Plain work and stolen finery

February 1837

They find Sarah Rands in the taproom at the Sir Samuel Hood, laughing and drinking with a group of girls, teasing their jovial admirers. Her hazel eyes sparkle under a green velvet bonnet that frames her flushed cheeks, tied at the chin with silk ribbon bows. A few dark curls escape and nestle against the fur, tossed jauntily around her neck. She raises her voice over the strains of the fiddler, who strolls among the tables, bowing and winking.[1]

The Barmaid Sketches of London

Sketches of London Life & Character, ed. by Arthur Smith et al (1849)

It was yesterday morning before Hannah Language, mistress of the Gallon Can on Gaol Street, noticed her best outfit was missing. A brown stuff cloak and cape, a boa fur tippet, and a green velvet bonnet trimmed with silk ribbons. Two or three sheets, a feather pillow, and sundry items of clothing had also disappeared.

Suspicion fell on the servant who had left the previous day. Fed up with the drudgery of cleaning pots, had Sarah Rands rowed with the publican or his wife? Was she hoping for the pleasures to be had and money to be earned on the other side of the bar?

With the Sergeant at Mace, the publican William Language has been searching the streets and taverns where the gay girls loiter. It’s an hour before midnight when they discover the suspect at the public house on Charlotte Street. A delightful place late at night, a magistrate described the street, sarcastically, in 1834, always noisy and frolixsome. A fiddler, careful to say he no longer plays at these taverns, claimed the Sir Samuel Hood was a house of ill fame.[2] Thirty years later at the town’s licensing committee, shortly before closing the pub down, they debate—yet again—the state of these houses that supply a steady stream of girls to the diseased ward at the workhouse. A magistrate from Harlston reports the sad life of a poor girl from his village. In the words of her sister, she would visit Yarmouth for six weeks at a time, taking no money with her, and stay at the Sir Samuel Hood where any girls or women may go and live there free of expense.[3]

Aged twenty-two, Sarah Rands has opted for the bright lights of the town over village life. Rather than work in the fields, she left Poringland in South Norfolk to try her luck in London before making her way to Yarmouth.

As the constable and publican drag the girl into the next room, she remonstrates loudly, tripping over the stolen cloak, too long for her short frame. Searching the young woman they find only a halfpenny. Her mistress’s garments, she ventures, were just borrowed while she seeks another place. She knows nothing of any bedding. They assume it’s been pawned, the proceedings spent on treating her companions or passed under the table when their merriment was interrupted.

Sarah does not notice the biting winter air when they march her to the lock-up. They bundle her into the smaller of its two wooden cages, just over 4 feet long, 2½ feet wide, and 5½ feet high. Sometimes, as many as ten individuals are squeezed into these cages. When prisoners are suffering from suffocation and the stench of waste overflowing from the convenience tub, the Police Superintendant has to revive them with brandy. After examining the lock-up in 1839, the Prison Inspector will write to the mayor, requiring six new cells be built onto the police station. I have in no other instance witnessed so glaring a contempt for common decency, he reports.[4]

The prisoner awakes from a dull sleep, aching from the hard bench. She will not use the tub while the constables can see her. Shivering, she hugs her thin dress, and tries to remember the soft warmth of the fur wrapped around her shoulders.

Her arrest coincides with the meeting of the Quarter Sessions. Within forty-eight hours Sarah Rands is tried and convicted of stealing her mistress’s clothes. On 7 February 1837, she begins six months hard labour at the Gaol.



Yarmouth Front from the Jetty

Yarmouth Front from the Jetty, artist unknown, Great Yarmouth Museums

Garments and cloth feature prominently in the items stolen by girls and women at Yarmouth, amounting to a third of their convictions for theft in the years 1839-1841.[5] Pilfered from employers and neighbours, from washing lines and drapery shops, these items shed light on the dress and appearance of the middling and labouring classes through the different seasons in the Norfolk port. A surviving Index and Receiving Book, covering most of 1839, lists the clothes worn by twenty-eight women and girls when they entered the gaol and allows us to compare these with the garments they stole.[6] The list reveals how inmates dressed in gaol since prison uniforms were not introduced at Yarmouth until the mid-1840s.[7] Only prisoners whose garments were too threadbare, riddled with lice, or inadequate for the season were given items from the prison’s clothing store.

Among the poorer classes, dress historians suggest, young women in employment were more likely than elder women to have disposable earnings to spend on their attire. Once they married and had children, mothers prioritized clothing their husband and children over adorning themselves. [8] Many will have worn second-hand clothes, mended repeatedly. But at Yarmouth, the records suggest, older married women dressed more substantially than their younger peers. Only four prisoners wore a coat or a cloak like those Sarah Rands stole from Hannah Language. All these women—like Hannah—were married and middle-aged, by which time they had garnered a fuller wardrobe. When suspected of stealing beef from the Buck Inn, Susannah Fox aged 39, was protected against the cold March wind by a brown stuff coat and plaid shawl over her dark print gown, topped off with a coloured straw hat.[9] The same month, when arrested for striking her husband’s sister, Charlotte Clarke aged 37, was wearing a black cloth cloak over her red and white gown, and a white straw hat decorated with coloured ribbons.[10]

0 women at market

Great Yarmouth Market courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

Shawls, rather than coats, were the standard means of keeping warm, worn by eleven females of all ages, except in the summer months. Was it a chill day in June when the lodging house keeper, Susannah Homans aged 39, was arrested for assault, while wearing a black cape over her dark brown gown and a white hat trimmed with green ribbons, or were these the heavy, matronly garments she wore all year round?[11] Dressed in a half-mourning gown, a dark shawl and white straw bonnet, Mary Bayfield aged 29, was the sole female prisoner said to be wearing mourning weeds when arrested for behaving in a very riotous manner along with Mary Ann Higgins aged 38, who was decked in a red shawl, gown, and coloured straw hat.[12]

Younger girls—before they started earning regular wages at around fifteen and sixteen years of age as servants, factory girls at the silk factory, and net braiders—were more lightly and plainly attired, probably in hand-me-downs. Dressed in a light frock and a white straw bonnet, Charlotte Davy aged 14, had nothing to keep her warm when remanded in January on suspicion of stealing £2, 15 shillings and sixpence.[13] Two strollers were arrested together in May on suspicion of stealing four bottles from a public house. Eliza Chambers, aged 15, was wearing a light shawl over a striped dress while Mary Wilson, aged 12, had a coloured shawl over her gown. Both covered their head in a coloured straw hat.[14] The Gaoler did not list the clothes of Amy Swanbow and Katharine White, aged twelve and eleven, remanded on suspicion of stealing a pair of stays from the draper, Mr Clarke. Released the following day, both girls were described as lousy.[15] Nor did the Gaoler itemize the undergarments worn by prisoners, so we do not know about their shifts and petticoats, nor who wore a corset or drawers.

0 Stannard Yarmouth Sands 1829

‘Yarmouth Sands’ by Joseph Standard, 1829. Courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

No matter how poor, no girl or woman left home without her hat. Straw bonnets—white or coloured—were the most popular hat and probably the cheapest. They were worn by just over half the female prisoners, including all the girls. None of the women had expensive fabrics like the fur and velvet that decorated Hannah Language’s best outfit, but many had some decoration, if only ribbons—usually silk—to add a dash of colour or pattern to their gown or hat. Though in a lowly trade, even the fish-seller Hannah Newton, aged 35, was wearing a black satin bonnet and dark coloured gown when arrested for assaulting the night policeman.[16]

silk weavers Halstead

Silk weavers at Courtauld’s Silk Mill, Halstead from Judy Lown, Women and Industrialization: Gender and Working in the Nineteenth Century

Once they had a little money to themselves, women began to adorn their hats with ribbons and purchase silk bonnets—a more affordable luxury than a full silk gown that seems to have been beyond the purse of Yarmouth’s prisoners. Entering the labour force a year or two older than boys, this came a little later than lads in good apprenticeships who began sporting silk handkerchiefs and waistcoats in their mid to late teens. At 20, Elizabeth Linford was the youngest prisoner to wear silk, with a brown silk bonnet, dark shawl, and dark stuff gown, arrested with her friend Charlotte Drew, sporting a green silk bonnet, light gown, and dark shawl. Charlotte, aged 23, had a child at her breast. The Gaoler did not itemize her infant’s clothing.[17] Both women worked at Grout’s silk factory where they were charged with stealing silk. Grout’s regularly prosecuted employees, as did other factory owners, since many workers viewed casual theft from the workplace as an occupational perk.[18] The two silk-weavers may have planned to make items for their own use, since Elizabeth had a bodkin—or needle—case in her possession as well as two pieces of bone.

Other women pilfered clothes in the course of their employment. Mariner’s wife, Caroline Taylor aged 31, worked as a clear starcher. Pawning two shirts belonging to the Revd Mark Waters, perhaps she was trying to make extra money from her laundry. On admission, she was wearing a coloured gown and coloured straw bonnet.[19] In all likelihood, the tailoress Mary Hansell—a widow, aged 41, with three children—was attempting to make ends meet when she pawned shirts in January 1839. She was wearing a green cloak over a light gown, and a white-straw bonnet trimmed with white ribbon. Women employed in the needle trades, however, rarely appear in the prison admissions, though the dressmaker Mary Ann Green was acquitted of stealing a fur boa tippet from Ann Marie Tippet, while the straw-hat maker, Elizabeth George aged 17, was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment for assaulting another girl.[20]

0 washerwoman

‘Cottages with Washerwoman’ by John Sell Cotman, c. 1808-9. Courtesy of Norfolk Museum & Archaeology Services

Linen drapers and dressmakers feature more frequently in the admissions registers as prosecutors than as criminals. The factory worker Sarah Woodcock, aged 19, served a month for stealing a muslin delaine dress valued at twelve shillings from the linen draper Charles Miller. Delaine was a modestly-priced, lightweight material, fashionable for day dresses in the 1840s among the middle and upper classes, but no doubt beyond the earning power of a silk weaver. The theft may have been a one-off temptation for Sarah Woodcock was never remanded again.[21] But Sarah Nelson aged seventeen, surely intended to sell on rather than keep the six pairs of black silk gloves she stole from Sarah Mayhew, a young single woman running a dressmaker’s shop on Howard Street.[22]

Elizabeth Gallant aged 41—from the nearby village Great Ormsby where she lived with her husband, a labourer, and three children—was probably one of the few women who robbed repeatedly and methodically. She was sentenced to six months for stealing ribbons from the haberdasher Charles Miller, having been found with a number of goods in her possession identified by other parties. According to Sarah Martin,

She lives in the country – used to frequent Public Houses when she came to Yarmouth. Large parcels of goods evidently stolen from Drapers Shops were found in her husband’s cottage. She has a family. A grown up Daughter was with her when she stole the ribbon for which she was convicted–an infant child was part of the time with her in the jail.[23]

apron women rows

From John Greaves Nall, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, 1867. Courtesy British Library

Surprisingly, perhaps, only two women entered the gaol wearing an apron, including Sarah Grimble, aged 43, dressed in a black bonnet and shawl and a dark apron over her dark gown. As keeper of The Beehive, reputedly a house of ill-fame, it is likely Sarah was doing her chores at home when arrested for receiving butter as stolen goods.[24] The rarity of aprons on the prison arrivals suggests women left these work garments behind when they went out into Yarmouth’s streets. Others, arrested at home, found time to take off their apron and grab a hat, preserving their sense of style and decorum, before accompanying the constable to the station.

In 1818, when Mary Jones was given two months hard labour for cruelty to her daughter, Elizabeth Kent was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing thirty yards of pink ribbon from a draper’s shop.[25] With juries reluctant to convict those who might be transported for minor thefts, by the late 1830s prisoners were more likely to be charged with petty larceny rather than grand larceny. Thus the girls and women convicted of stealing clothing were sentenced to short periods of imprisonment, mostly between one and three months. Sophia Bond was the only woman sentenced to transportation at Great Yarmouth in the 1840s for stealing clothes—a black velvet bonnet and plaid shawl from the bricklayer’s wife, Mary Ann Wiseman. But she had a reputation, having previously served one month for stealing a pair of clogs, two pairs of lasting boots, a merino shawl, and a print gown from Mrs Priscilla Settle, and a pair of shoes from Mrs Sarah Sharman. And Sophia was known to have been on the town for three years.[26]

Sarah Rands’s punishment of six months imprisonment was, therefore, one of the longer sentences metered out at the Quarter Sessions. William Language, who brought the prosecution, valued the garments she had stolen at fifteen shillings. One stuff cloak and cape at seven shillings, one boa fur tippet at five shillings, and one green velvet bonnet at three shillings. Was this their market price or did the publican and his wife keep the value below forty shillings to save their former servant from transportation?


The Female Day Room, Great Yarmouth Gaol, 11 February 1837

Sarah Rands keeps her head bowed as she pulls the needle carefully along the seam. Miss Martin has shown her how to measure the pattern and cut the cloth for the jacket she is now hemming. The prisoner runs her hand over the fustian. It will be hers to keep when finished but coarse and plain, unlike the fine brown cloth of Mrs Language’s cloak. She hears the rise and fall of the teacher’s voice reading from the Bible. But she is thinking of how to get by when she leaves, with only a halfpenny to start in the world.

The teacher nods approvingly when she inspects the prisoner’s stitching. Rands takes her chance and asks for work once her jacket is completed. She’s been inside before and knows Miss Martin supplies needlework to the women so they can make a little money. If she proves willing to reform, the teacher promises, she shall be given employment.

What will you do when you are liberated?

I shall take in plain work the prisoner replies

The teacher looks at Rands sternly. You cannot earn your living by it.

The young woman shrugs. I can do fancy work.

What fancy work? That would be worse still – and prove an excuse for vice. You had better on becoming reformed seek to obtain a service.

But Sarah Rands has had enough of service. She turns back sullenly to the jacket and carries on stitching.

At present her character is very unpromising, Sarah Martin writes later.[27]


0 dressmaker & maid of all work

Many thanks to Lee Jackson for recommending Kenny Meadows, Heads of the People: Or, Portraits of the English (London, 1840), which includes these two illustrations. For advice on early nineteenth-century dress and textiles, I am indebted to Viveka Hansen @Textilisnet, Alice Dolan @AliceDolinen, and Hilary Davidson @FourRedShoes.

[1] Based on Great Yarmouth Sessions Papers, 7 February 1837, Norfolk Record Office, Y/S 3/148, examinations of William Language, John Barney Bales, and Sarah Rands; Great Yarmouth Gaol Register, 7 February 1837.

[2] Great Yarmouth Corporation. A report of the investigation before his majesty, edited by Henry Barrett (Yarmouth, J. Barnes, 1834), pp. 260 and 248.

[3] Cited by Norfolk Public Houses,, accessed 29 July 2016.

[4] 1839 [199] Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II. Northern and Eastern District, Fourth Report, pp. 174.

[5] Based on analysis of all prisoner admissions 1839-1841 from Great Yarmouth Gaol Registers, December 1838–December 1850 (Norfolk Record Office, Y/L2 9).

[6] Great Yarmouth Index and Receiving Book from December 25 1838 (Norfolk Record Office, Y/L2 7).

[7] Juliet Ash, Dress Behind Bars: Prison Clothing as Criminality (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).

[8] See Diana Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 29. For invaluable studies of working-class clothing, see S.A.King and C.Payne (eds), The Dress of the Poor, 1700-1900, Textile History (Special issue, 2002); Clare Rose, Making, Selling and Wearing Boys’ Clothes in Late-Victorian England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011); and Vivienne Richmond’s wonderful book, Clothing the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[9] Index and Receiving Book, 23 March 1839.

[10] Index and Receiving Book, 18 March 1839.

[11] Index and Receiving Book, 27 June 1839.

[12] Index and Receiving Book, 27 May 1839.

[13] Index and Receiving Book, 30 January 1839.

[14] Index and Receiving Book, 11 May 1839.

[15] Index and Receiving Book, 25 February 1839.

[16] Index and Receiving Book, 19 June 1839.

[17] Index and Receiving Book, 10 April 1839.

[18] For work-based appropriation, see Barry Godfrey, (2002). ‘Private Policing and the Workplace: The Worsted Committee and the Policing of Labour in Northern England, 1840-80’, Criminal Justice History Special Issue: Policing and War in Europe 16 (2002) pp. 87-107; and Barry S. Godfrey, David J. Cox, and Stephen D. Farrall, Criminal Lives: Family Life, Employment and Offending (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 78–105, 172–3.

[19] Index and Receiving Book, 27 September 1839.

[20] Index and Receiving Book, 7 July 1842 and 9 March 1842.

[21] Index and Receiving Book, 30 September 1841. For delaine dresses, see Eleanor Houghton, ‘Unravelling the Mystery: Charlotte Brontë’s 1850 “Thackeray Dress”’, Costume, 50:2, (2016): 194-219, especially pp. 207-9

[22] 2 February 1840. 1841 Census, Class: HO107; Piece: 793; Book: 4; Civil Parish: Great Yarmouth; County: Norfolk; Enumeration District: 8; Folio: 35; Page: 8; Line: 8; GSU roll: 438872. Pigot’s Directory of Norfolk, 1839.

[23] Gaol Register, 26 February 1842; Sarah Martin’s Register 1842, no. 152.

[24] Index and Receiving Book, 18 February 1839.

[25] Great Yarmouth Session Papers, 9 September 1818, Norfolk Record Office, Y/S 3/116.

[26] 27 June 1846, Norfolk News, p. 3; 8 July 1846, Bury and Norwich Post, p. 4; 29 June 1844, Suffolk Chronicle, p. 3.

[27] Sarah Martin’s Everyday Book, 11 January 1837. For the association between dressmaking and prostitution in the mid-nineteenth century, see Helen Rogers, ‘“The Good Are Not Always Powerful, Nor the Powerful Always Good”: The Politics of Women’s Needlework in Mid-Victorian London’, Victorian Studies 40.1 (1997): 589-623.

6 thoughts on “Plain work and stolen finery

  1. Pingback: Vintage Miscellany – August 21, 2016 | The Vintage Traveler

  2. Pingback: Mewing like cats | Conviction

  3. Very interesting I never realised women were imprisoned for stealing items of clothing etc but when you think about it , it makes sense as it would be too tempting handling fabrics they could resell for cash or indeed wear themselves! We take the clothes we have these days for granted !

  4. Pingback: Criminal Minds: Deception, or true untainted souls? – Secrets Behind Bars

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