Roberts, Eliza, b. 1816

Born in Bristol in 1816, Eliza was transported to Australia in 1832 for pocket-picking aged just 16. Far from the stereotype of the ‘Artful Dodger’ Eliza’s life narrative reminds us of the difficulties in being a young, working-class woman in early Victorian London. The self-identities of young female juveniles, often obscured from history, are made visible here through Eliza’s many tattoos, which provide us with a unique opportunity to understand the complex identities and sentiments of young women coming-of-age in the nineteenth-century metropolis. Together with her early marriage, they also, perhaps, help us to understand how she managed to desist from crime.

Link to Digital Panopticon Life Archive

Early Life

Eliza Roberts was born in Bristol in 1816. Nothing is known of her early life until, at the age of 16, when she was living in London, she was convicted at the Old Bailey for picking the pocket of a broker, John Cronk.

Crimes and Trials

On 5 January 1832, Eliza Roberts was convicted for pocket-picking a watch, watch-key, and a book from a broker, John Cronk, in Blue Anchor Alley in southeast London. Cronk reported that, between 8 and 9 o’clock in the evening of 19 December, he had been walking home, ‘not quite sober’, when Roberts and her accomplice, Ann Smith, said ‘[he] should walk with them’ despite him ‘[having] no money to treat them’. Female robbers often worked in pairs or groups of three, and capitalised on wider perceptions of themselves as weak and sexually promiscuous to manipulate male victims and accomplish successful robberies, but also to minimise the ever-present risk of violence in the urban night-time economy of Victorian London. Despite Eliza’s defence that Cronk had asked them to accompany him home, it was not enough to convince the jury, and she was sentenced to the heavy penalty of fourteen years transportation.

Fears of juvenile crime peaked during the 1830s and 1840s and generated reams of press attention and criminal justice policy. The popular press and ‘penny dreadfuls’ were dominated by sensationalist reports of child criminals committing crimes of theft and violence in the streets and markets of inner-city London. Pocket-picking was a particular concern for the authorities, immortalised as the crime of choice for the Artful Dodger and his associates in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1837). Small items including watches, glasses, purses and handkerchiefs were the most common currency for young thieves, but sentences, like Eliza’s, were often harsh.

Punishment and Outcomes

Following an unsuccessful petition for a pardon, on 2 April 1832 Eliza was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) on board the Hydery. She arrived in Australia on the 10th of August, after a four month voyage. Her occupation was recorded as a 'nurse girl', but is unclear what work she was assigned to in Tasmania. Her first master was Peter Ayton, but she only lasted a year in his service. In 1833 she was assigned to a Mrs. Piquenit, and two years later to W. Barnes Esq. The frequent change of masters suggests that she did not take well to service, and marriage may have been an attractive alternative. In 1835, at the age of 19, she made a successful application to marry a free man, James Powell.

We have no evidence of further events in her life, with the exception that she was recorded as absconding at Hobart Police Court on 30 April 1841. It is likely that this was a breach of her ticket of leave conditions in which convicts were expected to report to the local police station on a weekly basis. She was reapprehended. The lack of subsequent evidence in the records of criminal justice may suggest that the security provided by her marriage led her to desist from crime.

Personal Details and Life Events

Tattoo Subjects by Gender

Eliza was four feet ten inches tall, and had a dark complexion, dark brown eyes and hair, and a 'small' head. She could read, but not write.

When she arrived in Australia she had several tattoos on her fingers and arms, all of which were popular designs in the early nineteenth century, in particular, names and initials, hearts, rings and crucifixes. The clerk recorded them as: ring on ring finger left hand do. on ring - rt. hand. sarah reese geo roberts i.l. john hay ins rt. arm. heart darts crucifix j.n.r.i. ins left arm.

Rings and bracelets feature widely amongst convict tattoos. Such tattoos were described by Bradley (1997) as ‘working-class jewellery’ and were cheap and relatively easy to administer. Names and initials were overwhelmingly the most popular tattoo, especially for women. When names did feature as tattoos, they were commonly of the opposite sex, and love was a popular emotion that found expression in tattoos such as hearts. It is likely that George Roberts was a family member, but the connection with Sarah Reece is unknown. The use of ‘i.l.’ before a name signified ‘I love’, so here Eliza has memorialised her love for John Hay. The fact that these tattoos were on the inside of her arm may suggest they were intended to be more private.

Opposing this tattoo, on the inside of her left arm, she wore a darted heart, crucifix, and the initials, ‘j.n.r.i’. Darted hearts were fashionable, but also represented a wounded love. J.N.R.I. stems from the Latin phrase 'Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum' meaning 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews', an inscription found on the cross. According to Collins Dictionary, the use of these initials to express devotion to Jesus was particularly popular between 1768 and 1818, so this tattoo was old fashioned at the time. Eliza’s religion was recorded as Protestant, and her tattoos (including the crucifix) are an example of how convict tattoos often expressed ‘skin deep devotions’ and were proclamations of their faith (Maxwell-Stewart and Duffield, 2000).

Wider Context

For working-class girls, like Eliza, growing up in early Victorian London was especially difficult. Heightened anxieties over juvenile crime in the metropolis acted as the backdrop for Eliza’s pickpocketing offence and arguably led to the harsh penalty of fourteen years transportation to Australia. But her tattoos offer us a unique window on to the emotions and identities of young working women in the early nineteenth century and in Eliza’s case reveal a woman with strong affections and religious sentiments. Together with her marriage, perhaps these emotions allowed her to overcome the difficulties of her teenage years and build a new life for herself in Australia.

Further Information

Bradley, J. and Maxwell-Stewart, H. '"Behold the Man”: Power, Observation and the Tattooed Convict’, Journal of Australian Studies, 12.1 (1997).

Duckworth, J. Fagin’s Children: Criminal Children in Victorian England. Continuum, 2002.

Maxwell-Stewart, H. and Duffield, I. Skin Deep Devotions: Religious Tattoos and Convict Transportation to Australia, in J. Caplan, Written on the body : The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton University Press (2000).

Shore, H. Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in early Nineteenth-Century London. Boydell & Brewer (1999).

Watkins, E. and Godfrey, B. Criminal Children: Researching Juvenile Offenders, 1820-1920. Pen and Sword (2018).


Juvenile, London, Pickpocket, Female, Tattoo, Transportation

Author Credits

This page was written by Zoe Alker, with additional material from Bob Shoemaker.