and hard-working. And, ultimately, she survived.
Ottawa Citizen, 6 September 1913.
 His marriage certificate states that his father was Thomas…hmmm…..
 The meeting was reported in detail in the Rochdale Observer and Rochdale Times, 30 March 1878.
 Rochdale Observer, 6 April 1878.
 Rochdale Times and Rochdale Observer, 22 May 1880.
 Ibid, 17 July 1880.
 Rochdale Observer, 31 July 1880.
 Rochdale Times, 29 September 1883.
 Rochdale Times, 2 January 1886.
 Ottawa Citizen, 6 September 1913.