Charlotte Walker was tried many times at the Old Bailey. Her decades of criminality eventually caught up with her when she was sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation to New South Wales, in 1800.
In the various records of Charlotte’s life, her date of birth ranges from 1750 to 1758 – three documents record it as 1754 and three other records state that it was 1750, and therefore we can only provide a rough date for her birth. Her records also indicate that she was born in Liverpool, and had clearly at some point prior to 1777 moved to London. Many of the crimes she was accused of took place in Holborn, suggesting that she lived around that area. When it is recorded, her occupation is simply stated as "spinster".
Throughout her life, Charlotte appeared at the Old Bailey at least sixteen times, every time charged with some form of theft. Despite the large number of trials she attended, she was only found guilty of a crime once in her life.
Her first trial at the Old Bailey in 1777 for grand larceny is not well recorded, other than that she was found not guilty. Her second trial however, in 1780, was more colourful. She was accused of stealing a pocketbook containing a twenty pound bank note from a man’s pocket. She apparently met a man at the French Horn in Holborn, who asked her to drink wine with him. Whilst they were drinking, the man claimed Charlotte must have pulled the book out of his pocket while he was not looking. She claimed, however, that “he pulled out half a crown and asked me if I would lie with him that night”. She then replied “I never accepted of anything so mean as half a crown”, and she also claimed that later that night they passed each other and the man was by that time drunk. On the basis of this, Charlotte was found not guilty.
In her third trial in 1781, she was charged with highway robbery outside the French Horn, however during the course of the trial it was suggested that the prosecuting party had tried to pay Charlotte so that she “would let him be concerned” with her, and that he had been drinking that night. Again, Charlotte was found not guilty. Her trial in 1874 was rather similar, again taking place in the French Horn, being accused of theft, and then being found not guilty. A few of her later trials made no mention of the French Horn, but still involved accusations of theft and deception, and during her trial in 1792, Charlotte claimed that her accuser had offered to pay her a shilling if she “would let him have connection” with her, and she was, as with her previous trials, found not guilty.
Despite her wealth of experience in being placed on trial, her trial of 1800 ended rather differently than all of her others. As per her other trials, the accuser claimed she had stolen a silver watch from him, and her defence was that she had “obliged him” at his home in return for the watch as payment. However, after receiving testimonies from two watchmen, one of whom found the silver watch in Charlotte’s bosom after she denied having it, she was found guilty of theft and was sentenced to death.
Her death sentence was ultimately commuted to a transportation sentence for life. She was transported to New South Wales in 1801, which makes tracing some aspects of her life from this point onward difficult because the convict records in New South Wales are often not detailed, and this is unfortunately the case with Charlotte. All we know from her Australian documents is that she did arrive safely there aboard the Nile, and that she was aged 50. Due to the lack of records, it is unknown whether or not Charlotte continued her criminal activities in Australia, however it is possible that her increasing old age may have eventually deterred her from a life of crime, but we cannot know for certain. What is known for certain, however, is that her numerous appearances at the Old Bailey and her repeated brush-ins with the law over the course of more than two decades did not deter her from engaging in criminal behaviour.
Although she was only found guilty once by the court, there is a very strong pattern that emerges in all of her trials – men claiming that she had stolen from them, and then she claiming they had asked to sleep with her in exchange for money/valuable goods (often in the French Horn in Holborn). Given this pattern and the sheer number of times Charlotte was tried, these were not singular occurrences or cases of mistaken identity – this was a pattern of behaviour she engaged in for many years, despite the constant Old Bailey trials and accusations. It is also possible that the number of times she was brought before the court and found not guilty may have actually emboldened her and encouraged her to commit further crimes, in the belief that a court would not find her guilty, and this is perhaps why her defence was almost always the same – it became a tried and tested defence that had allowed her to avoid punishment multiple times.
Her criminal registers show that she was around 5' 2" tall, had sandy coloured hair, a "fresh" complexion and grey eyes. Her records indicate that she was single, and given that she was around 50 years old when she was transported, it is unlikely that she ever did marry, and it also does not appear that she ever had any children. It is possible that her gender ultimately played a role in the number of times she was found not guilty, as during this period there was a general perception that female crime was not as dangerous or severe as male crime, and therefore it was not a matter of priority to see it punished. In addition, her age is likely to have been a factor in her death sentence being commuted to transportation, because if punishing women severely was increasingly becoming something the authorities wished to avoid, then executing a 50-year-old woman would have been even less desirable, given that there would have been few other 50-year-old female criminals in London that Charlotte’s execution would have deterred from crime. However, it is possible that Charlotte exaggerated her age slightly in order to receive a degree of leniency – some of her earlier documents record her birth year as 1753 or 1754, which would place her in her mid-forties in 1800 – but her last trial document states her birth year as being 1750, which would have made her 50 instead of 46 or 47.
Charlotte died in New South Wales in 1806, after living for some time as a "concubine" (in other words, unmarried) with fellow convict George Carpenter. George was a shoemaker, and was also around fourteen years younger than Charlotte, who was now in her fifties. As such, she never did return to London, likely due to her relatively old age at the time she was transported, and given her age it was unlikely that she could have successfully resumed her previous sexual activities to earn a living. Therefore, her life was probably of a better quality in Australia than it would have been had she returned to London, which is likely the reason why she stayed. At the time she died, she was in possession of a ticket of leave.
The Sydney Gazette reported that she died of "an apoplexy", and her "husband" George was subsequently taken into custody due to suspicions around the nature of Charlotte's death. Those suspicions, however, ultimately proved unfounded, but it was perhaps a colourful ending to Charlotte's colourful life.
The fact that Charlotte was sentenced to transportation at the age of 50 may be viewed unusual in the broader context of female punishments. Given that one of the aims of transporting criminals (especially with the beginning of transportation to Australia after 1787) was to ensure the growth of the colonial economy, a 50-year-old woman would provide few benefits to the colony. At the age of 50 she would likely have been unable to complete much manual labour, and she would also have been past child-bearing age, and so would have been unable to have children who could have eventually contributed to the colonial economy. Therefore, many fewer women, especially older women, were transported to Australia than men. Nevertheless, it is likely that Charlotte’s long history of criminality necessitated a severe sentence from the court (her 1798 Criminal Register notes she was a "very old offender"), and commuting her sentence to transportation, although an atypical punishment for older women, was probably seen as more desirable than the alternatives.
Larceny, Pickpocketing, Transportation, Old Age, Recidivism, Female
This page was written by Alex Traves with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.