Mewing like cats

The Infirmary, Great Yarmouth Gaol

May 1837

The Gaoler catches the two young women leaning out of the infirmary window, flirting with the men in the airing yard below. They jump down hastily when he shouts their names.[1]

It’s three weeks since Elizabeth Humphrey complained of being sick and was dispatched to the infirmary room, with Sarah Rands to keep her company. They are enjoying their ruse, with the luxury of sugar to sweeten their tea and oatmeal, and a rush candle to light at night when they sing and tell each other stories in its warm glow. They have been palls since Sarah arrived in January, joining Elizabeth, nearly six months into her sentence.[2]

2 women EH and SC

Detail from Mrs Fry Reading to the Prisoners at Newgate, 1816 Jerry Barrett (1863), Courtesy British Museum

Now Elizabeth Humphrey, aged nineteen, says she is in the family way. The matron, wife of the Keeper, suspects she is acting up and is sent to examine the prisoner with one of the married debtors. The women doubt she is with child and the surgeon agrees. If Humphrey is pregnant, she still has several months to go. The surgeon advises the prisoner be kept in the infirmary, prescribing her medicine—just in case. The matron has a great deal of trouble getting Humphrey to take it.[3]


Questions will be asked if Elizabeth Humphrey gives birth to a child. It’s over nine months since she was admitted last August. Thomas King, Keeper for more than thirty years, cannot afford another scandal on his watch. In January the magistrates dismissed his son as turnkey or under-gaoler, finding Arthur King unfit for office following accusations of misconduct brought by a male prisoner.[4]

Turnkey detail from EM Ward Elizabeth Fry Visiting Newgate

Detail from Henrietta Ward, ‘Mrs Fry Visiting Newgate’

Surely the allegations concerned sexual abuse for they were omitted from the Gaol Committee minutes and did not make their way into in the local newspapers. Arthur King’s departure was a relief to the prison visitor, whose menacing presence made her shudder. The conduct of the turnkey was the occasion of great distress to me, she wrote in her memoir, though he could not deprive me of respect from the prisoners, nor destroy my influence over them. Only trust in God enabled her to withstand the evil she could not name. “My soul was even as among lions,” for that man was a legion, and my health at length suffered from intense anxiety of mind, as he became worse and worse.[5]

Appointing a new turnkey, the Gaol Committee unanimously agreed the candidate must not be related to the Keeper. In April 1837 William Shuckford took up the position and in just over a year will replace Thomas King as Governor. [6] From the outset, Shuckford will do his best to carry out the edicts on prison management and prisoner discipline that arrive with increasing frequency from the government’s Prison Inspectorate.

Sarah Martin is delighted by the rapid transformation in the running of the gaol. What a beautiful contrast the present change in our prison presents to its undisciplined state six weeks ago she writes in May. The firm and persevering efforts of Mr. Shuckford have succeeded beyond all expectations considering the disadvantages of the building. At last, after almost twenty years of visiting the gaol, she feels her efforts to reform the prisoners are being supported. No singing, laughing, bad language, or loud talking is allowed. No gaming, fighting or playing is permitted. Already she discerns a difference in her scholars’ appearance and conduct. Their rooms, forms and tables are always clean and they are clean in their persons. My books are taken better care of and their improvement in reading and writing is greatly facilitated.[7]

But Humphrey and Rands are having none of it.


Elizabeth Humphrey and Sarah Rands are worse in character than when they entered writes the teacher. Neither reprimand nor punishment will dampen their spirits or boldness. Reproof mildly given is not ill received but has no good effect and when harshly administered is only answered by attempts at self-justification and falsehood. Rands is as artful as Humphrey with her phantom pregnancy. She was in the sick room upstairs with Humphrey and when all the men were silent, her voice was heard throughout the prison imitating the mewing of a cat and other noises.[8]

In flagrant defiance of the new regulations, the two women are frequently heard singing ballads, the matron tells Miss Martin. Worse still, they refuse to do any prison needlework. Why should they work unpaid for the matron when the teacher is saving their earnings? To the prisoners’ dismay, Miss Martin withdraws the employment she supplies. Rands was very disconcerted, the teacher notes in her journal, and said it would be hard not to go on earning a little money against her liberation. Sharply she replies, “Money alone, if your character be not altered, will avail nothing”. Sarah Martin knows Rands’s type. “The noises which you made in the hearing of four yards of the men—from that your character is no better than when you entered”.[9] Reminded of her coquettishness, the prisoner laughs. This impudence is a reason alone why the punishment of withholding work should be continued, the teacher concludes in her journal. Their reaction at my steadfast refusal was great.[10]


Slowly and falteringly, the girls bend to Sarah Martin’s will. Elizabeth appears to be softening. Humphrey acknowledged her conduct to have been wrong and promised to be quiet in the future. Yet when the teacher enters their room, Sarah Rands walked out, or sat in the yard all the while and did not bow to me as I passed her.[11]

2 women and graffiti

Detail from ‘Prison Heroines’ in Heroes of Britain in Peace and War  (c. 1870s)

At the start of the next lesson, Rands is ostentatiously polite—placing a chair for the teacher and behaving better—but as she made no apology I took no notice of it. Graffiti on the cell wall betrays the prisoner’s brazen contempt for her gaolers. “There is King. William Shuckford he is Lord Lieutenant”, she has scrawled in large white chalk letters. Such persevering impudence, concludes the teacher, tells that the punishment of withholding work must not be withdrawn.[12]

Eventually, with the prospect of release approaching, the young women begin to settle. The female prisoners are improved in their behaviour, the teacher observes. It is impossible to be met with more respect and attention than that which I now experience.[13] Inmates often become more docile towards the end of their sentence, the teacher knows, with the incentive of her support if they can gain her favour. Yet she has little grounds for confidence in these women’s tardy reform.

Keeping their laughter and jibes to themselves and singing in hushed voices, Elizabeth Humphrey and Sarah Rands labour industriously to finish the full set of clothes they will wear on departure.


The two prisoners shared much in common with the girls and young women who entered Yarmouth Gaol. Following their traces after release reveals the challenges such women faced after imprisonment and the circumstances that enabled or hindered them from settling down.

When arrested for stealing in August 1836, it was less than four months since Elizabeth had married the widower William Humphery at St Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth. He must have been proud of his young bride for, unusually for a labouring man, he placed a notice of their union in the Bury and Norwich Post.[14]

As a married woman, Elizabeth was atypical of female prisoners, for almost three-quarters of female inmates were single or widowed. But like Sarah Rands and many of the young women admitted to the gaol, she was a newcomer to Great Yarmouth, from a poor rural background. Without relatives and friends to help them find work, watch their backs, and speak up for them when in trouble, such girls were more likely to end up in gaol than the town’s native-born women and they tended to receive harsher punishments. Fifty-five percent of female inmates were born outside the town and its immediate vicinity, in comparison with forty percent of male prisoners.[15]

Collins, William, 1788-1847; Girl Mending Nets

Collins, William; Girl Mending Nets; Great Yarmouth Museums;

Elizabeth Humphrey was the daughter of an agricultural labourer who moved his family frequently in search of work.[16] In her mid-teens she made her way to Great Yarmouth and had been working as a net-braider. Like many outsiders, she drifted into prostitution. At eighteen years old, she served ten days in the House of Correction with Mary Ann Edwards, convicted as, Idle and disorderly persons being common prostitutes behaving in a riotous manner in the public street.[17]

Probably Elizabeth’s younger sister, Jemima, was also drawn into prostitution. In February 1836, she was charged at Bury St Edmunds with robbing a man—most likely a client—of his red plush waistcoat, handkerchief, and purse containing twenty shillings.[18] By the summer, Jemima had joined her sister in Yarmouth. In August they were charged together with stealing 55 pounds of sharps—coarse grain or bran—from a baker.[19] Jemima escaped with acquittal. After this second brush with the law, she seems to have learned from her sister’s imprisonment, returning to her family with whom she was living at the 1841 Census. She would not be charged again.[20]

The long twelve-month sentence imposed on Elizabeth almost certainly was influenced by her previous conviction and reputation as a prostitute. But William, robbed of his young wife’s company in their first year of marriage, stood by Elizabeth. Though marriage had not led to an immediate change in her habits, after Elizabeth departed prison it seems to have helped her settle down. Two years later Sarah Martin named Elizabeth Humphrey as one of the Liberated Prisoners who had been successfully reclaimed. Unpromising as she was during the first ten months, since liberation her conduct has been, in every respect, good. E.H. lives with her husband who is a sawyer, and both say her imprisonment was a good thing.[21]

Perhaps the newly-weds told the prison visitor what she wanted to hear but Elizabeth Humphrey did not reoffend. Family stability and regular work are common features of the profiles of Sarah Martin’s Liberated Prisoners, at least as indicated by details in the census records.[22] The Humphreys did not have children but in 1851 they had taken into their home William’s ninety-four-year-old grandfather and were caring for a little niece, who died within a few years. Later they took in lodgers, usually no more than a couple at a time and always from the labouring classes. Though in 1871 William was listed as a Lodging House Keeper, Elizabeth will have run the business and served the boarders. By 1881 the couple had moved out of the Rows into one of the roads of terraced houses where Elizabeth was now entered as Lodging House Keeper.[23]

If Sarah Rands had planned to set herself up as a needlewoman, her hopes were disappointed. Possibly she returned to her family in Poringland for a while where, the Gaoler wrote, she was last resident when she was admitted to the House of Correction in April 1838. With Mary Ann Edis and Jane Postle, she had been sentenced to a fortnight’s hard labour for behaving in an indecent manner in the public streets. Though the Gaoler entered her occupation as servant, he described the women as common prostitutes, all suffering from the itch.[24] In her register, Sarah Martin noted only that she visited the women imperfectly in consequence of their illness.[25]

3 women in Yarmouth Row

Lantern slide, Great Yarmouth Row, courtesy Norfolk Museums Service

Most likely Sarah Rands returned to life on the streets. On New Year’s Eve, 1841, she was remanded for stealing a man’s hat but released without charge three days later.[26] She had lost neither her taste for fine clothes nor for revelry.

At the end of May 1843, Sarah gave birth to a son, baptized three days later as William. No father was present or named.[27] Within a fortnight, the unmarried mother had buried her baby. [28]

Then Sarah Rands slips out of the records and into the forgotten past.


[1] Gaol Keeper’s Journal Jan 1836-Dec 1840 (Norfolk Record Office, Y/L2, 47)

Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 25 April 1837.

[2] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 25 April 1837.

[3] Gaol Keeper’s Journal, 18 May 1837.

[4] Gaol Committee, 1836-50 (Norfolk Record Office, Y/TC 3/36), 9 January 1837.

[5] Sarah Martin, The Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth (London: The Religious Tract Society, c. 1847) p. 26.

[6] Great Yarmouth Gaol Committee Minutes, 8 February 1837 and 15 October 1838.

[7] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 15 May 1837.

[8] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 25 May 1837.

[9] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 2 June 1837.

[10] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 7 June 1837.

[11] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 12 June 1837.

[12] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, 14 June 1837.

[13] Sarah Martin, Everyday Book, undated entry 14-20 June 1837.

[14] Marriage William Humphery and Elizabeth Drew, 23 May 1836, Norfolk, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1940 [database on-line]; Bury and Norwich Post, 8 June 1836, p. 3.

[15] Based on analysis of gaol admissions for the three years 1839-41.

[16] Elizabeth Drew, Christening, Ashwicken, Norfolk, 16 Feb 1817 Jemima Drew was christened 20 September 1818 at Ellingham, Norfolk. Norfolk, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2016. On each occasion, their father John was listed as a labourer.

[17] Gaol Register, 10 July 1835.

[18] Bury and Norwich Post, 10 February 1836, p.2

[19] Gaol Register, 10 August 1836; Pigot’s Norfolk Directory, 1839, p. 520.

[20] 1841 Census HO 107/1039/10. The Drew family was living at St Cross in Suffolk, where Jemima’s father was still in agricultural labour.

[21] ‘E.H.’ in Martin’s table of Liberated Prisoners, 1840 [258] Inspectors of Prisons of Great Britain II, Northern and Eastern District, Fifth Report, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online (2005), 124-31: 128-9

[22] On Martin’s Liberated Prisoners after their discharge, see Helen Rogers, ‘Kindness and Reciprocity: Liberated Prisoners and Christian Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History 47.3 (Spring 2014): 721-45

[23] Census Returns: 1851 H.O. 107/1806; 1861 R.G. 9/1192; 1871 R.G. 10/1788; 1881 R.G. 11/1915.

[24] Gaol Register, 4 April 1838.

[25] Register for April 1838 in Everyday Book 1836-8.

[26] Gaol Register, 31 December 1841.

[27] William Rands, born 30 May; baptized 2 May 1843, Great Yarmouth Baptism records, England, Norfolk Bishop’s Transcripts, 1685-1941,

[28] 13 Jun 1843 England, Select Deaths and Burials, 1538-1991 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.


4 thoughts on “Mewing like cats

  1. Pingback: All Things History – Monthly Roundup for September – All Things Georgian

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s