Criminal Women in Victorian North Yorkshire

By Jo Faulkner, Record Assistant

The people who appeared before the Quarter Sessions at Northallerton between 1869 and 1878 were photographed and the ‘mug-shots’ survive. The index of these photographs reveals that just fewer than 19% of these offenders were female. We cannot always trace the entire lives of these women. Of the cases that have been researched, it is evident that some seemed to escape their criminal past, though many others became trapped in a lifelong cycle of offending.

While more men were prosecuted for crimes, women were more likely to offend repeatedly. This is believed to be a result of a number of social factors. Women had fewer opportunities for employment and were poorly paid. The majority of female criminals were of the lowest classes and frequently impoverished. Women were generally more dependent on others for financial and practical support than men, and tended to have less control over their own destinies. Life crises such as the loss of the family breadwinner or perhaps the birth of an illegitimate child could be devastating. Women who flouted the expectations of society may have found it very difficult to obtain employment, accommodation or to have respectable relationships. A tarnished reputation could limit opportunities and often a return to crime could seem the only answer.

The women whose faces appear in the albums were very rarely charged with sensational crimes. Women were most commonly prosecuted for property offences such as petty larceny, or thefts of small value, motivated by poverty; public order offences such as drunkenness, or public obscenity and less frequently, violent offences.

Women in particular can be difficult to research, as their names could be changed through marriage, or at will, in order to avoid detection or escape a tainted reputation. They may not have official employment and their details may have been missed from household documents, filled in by men.  Sometimes women with unsettled backgrounds were unclear about their own details, so information could be misreported. Women of the lower social classes frequently moved or had no fixed address. They may have stayed with family members and acquaintances, or we may find them in lodgings of multiple occupancy, or institutions.

QP Police charge book photograph with physical description

Unearthing a criminal ancestor can be a positive discovery. While the lives of so many people of the lowest classes of society evade many records, those who found themselves before the courts can appear in various documents and may, perhaps for the first and only time, have had their photograph taken. Sometimes, a description of the accused appears beneath the photograph. The stories of some of these women, who appeared before the court of Quarter Sessions, will be told here in a series of blog posts.

Sources for Research

Petty Sessions were the lowest tier in the court system. The survival rate of Petty Sessional records is patchy but increases after 1848 when Petty Sessions’ records had to be passed to the Quarter Sessions. Some Petty Sessions records are available at the North Yorkshire County Record Office, reference PS.

The Quarter Sessions records held at the North Yorkshire County Record Office offer a wealth of information on individuals who came before the Justices.  The majority of the Quarter Sessions bundles (reference QSB) contain bills of indictment, which outline the alleged offence. Some cases include depositions, which can provide details of the circumstances of the alleged offences. A proportion of these records may be found on the online catalogue. Records are added on a regular basis as the collection continues to be catalogued.

More serious offences were referred to the Assizes at York. These records are held by the National Archives, whose catalogues can be searched online.

Further reading and resources:

‘Criminal Women: Researching the lives of Britain’s Female Offenders 1850-1920’ by Lucy Williams & Barry Godfrey, 2018

‘Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians’ by Stephen Wade, 2009

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