Mary Wilson was a married mother of three children, with an established family life prior to her conviction for possession and intent to utter counterfeit coin in November 1864. She was sentenced to five years of penal servitude but only served two years, ten months and sixteen days of her sentence. By her death, she had more than a dozen convictions.
Details of Mary’s early life are scant. She was born to Roman Catholic parents in Aintree, Merseyside, in 1832. By the time she was 29, in 1861, census records show that she was living in Great Boughton, Cheshire, with her husband and three children, ten-year-old John, six-year-old Ellen, and one-year old Joseph. Mary’s husband, Richard Wilson, was a thirty-year-old agricultural labourer. Mary’s Physical Description from her UK Licences for the Parole of Convicts 1853-1925 described her as being of slender build, with dark brown hair and a fair complexion. She is thought to have had hazel coloured eyes stood around 5 feet and 3 inches tall. Mary’s licence further noted that she had a broken nose, scars on her forehead and scars on her right knuckle, marks that were perhaps indicative of a violent past and foreshadowed the violent behaviour she would later exhibit in the prison system. Mary worked as a ‘Dealer’, someone who bought and sold various goods. At some time between the spring of 1861 and November 1864, Mary and her family moved to London, presumably taking this trade with her.
Mary first appeared before the Old Bailey on the 21st November 1864- this was her first recorded offence. Mary had been arrested by Henry King; a policeman who had been on duty on the night of the 3rd November 1864. King had witnessed Mary holding a parcel whilst talking with two men on a street corner and he followed her when she walked off alone. Perhaps realising that a policeman was following her, Mary threw the parcel down an alleyway, seemingly to discard the evidence of her crime. The parcel contained a number of counterfeit coins. She was apprehended and charged with unlawfully possessing a counterfeit coin.
Three witnesses testified against Mary Wilson; John Townsend, Joseph Frost, and William Webster. They told similar stories to that of Henry King; they collectively saw the counterfeit coins scattered on the floor where Mary had thrown the parcel and they all saw a woman, matching Mary’s description, fleeing the scene. Although Mary protested her innocence, with so many witnesses to attest to events, she was found guilty and sentenced to five years of penal servitude. According to evidence at her trial Mary had been making a living from uttering counterfeit coins for almost a decade.
Like many newly released convicts, Mary found it difficult to avoid falling back into old habits. Records indicate that by 1890, Mary had a number of other convictions, having offended under the names of Balshaw, Belshaw, and Brennan. Many of these were summary convictions at police courts in Lancashire for small thefts which saw Mary sentenced to serve small terms of imprisonment and hard labour ranging from a few weeks to two years. Mary did stand trial for another indictable offence in 1890 when she was convicted of stealing a fur collarette and sentenced to five more years of penal servitude. She was listed in the Metropolitan Police Register of Habitual Criminals.
Mary was transferred from the court to London’s convict prisons. She entered Millbank initially, before transferring to Brixton. Despite being a Roman Catholic, Mary declared herself a protestant. This was a tactic sometimes used by convicts who wished to attend church at certain times, or be assigned to a particular labour group. Convicts might also change their religion to fit in better with prison peers – it could be difficult, even dangerous, for convicts who did not share the religious beliefs of those they lives and worked with in close confines. Records indicate that Mary exhibited violence on at least two occasions to other prisoners and staff members. In 1867, Mary was placed in separation and fed only a diet of bread and water after ‘a violent attack on another prisoner by striking her in a severe manner and making her mouth bleed, causing great noise and confusion in the laundry’. Mary was in good health for the majority of her incarceration. Mary was released on licence just two years, ten months, and sixteen days into her sentence., after spending time at the Fulham House Refuge.
After her release, Mary returned to Lancashire, where within three years, she had resumed offending – Though she was no longer using counterfeit coins. The repeated short terms of imprisonment Mary experienced throughout the 1870s and 1880s makes it unlikely that she was able to undertake regular, formal employment, or maintain a stable home life. Mary was one of many female convicts seemingly trapped in a cycle of offending and petty recidivism after a spell in convict prison. She served the majority of her short terms of imprisonment in Liverpool.
The last record we have for Mary shows that she was released in 1894, having served the majority of her former sentence. She would have been around the age of sixty. Her body had continued to accumulate scars and injuries, indicative of a hard life, including a burn to her left arm. On release from prison, it was noted that Mary had ‘lost nearly all teeth’. Mary died in 1902 or 1903, almost a decade after her last recorded offence. She may have spent the last decade of her life offending, or reliant on state and charitable institutions, such as the workhouse. Given the frequency with which she reoffended, and the small subsistence level thefts Mary undertook over two decades, it seems unlikely that Mary returned to a stable home life after her first conviction in 1864.
While the number of offences committed by Mary is fairly typical of a female habitual offender in this period, as is the primarily summary nature of her convictions, There are more unusual elements in Mary’s case. Commonly, offenders might receive small terms of imprisonment or fines for petty offences before a trial for a higher level indictable crime for which they were given penal servitude. Mary, However, seems to have been given penal servitude for a first conviction. Likewise, terms of penal servitude could be expected to cluster together as an offender was in the prime of their criminal career. Terms of police supervision, and familiarity to police and the courts helped identify habitual criminals, which could impact the severity of future sentences. The pattern of Mary’s offending was not typical is that she served two terms of penal servitude, one at the beginning of her career, and one at the end, almost thirty years later.
Recidivism, penal servitude, petty theft, counterfeit coin
This page was written by Lucy Elliott and Lucy Williams with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.