A Guide to Researching Female Offenders

A number of the records in the Digital Panopticon can be searched by the sex of a convict. Separating convicts by sex allows not only a fascinating comparison of male and female convicts at home and abroad, it also provides evidence for more nuanced research into the convict experience, particularly those of women, whose stories are still underrepresented in penal histories.

Females and Crime 1780-1925

Women have always made up the minority of offenders tried in court, and subjected to punishment under English Law. The century and a half of history covered by the digital panopticon was no exception. Between 1780 and 1913, less than 20% of defendants at the Old Bailey were female. There remains considerable debate as to why women constituted such small proportion of those prosecuted in the long nineteenth century. Some historians believe that low rates of female prosecutions indicate that women in this period committed less crime, whilst others argue that their crimes were less often detected, and more often dealt with outside of the courtroom.

As offenders, women were predominantly responsible for petty crimes such as small thefts and public order infractions. Women appeared less frequently than men in higher courts (like the Old Bailey) and for violent offences. Women were, however, highly vulnerable to becoming recidivist offenders. Often, a criminal conviction meant the loss of a women’s reputation or character, which could be essential for securing work. It might also be the cause of a rift between offenders and their family members or a breakdown in personal relationships, leaving women economically and socially vulnerable to reoffending. The inability to find work or personal stability after a conviction saw a number of women trapped in a downward spiral of offending, conviction, release, and reoffending that was difficult to escape.

Although women may have only been a small proportion of those convicted during this period, the issue of female criminality occupied a surprisingly large space in debates on crime, penology, and psychology as the period progressed. The nineteenth century female offender, often portrayed in the press as unfeminine, sexually promiscuous, calculating and callous, was reviled by many contemporaries as the antithesis of all a virtuous and respectable woman should be. Women who found themselves in court had often broken not only the law, but gendered codes of social expectation. From the mid nineteenth century onwards, a number of theories were put forward as to why women offended. Medical professionals and law makers drew heavily on ideas about moral corruption, and mental deficiency, reducing the acts of female offenders to either ‘bad’ (prostitution, for example) or ‘mad’ (infanticide, ‘kleptomania’, or drunkenness), while social campaigners, particularly in the latter decades of the century, pointed towards the financial, personal, and environmental pressures that contributed to offending.

Penal responses to female offending were varied with a number of institutions appearing and disappearing over the course of the period. Women constituted a higher proportion of those incarcerated in asylums due to criminal activity and in inebriate reformatories. The Lock-Hospitals of the mid-century dealt exclusively with women supposed to be prostitutes. There were also a range of homes, reformatories, refuges, and charitable institutions that dealt with low levels of female deviancy, where women were encouraged to morally reform and acquire domestic skills for appropriate future employment. For those found guilty of the most serious offences, the penalties of the era were the same as for men – execution, transportation, and imprisonment.

Females and Imprisonment

Wash-house at the Brixton Prison (1862). From J. Binney and H. Mayhew The Criminal Prisons of London
The long nineteenth century saw some of the biggest changes to how women were imprisoned in all of British history. At the end of the eighteenth century, women serving small terms of imprisonment or awaiting trial would have been confined in gaols or local and country prisons. Many of these had large shared cells, and allowed the free association female and male prisoners. These institutions were notorious for corruption, and abuse, with many suggesting that women confined in gaols like Newgate were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Those guilty of more serious crimes faced Transportation or the Gallows. However, the penal reforms of the nineteenth century, and changing ideas about female criminality led to the development of separate convict institutions for male and female offenders guilty of serious crimes. Convict prisons either had separate institutions or at the very least separate wings for female prisoners. Inside female convict prisons, a strict regime controlled every aspect of life for convict women, from behaviour to appearance. The emphasis of the convict prison regime was in reforming the ‘bad’ character of female offenders, through domestic labour, religious instruction, and moral guidance. Unlike Male offenders, when women became eligible for parole, they might be permitted to enter a penal refuge for the last portion of their sentence in which they would be trained in domestic duties, and helped to find suitable employment on discharge.

Females and Transportation

Female convicts were part of the British bid to colonise Australia from the voyage of the First Fleet in 1787. However, throughout the period, women constituted by far the minority of convict transportees. In New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, only between 10-20% of arriving convicts were women. In the penal colony of Western Australia, no women arrived at all, the practice of transporting female convicts having ended in 1853. Throughout the convict period in Australia, women were in high demand, not only to fulfil domestic work assignments as private servants, or at work in the laundries and sewing rooms of the convict establishment. Female convicts provided the opportunity for former male convicts to marry, and have children (single free migrant women also provided this opportunity, but were not abundant in number). The formation of families by convicts who had served their sentence was thought to provide both social stability, and free-born children, who would have an important role to play in the future of the colony.

Women experienced transportation and the convict establishment of both NSW and VDL differently to their male counterparts. Before they even left England the segregation started, with women very rarely confined on Convict Hulks. In the early period of transportation to New South Wales, while men were assigned to the hard labour of clearing land and building infrastructure, women could be set to spinning, sewing, laundry, or other domestic tasks, while some were given no work at all. Later in the transportation period, the system of ‘Female Factories’ was established, which saw newly arriving convict women pass through these prison like institutions as a form of probation, before they were sent out on work assignment, or as a punishment when they committed secondary offences, or regulatory infractions. If their behaviour was good, convict women could be permitted the right to marry whilst under sentence, which led to some living with their husbands and having children whilst technically still under sentence in the colonies . For more information on Australia during the convict period, please see our Australia, 1788-1868 page.

Searching for Females in the Digital Panopticon

By searching individual record sets it is possible to conduct a gendered analysis of crime types, conviction rates, punishments and more. However, not all of the records on the digital Panopticon site contain information on the sex of a convict. Will full names so regularly recorded, the field was felt unnecessary for some documents. Unfortunately, lists of convicts, like the British Transportation Registers did not record the sex of passengers, and registers for trials and pardons often did not record sex either, as such there are several record sets relating to trials, imprisonments, and transportation which cannot be separated or analysed by sex.

However, some of our more qualitative records do contain the sex of defendants and convicts. They can be searched by sex alone, or by the use of keywords also, such as ‘murder’ or ‘children’ for more focused searches. Returning results of women only is possible with the Old Bailey Proceedings with our Founders and Survivors Tasmanian Convicts 1802-1853 and Founders and Survivors Convict Biographies 1812-1853 and the Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals 1881-1925.

One of our key sources for studying penal servitude in England, the UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts 1853-1925 have already been divided into separate collections, divided by sex. By selecting the female licences for parole, or specifying that this dataset be included in an archive, all results will provide information on the crime, sentence, and penal experience of female convicts in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Our collection of life archives can be searched by sex. However, only archives containing at least one document in which sex was recorded will be returned in a search. We have more than 250,000 archives containing two or more linked records. Yet only 160,000 archives of two or more records for male individuals and just 38,000 archives with two or more linked records for women. Around twenty percent of our archives do not include a record that specifies sex.

The Digital Panopticon can be used to answer a range of questions about women and crime in this period, from the disparity between their sentences and penal outcomes, and their rates of imprisonment at certain times, to personal and physical characteristics.

Women in our Convict Lives

Acton, Amelia, c. 1819-1888, recidivist and petty thief

Anderson, Phoebe, b. 1822, counterfeiter

Durrant, Sarah, b. c.1808, grand Larceny

Hall, Mary Ann, b. c.1840 sickness and medical treatment

Jones, Elizabeth, b.1828, a juvenile

Jury, Mina b. c.1828-1890, transported and imprisoned

Morris, Harriet, b. c.1838, murder

Walker, Charlotte, b. c.1754, and eighteenth century thief

Further Reading

Author Credits

This page was written by Lucy Williams with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.