A Cure for Dypsomania – and a Victorian Poisoning

On last week’s BBC TV series, A House Through Time, David Olusoga and his team revealed that one of the Edwardian inhabitants of 10 Guinea Street, Bristol, had been involved in underhand medicinal practices, including dealing in supposed ‘cures’ for unwanted pregnancies.  Through placing a series of advertisements in the press (for ‘female remedies’), and using the pseudonym ‘Mrs Watson’, one James Stewart carried out his dubious business in plain sight.

Such ‘cures’ for various medical conditions were a staple of the Victorian press.  For example, throughout the 1870s, in newspapers throughout the country, a series of identical advertisements appeared.  They promoted a cure for dypsomania, now more commonly known as alcoholism.  For 4s. 6d, a packet of ‘Dr Heyman’s Remedy’ would be sent to the lucky recipient for a cure ‘more efficacious than signing the pledge or attending temperance lectures.’

CaptureManchester Times, 18 March 1876 (www.findmypast.co.uk)

Upon further investigation, like Mrs Watson four decades later, Dr Heyman was not Dr Heyman at all, but rather the Paris-born Dr Gustave Ponsford de Raymond.  In 1875, de Raymond was living with his wife, Lydia, at Beenland House, Tor Square, Torquay.  It appears that a cure for dypsomania was not de Raymond’s only speciality, as an advertisement in the East and South Devon Advertiser from 1876 shows that he claimed to be a ‘skilful dentist and oculist’.  He certainly branched out, as in 1854 he had a surgery in Hill Street, Poole, specialising in dentistry only.[1]

This provincial dentist/oculist/chemist also involved himself in one of the most celebrated poisoning cases of the Victorian era.  In 1876, a London lawyer, Charles Bravo, was fatally poisoned at his home in Balham.  It was concluded that Bravo had been poisoned with antimony but no one was ever charged with his death.  However, a reward of £500 was offered to anyone who could prove how Bravo had come by the poison.  It is here that de Raymond emerges on the scene, as he claimed, a month after the reward was posted, that he had supplied the antimony to Bravo.  The lawyer, it was reported, had purchased six packets of de Raymond’s ‘cure for dypsomania’ for the sum of twenty-seven shillings.  De Raymond made up the powders himself, which he admitted contained antimony.[2]

The reporting of de Raymond’s supposed involvement is curious, as these events only came to light in the early months of 1879 and it is not apparent whether de Raymond did indeed supply the powders, or whether he received the reward.  Considering his various business practices, it is tempting to believe that de Raymond had an eye for the main chance and may have been inclined to ‘bend’ the truth.


Charles Bravo (public domain)

De Raymond’s foray into curing dypsomania appears to have ended by the close of the decade.  By 1881, he had moved to an address in Tavistock and ‘Dr Heyman’s Remedy’ no longer appeared in the pages of the Victorian press.



[1] Poole and Dorset Herald, 30 March 1854 (www.findmypast.co.uk).

[2] Birmingham Daily Post, 27 January 1879 (www.findmypast.co.uk)


Picture from the Past


Julia McDonald, courtesy of Greater Manchester Police Museum

It is very rare to come across any images of the women I’m researching.  Although their photographs will have been taken upon committal to Strangeways, these appear to have been lost in the mists of time, or, most likely, to a Manchester Corporation skip.

However, the Greater Manchester Police Museum holds several volumes of Victorian and Edwardian police photographs for the region.  One of these volumes was once in the possession of a Rochdale detective, whose notebook contained photos and information on a variety of ‘notorious’ Rochdale criminals.

Julia McDonald was one woman who came within the professional orbit of the detective.  She appeared eight times in the prison registers between 1870 and 1873, twice for drunkenness, but her ‘criminal career’ lasted much longer.  The information contained within the notebook shows that she continued to offend well into the 1890s.


                                        Courtesy of Greater Manchester Police Museum

In addition to her numerous committals directly from the magistrates’ court, Julia also appeared four times at the Quarter Sessions.  Three of these appearances resulted in lengthy prison sentences, one of which, in 1873, was for seven years penal servitude for stealing various items from the wonderfully named Tubal Dobberkin.

It is obvious that prison did not stop Julia’s offending.  Her photo shows a woman no doubt hardened not only by her circumstances, but also by her experiences of the criminal justice system.





There’s Something About Mary


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.[1]  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.[2]  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.’[3]   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’.[4]  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.’[5]  In July 1880 Mary and Jane Lowther were summoned for fighting in the market.  Lowther had insulted Mary about teetotallers.[6]


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.[7]

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.’[8]  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.’[9]  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.[10]

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.

[1] His marriage certificate states that his father was Thomas…hmmm…..

[2] Information from her Quarter Sessions record (1886), via www.findmypast.co.uk

[3] The meeting was reported in detail in the Rochdale Observer and Rochdale Times, 30 March 1878.

[4] Rochdale Observer, 6 April 1878.

[5] Rochdale Times and Rochdale Observer, 22 May 1880.

[6] Ibid, 17 July 1880.

[7] Rochdale Observer, 31 July 1880.

[8] Rochdale Times, 29 September 1883.

[9] Rochdale Times, 2 January 1886.

[10] Ottawa Citizen, 6 September 1913.

‘This woman……is honest’ – Salford’s Susan Wilson


Manchester Times, 31 May 1890

On the 6th May 1905, the Salford Reporter published the obituary of one Susan Wilson, who had died at the age of sixty from ‘general exhaustion and decay brought on by excessive intemperance.’  Susan, the paper reported, was ‘one of Salford’s most notorious characters’, having made 174 appearances before the magistrates.  In fact the number was probably nearer 200 and she commenced her ‘drunken career’ earlier than the paper’s stated year of 1880.  Susan lived through a time when regular arrests, prosecutions and committals for drunkenness were commonplace.  In fact she was, despite her local reputation, far behind other ‘notorious characters’ when it came to arrests for drunkenness (see Nell Darby’s blog on London’s Annie Parker and Lesley Hulonce on troubled inebriates).  It was not so much the fact that Susan racked up so many arrests but the fact that the Reporter cast a nostalgic light upon her life when she died, a far cry from newspaper reports when she was living.

Susan was born Susan Fitzpatrick in Gosport, Devonshire in 1845.  Her mother was Eliza, an Irishwoman who had been widowed by 1861.  Susan seems to have identified herself – and been identified – by her parentage rather than by her country of birth.  In 1865 Susan was in Salford, married Robert Wilson, a coal dealer, and they had three children.  Her husband was a heavy drinker and it appears that it was this that led to the breakdown of the marriage and Susan’s own recourse to alcohol (see Andrew Davies, The Gangs of Manchester, p.256).  Susan began to make regular appearances in front of the magistrates, a number of which ended in committal to Strangeways prison.  The newspapers, not just in Salford, lapped up these appearances, and rejoiced in her behaviour in court.  In 1884 the Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald reported how an ‘elderly Irishwoman’ (she was in her early forties at the time) had made her 88th appearance in court and had danced an Irish jig after being sentenced before singing ‘I come from Tipperary and my age is 32.’  The Salford Weekly News noted she was a ‘disorderly woman’ in 1875 when she had been thrown out of a vaults on Chapel Street before being surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.  Interestingly there is evidence of a support network in Susan’s life; when in drink, the paper stated, her children were looked after by her mother and sister.  Robert, it would appear, could not be relied upon for help.  By the turn of the century her reputation was firmly established and headlines such as ‘Susan Wilson Again’ were not uncommon.

Part of her reputation consisted of her unconventional use of footwear, on several occasions she launched a boot through the window of a beerhouse when denied entry or through the window of the courtroom (prompting one journalist, on noting the evasive action of the magistrate, to comment that he had often seen a duck’s beak but never seen a beak duck – see Davies, Gangs of Manchester).  In later years Susan took to drinking tea instead of alcohol, with the police on at least one occasion providing her with a packet of tea leaves.  As well as prison, she spent time in and out of Salford workhouse, where she was noted as a good needlewoman and laundress, a position she also held during her time in Strangeways.  She always behaved herself, her obituary noted, but occasionally displayed her temper (a not unusual contemporary stereotype for Irish women).  Not long before she died Susan had written a letter to a Mrs Bradbury of the Waverley Hotel on Eccles New Road (near to the workhouse, the hotel building still stands), offering homemade d’oyles for sale so she could purchase tea and sugar.  She promised the proceeds would not go towards whisky as, ‘This woman (the bearer of this letter) is honest.’

Susan’s obituary is notable for its tone, as though the borough was saying an affectionate goodbye to a respected citizen, rather than someone who, along with many other women, had been castigated for their drunken behaviour over many years.  Perhaps the paper reflected Edwardian concerns, or lack of them, over female drunkenness, an issue which had been seen as so problematic for the Victorians.  The Reporter presented a human face to female drunkenness, a face often lost to those readers of the mid-Victorian press.

Primary sources consulted: Salford Reporter, 6 May 1905, Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, 25 October 1884, Salford Weekly News, 24 April 1875, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, various dates, Nottinghamshire Guardian, 27 August 1898, Strangeways and New Bailey female prison registers

Many thanks to Roy Bullock of Salford Local History Society for forwarding Susan’s obituary.

‘Until Her Majesty’s Pleasure Be Known’

Ches Ob

Cheshire Observer, 19 July 1873

In the main, the women documented within the Strangeways Prison registers served short sentences for minor crimes, especially drunkenness.  Of the handful committed to penal servitude in the early 1870s, their sentences were completed at Millbank, with a twice-yearly transport taking them down to the capital.  Although not directly related to my research, one case caught my eye and out of curiosity I decided to investigate further.  This was the case of Eliza Yeulett (or Hewlett), who in July 1873 was committed to Strangeways for murdering her daughter, Clara.  At her trial she was ‘Found Not Guilty on the ground of Insanity’ and ‘To be kept in strict custody until her majesty’s pleasure be known.’  In the November she was transferred to Broadmoor.[1]

Born Eliza French in the picturesque village of Winslow in Buckinghamshire sometime between 1826 and 1829 (records vary), she married local man William Yeulett in 1846.  The nature of her husband’s job, a railwayman, saw them move around the country.  In 1861 they were living in Upper Mitton, near Droitwich and had five children; Thomas, Jesse and Mary Ann, all born in Winslow, Elizabeth and William, born in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire respectively.  In 1871 they were living in a railway hut at Golbourn Bellow near Chester with son William, born in Bedford, and two younger children; John, born in Sussex and Clara, born in Wolverhampton.  The tragic event came two years later in Reddish Vale.

On a Wednesday morning in July 1873, her husband left the house at 9 Reddish Vale, Stockport, presumably to begin work.  According to reports, Eliza had called out to him to try and get him to return but he either didn’t hear or ignored her.  Immediately afterwards, claiming that she was ‘bothered in the head’, Eliza scooped up four-year-old Clara and six-year-old John and threw them into the nearby River Tame.  Upon doing so she rescued John but Clara could not be reached, and drowned.  She had wept over their bedside before carrying out the deed, claiming that ‘something told her to drown them.’  Upon reaching the riverbank she had endeavoured not to go through with the act ‘but “something told her again” to drown them.’[2]

Her fragile mental state was evident when brought up on remand at Manchester County Police Court soon afterwards.  In answer to the charge of wilful and attempted murder, ‘she made a rambling statement, stating that she had obtained her acquittal that morning on the ground of her insanity, and that she had been ordered to go to an asylum.’[3]  She was committed to trial at the Assizes later that month, which resulted in her confinement and eventual transferral to Broadmoor.  It was at the initial hearing that Eliza’s husband claimed that she was a heavy drinker ‘and that he thought she was delirious.’[4]  It appeared easier to blame the ‘demon drink’ as the cause of Eliza’s actions, rather than an underlying mental illness.


Admitted on 21 November 1873, Eliza appeared to have been put to work in Broadmoor’s laundry, the 1881 census describing her as still married and working as a laundress.  She spent twelve years in the Asylum.  Deemed recovered, she was discharged on Christmas Eve 1885, and seemingly returned to her home village of Winslow, where she gained employment as a housekeeper at Redfield Cottage.[5]  She was 62.  Although not confirmed, it appeared that she died in Sussex at the age of 73, in 1900.

There are several themes which can be teased out of Eliza’s life story.  The first and arguably most important being the attitude of the mid-Victorian authorities towards the issue of mental illness – especially the indifference of the local police court to her true problems; that of mental illness rather than just a tendency to drink (did she really drink to excess and, if so, could it have played a part in her actions?).  Had there been some past crisis that had caused her breakdown?  Could it have been linked to poverty or family problems?  Although I don’t claim to be a physiologist, her description of voices in her head suggested some form of schizophrenia.  She obviously wrestled with her demons, initially fighting the urge to harm her children and then immediately attempting to rescue them from the water,  Whatever her illness, her time in Broadmoor saw her recover and become rehabilitated into the community, holding a respectable position in an affluent household.  She appeared, not surprisingly, to have become estranged from her family after the events in Reddish Vale.  There is no suggestion that she was ever reunited with her husband and children.



There is one final, poignant footnote.  Son William, aged seventeen in 1873, followed his father into employment on the railways, becoming an engine driver.  Living in Preston in 1891, he was father to seven children.  The first-born, a daughter, was named Clara.

[1] Sources: Assize record and Strangeways Prison register.

[2] Cheshire Observer, 19 July 1873

[3] Edinburgh Evening News, 19 July 1873

[4] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 19 July 1873.  This article goes into more detail on the events of the day.  According to her son, John, Eliza had told her children that their father ‘had had his head cut off’ before throwing them into the Tame.  Clara was reported to have been asleep at the time but awoke when thrown into the river.  Appallingly, this caused amusement to the members of the coroner’s jury.

[5] The Redfield estate was renowned for its opulence and as a centre for fox hunting.  See http://www.winslow-history.org.uk/winslow_redfield.shtm It is now home to an Intentional Community – http://www.redfieldcommunity.org.uk/index.html

New Bailey Prison, Salford


The University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology has recently excavated a portion of what was once the largest prison in England.  New Bailey Prison, on the border of Manchester and Salford, was once the County Prison for the Hundred of Salford and its years of operation saw great changes in penal policy.  Started in 1787, the prison remained in service until 1868, when, due to the increased population of South-East Lancashire, it was replaced by Strangeways Prison, a new-style penitentiary, which was built in the panopticon design.  The dig, and the recent tours which have accompanied it, has unearthed a fascinating part of Salford’s history.  Many people who walk and drive past the site every day probably have little knowledge of its existence or the part that it played in penal and local history.

Part of John Howard’s prison reforms, New Bailey was originally octagonal in design, with four radiating arms, the octagon itself containing the chapel.  The length of the prison was 145 feet, each wing being 45 feet long and three storeys high.  Early nineteenth century increases in population meant that the prison was soon expanded and 1816 saw the greatest improvements.  The length of the gaol increased to 685 feet and the width to a maximum of 35 feet.  Local disturbances, (unspecified in the report I’ve read but probably including the Peterloo Massacre of 1819) meant that the authorities felt it necessary to install twelve turrets in the corners of the prison to facilitate musket fire on any potential threat, although these had been reduced to eight by the time of the prison’s closure.  By 1868 the female prisoners were held in the original octagon while male prisoners were held in the newer cells.  The prison also had workshops, a schoolroom, cookhouse and hospitals.


New Bailey saw six public executions during its life, arguably the most famous (or infamous) being those of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, three Fenians hanged for their supposed involvement in the death of Sergeant Brett in September 1867.  Brett, a policeman, was killed whilst escorting Fenian prisoners to Manchester’s City Gaol on Hyde Road.  ‘Justice’ was swift, with William Gould and Michaels Larkin and O’Brien meeting their end just two months later.  Upwards of 12,000 people crowded the area to watch the spectacle, although it was reported that not even half of these could see what was happening.  Soldiers were stationed on the prison walls and the nearby railway line and two cannon, loaded with grape-shot, were positioned within the prison.  Hundreds of police and special constables were on duty on both the Manchester and Salford sides of the River Irwell.  The ‘flaring gin-palaces’ of Deansgate did a brisk trade, and were blamed for ‘supplying an early stimulant to the eager throng’, some of whom were described as ‘sharp, precocious lads of the criminal class’ and ‘girls and women whose habits form the darkest chapters of our social history.’  The description of the executions themselves left little to the imagination, Allen reportedly died in a minute but Larkin and O’Brien took longer, their deaths ‘appearing more painful……both……appearing from the vibrations of the rope, to struggle.’  The reaction of the crowd appeared to have been muted, with half of them leaving the scene within half-an-hour of the prisoners’ demise.  A year later, in 1868, public executions, if not capital punishment itself, were ended.


Female prison register for the New Bailey

Some of Lancashire’s most notorious ‘drunken women’ ended up in New Bailey as well.  Mary Kelly of Rochdale served three sentences for felony in the prison, whilst Susan Wilson of Salford also did time there.  They were part of a body of prisoners who formed the ‘meat and drink’ of the prison’s population, with sentences of up to six months being served there, although the majority of sentences were measured in weeks and even days.  More serious offenders were imprisoned in Lancaster Castle.

After closing in 1868, and with its inmates transferred to Strangeways, New Bailey remained derelict until 1872 when it was demolished and the site became a goods yard for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.  More recently it has been used a car park.  Now, it will be part of a ‘regeneration’ of the area but the name lives on.  New Bailey is the moniker of the new build taking place today.

IMG_0837 IMG_0833

Close up of a male cell and overview of the cells

Images taken from http://manchesterhistory.net/manchester/gone/newbailey.html.  The report of the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ is from the Manchester Guardian, 25 November 1867 and info on the prison from the Manchester Guardian, June 23 1868.  Image of the prison register taken from http://www.findmypast.co.uk.  Salford Uni’s archaeology department’s website is http://www.salford.ac.uk/cst/research/applied-archaeology.  Pictures of the dig taken by me.

Samuel Stevens – Rochdale’s Chief Constable 1869-1881

Samuel Stevens first came to my attention early on in my research, due to an article published in the Rochdale Observer in 2007, which told the tale of a ‘lawman swept in to clean up [a] den of iniquity.’[1]  The article told the tale of The Gank, one of Rochdale’s slum districts, which was situated next to the Town Hall (and explains why it was ‘cleaned up’).  It’s location, a half-square mile from the bottom of Packer Street and including School Lane, Great George Street, Nelson Street, King Street and perhaps the most infamous street of all, Church Lane, was reputed to have been a haven for prostitutes, criminals and other n’er do wells, packed with brothels and beerhouses.  It was the archetypal slum, its narrow passages and courts notorious for street robberies.

Packer Street

               Rochdale Observer, 13 August 2007

Whether or not The Gank was indeed the haven of criminality the Rochdale press – now as then – claimed it was, and it may be fair to say it was exaggerated –  Samuel Stevens was credited as the man who ‘cleaned it up’.  His cause was helped by the Wine and Beerhouses Act of 1869, which passed control of liquor licences from the Excise to local magistrates.  Rochdale’s JPs took advantage of this to revoke eight of the most infamous houses around Church Lane, and common lodging houses were put under surveillance by the police in order to clamp down on prostitution.  Of the 159 so-called ‘houses of ill-fame’ in the area in 1868, only 54 were left by December 1869.  By 1872, all such houses had been closed down.  Such was Steven’s success that the Home Office were moved to write to the Chief Constable to express their satisfaction at the results.[2]  However, Samuel Stevens’ war on vice was only just beginning.

Born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, c.1834, Stevens was a career policeman, who experienced a meteoric rise through the ranks, holding every rank except sergeant.  Unlike many chief constables, he did not possess a military background but had held positions in several forces, including Leeds, Liverpool and, immediately before going to Rochdale, the position of Chief Constable of Chesterfield.  When appointed Chief Constable of Rochdale in 1869, he was in his mid-30s.  His rise through his profession was attributed by one newspaper to his ‘early educational advantages, united to great ability.’[3]

Stevens led Rochdale’s police force from 1869 to 1881, when he resigned to take the same position for Nottingham.  The 1870s were a time of increased societal concern over drunkenness and during Stevens’ tenure Rochdale became known as one of the most drunken towns in England.  This was mostly, if not completely down to the actions of its Chief Constable.  Police forces, in general, only arrested persons for extreme forms of drunkenness, such as drunk and incapable or drunk and disorderly and arrests were at the discretion of the arresting officer.  Practical considerations, such as the need to appear in court the day after an arrest or the difficulty in ferrying a drunk back to the police office, and risking assault by either them or their friends, often affected a constable’s decision.  Upon admission to the police office, drunks were often allowed to sober up in the cells before being released, and the arrest did not count on the official statistics.[4]  Under Stevens, however, and using powers given to the police under the 1872 Licensing Act, which allowed them to make arrests for simple drunkenness, Rochdale’s drunkenness statistics rose dramatically.  In 1873, the number per 1000 prosecuted for drunkenness in Rochdale was 18.55, placing it fifth in the national list, behind larger towns and cities such as Liverpool (first) and Salford (fourth).

This rise was down to the police arresting people for all forms of drunkenness, including simple drunkenness, a fact which Stevens was keen to admit.  He declared that Rochdale’s police treated drunkenness as a much more serious offence than other towns of a similar, and larger, size.  As he stated in his report of 1874,

‘The fact is, in many towns the police take very little notice of drunken persons, and never arrest or proceed by summons unless it is a bad case of ‘drunk and disorderly’ or ‘drunk and incapable’.  We make no such nice distinctions.  All persons reported for drunkenness, although not in a helpless condition, are proceeded against.’[5]

Indeed, he even went so far as to state that if fewer people were provided with lifts home from public houses, and had to walk back, then the arrest rates would have been even higher.  Many contemporary commentators believed that it was police activity which influenced drunkenness statistics, rather than they being a true indication of the problem, and the example of Rochdale gave credence to these views.  Such strong opponents of drink as Stevens did much to influence public concerns and views over the extent of drunkenness.


Rochdale Town Hall, 1870s

His career in the town was not wholly committed to policing drunks.  In 1871, he was despatched to New York to apprehend one Thomas Dobson, who had embezzled £400 from the Rochdale Gasworks and fled to America, leaving his wife and two children behind.  Along with an American colleague, Stevens managed to persuade Dobson to return to England with him, with only £5.9 left from his haul.  His return to Rochdale was marked by an ‘exciting scene’ at the railway station, as hundreds turned out to catch a glimpse of the felon.[6]

RT 27.5.1882

Rochdale Times, 27 May 1882

The remainder of his career in the town appeared to have been more mundane and he left for Nottingham in 1881.  Retiring upon grounds of ill-health in 1892, Stevens lived out his life on his own means, no doubt paid for in part by the generous gifts bestowed upon him by the towns of Chesterfield, Rochdale and Nottingham.  Widowed twice, he died in Bournemouth in 1910 at the age of 72.

The Times 18.2.1910

 The Times, 18 February 1910

[1] Rochdale Observer, 13 August 2007

[2] S. Waller, Cuffs and Handcuffs, The Story of Rochdale Police Through the Years, 1252-1957, (Rochdale: Yates, 1957)

[3] Nottingham Evening Post, 14 July 1882

[4] For example: for the policing of drunkenness in Liverpool, see J. Archer, The Monster Evil: Policing and Violence in Victorian Liverpool (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011) and for London, S.Petrow, Policing Morals: The Metropolitan Police and the Home Office, 1870-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

[5] Rochdale Observer, 6 June 1874

[6] Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 3 May 1871


Drink, Death and the ‘Illustrated Police News’

Having always been attracted to tales of woe, despair and death, this blog looks briefly at the untimely demise of two women through drink in the 1870s.  The reports and pictures come from the Illustrated Police News, a publication which ran from 1864 to 1938 and gained a reputation for sensationalism and melodramatic depictions of crime and criminals (and woe, despair and death).

The first report comes from May 4th 1872, this being a year when the “drink question” was a political hot potato and the 1872 Licensing Act was only four months away from being passed.  Reports of drink-related incidents were common in the newspapers of Salford and Rochdale so perhaps it’s not surprising to see the Police News following suit, albeit in a much more tabloid-esque fashion.


The headline is typical of the IPN, reinforced by the horrified looks on the faces of the locals who discovered the body, the agonised expression of the deceased (complete with empty wine bottle, just to emphasise what killed her), the filthy surroundings and the neglected animals.  The Victorian reader would have been in no doubt that this was the abode of an intemperate woman.  The unfortunate woman was Catherine Edwards, a resident of Hadley[1].  The newspaper report is as dramatic and overwrought as the image, she lived in a “wretched habitation” and was a “wretched votary of Bacchus”.  Like several reports of the time, the unfortunate is described as being a perfectly respectable woman when not in drink, yet fit for nothing when drunk.  What I find particularly interesting about this report is that I’ve found several instances in Salford and Rochdale where both women and men have died from an excess of alcohol in their homes and which were dealt with in a small paragraph tucked away on page three.  Perhaps the fact that Catherine died in these circumstances outside one of the main urban areas is what attracted the IPN to the story?  Perhaps this was big news for Hadley?

The second report comes from April 22nd 1876, at a time when arguably drink wasn’t as much as a headline grabber as it had been earlier.  In Salford, for example, reports of violence were becoming much more prevalent.  Indeed, Lancashire as a whole was becoming renowned for “kicking” – basically violence involving booting people with clogs.  Still, the issue of drink and drunkenness had not gone away.

This picture is not as clear as the first, but we can make out a woman consumed by flames – the result of a night’s intemperance with a friend[2].  Sarah Stewart, the 38 year old estranged wife of a shoemaker had spent a night drinking with a friend, Mary Ann Asher, both returning home in a “fearful state of intoxication”.  Once in the house, Stewart knocked a paraffin lamp off a table which then set fire to her dress.  She stumbled into the street and was consumed by the conflagration, the coroner estimating that the flames reached 15-20 feet in height, due to the damage caused to the shutters of the shop under which she expired.


Note the policeman (PC Pougher) attempting to extinguish the fire with a shawl – all too late.

Again, the character of the deceased is laid bare, she was separated from her husband due to “some discrepancies on the part of the deceased” (perhaps the reader was expected to use their imagination here) and once parted from her husband she engages in a most disrespectable pastime for a Victorian woman – public drinking.  The character of Asher is also highlighted – when called upon to give evidence at the inquest she is dismissed by the coroner for being drunk and given a warning as to her behaviour.  If she doesn’t give up her inebriate habits then she too may meet an untimely end.

Both Edwards and Stewart were portrayed in the IPN as responsible for their own downfall.  Their deaths were dramatized for a readership hooked on crime and sensationalism and it is not difficult to see the IPN  as planting the seeds for today’s tabloid press.

Finally, the representation of drunken women in the press is a topic I will be researching in more detail.  Historians such as Barry Godfrey, Shani D’Cruze and Bronwyn Morrison[3] have all carried out research on the topic and there is certainly plenty of source material to go at.

[1]Possibly Hadley in Shropshire or Hadley in Worcestershire

[2] Due to five minutes ‘research’ on Google maps/street view, I think this incident took place in Grimsby.  Street names, but not the location, are mentioned in the IPN report.

[3] Godfrey/D’Cruze/Cox – ‘The Most Troublesome Woman in Crewe’ in Crime, Violence and the Nation State, New York 2009 and Morrison, “Ordering Disorderly Women 1870-1920’,  unpublished Phd thesis, Keele, 2005

“A Woman Found Drowned” – The Case of Elizabeth Dixon


On the 31st March 1877, a body of a woman was recovered from a pit of water in a brickfield, off Eccles New Road in Salford.  The body was that of Elizabeth Dixon, described at the inquest as a woman of “intemperate habits” and who had been drinking, apparently,” for the last five weeks”.  She had left home three days earlier and was not seen alive again.[1]

At the time it would have been easy to for the readers of the local press to dismiss this case as another example of a drunken working class woman meeting an untimely end.  However, dig a little deeper into Elizabeth’s story and the truth may be a little more complicated, but no less tragic.  Elizabeth does not appear to have been a “typical” drinker, by that I mean those women who, once payday arrived, immediately set off to the nearest pub or beerhouse and made up the stream of inebriate women paraded before the magistrates’ bench on a Monday morning.  She appears to have had no brush with the law, except once, and seems to have come from a stable family background, at least until 1870, when quite possibly her problems begin.

In 1874 the Salford Chronicle reported that she had tried to kill herself, at home in Hulme Street, by cutting her throat.  The surgeon at Salford Dispensary claimed that she showed “signs of mental aberration” and wanted to send her to the asylum.  In her defence, she stated that “she was drunk at the time she attempted the rash act, and did not know what she was doing”.  This was all the evidence the stipendiary magistrate, Sir John Iles Mantell and the defence solicitor, Mr Bennet, needed to declare that the suicide attempt was purely down to the effects of drink and that it was the fault of the 1872 Licensing Act – “People get drunk in less time, and the effect is more maddening”.[2]   She is ultimately ordered to pay a surety of £50.

Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Young in Westleigh, Lancashire, in 1833.  In 1851 the family is living in Tyldesley, where she works as a cotton drawer and in 1854 she marries Andrew Elliott, a spinner and they have one son, Robert.  The family continue to live in Tyldesley, so far, so very normal.  She appears to have been part of a stable family unit throughout her life to this point, although she gives no occupation on the 1861 census.  The possible turning point in Elizabeth’s life – and perhaps the incident which leads ultimately to her early demise – is in 1870, when her husband dies.  Two years later she marries Robinson Dixon, a clogger, and she moves to Salford.  Interestingly, her son stays behind in Tyldesley, where he lives with his grandmother.  She appears to have no occupation other than housework, according to the Strangeways prison register.

Was it the death of her husband and the break-up of the family unit which led to her turning to drink?  Did she suffer abuse at the hands of her new husband?  Where there underlying problems which meant that her son did not move with his mother to Salford?

Some of these questions will unfortunately remain unanswered, but the case of Elizabeth Dixon is an interesting, albeit sorry one.  Here was a woman seemingly condemned by the authorities as indicative of the scourge of drunkenness, typical of the perceived problem of the time.  Yet there was more to her than simply a woman who liked a drink.  Perhaps alcohol was an escape, not a cause but a result of her life circumstances.

[1] Salford Weekly News, 7th April 1877

[2] Salford Chronicle, 24th January, 1874

Strangeways Here We Come (again)


A rush and a push, etc………..

A recent article in the Manchester Evening News has reported on the re-committal rate of prisoners released from Strangeways prison, with an apparent fifty-five percent of prisoners offending again within twelve months.

Link here: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/shameful-toll-prisoners-freed-strangeways-3663008

The words of Justice minister Jeremy Wright, when he speaks of a cycle of “prison, release, offend and back to prison”, could have come from the 1870s.  One difference being, that some women offenders didn’t wait twelve months before returning to prison.  Short sentences and repeat offending were constant topics of debate in the late nineteenth-century.  England’s prison system had, according to the Whiggish interpretation of history, been reformed along humanitarian grounds, in a move away from the Bloody Code of the eighteenth century (check out Lucy Williams’ blog on this – http://waywardwomen.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/no-place-for-a-lady-back-to-the-victorian-penal-system/ ) and Strangeways was a model prison of the Victorian era, built to replace the ageing New Bailey Prison in Salford and opened in 1868.   Yet since its opening it became, like its predecessor, a revolving door, through which passed intemperate women time and time again, serving sentences of only a few days for drunkenness or other petty offences before returning.

For example, from Salford, between 1870 and 1874, total female committals almost doubled, from 439 to 851.  358 individuals were committed in 1870, compared to 631 in 1874, showing that the number of women committed multiple times increased over the period (19% in 1870, 26% in 1874).  Most of these were committed twice, but the number of women committed three or more times also increased.  Of course, some women were more regular visitors than others.  For example, when Julia Whelan received 14 days for drunk and riotous behaviour in Salford in 1874 it was her forty-seventh committal – but not necessarily her forty-seventh offence.  Top marks, however, go to Sarah Ann Lee, aka Shannon, who was committed to Strangeways for seven days in July 1870 for being drunk and disorderly in Whit Lane – her eighty-first committal.  Granted, these are exceptions, but not particularly rare ones.

My current favourite politician, JT Tomlinson, at one time chairman of the Visiting Justices to Strangeways, is often to be found discussing what he perceived as the inefficiency of the prison system towards both male and female offenders.  In one instance he states that  “It really was a farce to send prisoners to goal for such a short term.  They merely went there to be cleaned and made decent, and when they were turned out they resumed their career of vice and debauchery.”  Plenty of food for thought here.

Different magistrates had difference methods of dealing with drunkards, in particular.  One felt that the meals provided to prisoners on longer sentences were more generous than for shorter periods and the “rigorous diet” they had during a shorter stay was more of a punishment.  One felt that drunkards should be sent to reformatories rather than prison (a move made later on in the century).

Although this is a rather brief analysis, it is sobering (no pun intended) to realise that nearly 150 years after the Quarter Sessions at which this was discussed, the deterrent or reformatory effect – or lack of – of short sentences and re-offending is still relevant and being discussed.  Perhaps Jeremy Wright would do worse than to examine Victorian concerns over the issue, something I’ll be doing over the coming months.