Looking for Women in 18th-Century Newgate

We tend to think of prisons as male spaces. So I’m trying an experiment. I will return to material I wrote about in my previous post, When Prisoners Complain, but I’ll focus on the women this time.

As you’ll recall from that last post, in 1702 and again in 1707, some Newgate prisoners informed the magistrates about abuses by the Keeper, Mr. Fell, along with his turnkey Robinson, and some of the prisoners known as “partners” who assisted the turnkeys. For their pains, the complaining prisoners were beaten up by the partners and other prisoners, apparently with the encouragement of Keeper Fell. One subject of the prisoners’ complaints was, indeed, women, so let’s start there. In 1702 William Aissicombe, an imprisoned debtor, had told the magistrates that the turnkey William Robinson encouraged “lewd women, shoplifters, pickpockets and common strumpets to come to the felons and lie there all night.” Subsequent investigations, and later prisoner complaints, added many more details. Investigating justices found that Robinson “locked up a whore with one Peter Flower al[ia]s Bennet al[ia]s French Peter and she often lay with him, even when he was under the sentence of condemnation.” In 1707 Lambert Carter once again identified Robinson as a panderer:

Several times when some of the felons wives bring money for their husbands for their support Robinson and his partners take that money of the said felons and suffer them to go among the women felons, or bring the women felons to them and suffer them to say together whole nights and … about a month ago one Crafts was suffered to go into the condemned women’s hole where he continued a whole night with a woman commonly called Poll Pope as he hath done several nights since.

We are left wondering about relationships women had with the men they visited in Newgate. Some women may have been prostitutes, but we also get glimpses of more steady relationships, as between Crafts and Poll Pope. The “whore” who lay with the condemned convict “Peter Flower al[ia]s Bennet al[ia]s French Peter” was alleged by the keeper to have been Peter’s wife, although the visiting magistrates rejected that claim. We just don’t know. We also don’t know what it meant for female felons as a group that they were brought to the male felons, or alternatively that the male felons were “suffered to go among them” at night: were the turnkeys enabling men and women to happily party together, or exposing female prisoners to sexual assault?

Not every woman who spent the night in the prison was there for sex, however. Some used Newgate as a space to process stolen goods. Jane Morris, a “poor prisoner for debt,” reported in 1707 that William Robinson took money” to let Thieves and women called Femes who buy stolen goods into the said gaol, some of which Femes, as this examinant is informed, keep brokers shops.” Robinson

frequently let Mary Buck a reputed thief and housebreaker into the gaol and she brought with her several parcels of goods supposed to be stolen, among which she often brought in wet linen which she dried in the said gaol and then picked out the marks; and that the said Buck did commonly come into and go out of the said gaol six or seven times a day and hath often laid in the gaol whole nights.

Mary White, who was married to the prisoner Robert White, gave the investigating justices even more detail, saying she had

seen Mary Buck and Mary Williams bring goods into the goal being let in by William Robinson who for one shilling given him by Mary Buck suffered her to abide there all night and these two women hired a room called ye Change of Mrs. French for a warehouse to put in those goods.

She further saith she has been employed by Mary Buck to carry a silver spoon suspected to be stolen to be sold, also a suit of head clothes, a shirt, a shift, a flowered muslin apron, a plain suite of pinners all which she suspected to be stolen which she pawned at the pawnbrokers by the Half Moon in Aldersgate street for 4 shillings about one month since.

She further saith that Mary Buck alias Ellis sent her to fetch a red petticoat stampt with black from pawn which the said Mary Buck durst not wear herself but sold it to Mrs. French for the 3 shillings for which it was pawned and the said French wears it now in the gaol.

Thanks to the Old Bailey Online database, we can learn something about Mary Buck, who is almost certainly the Mary Goddard, al[ia]s Ellis, al[ia]s Buck who was hanged alongside her common law husband Thomas Ellis in March 1708, after having broken out of a workhouse and stolen five shillings from Jane Gregory. The Ordinary of Newgate provided not one but two biographies of her, which are alas not entirely consistent. According to one, she was about 37 years of age, the daughter of a weaver in Chippinnorton, Oxfordshire, who

Being desirous of seeing London, left her Friends, and put her self Servant to a [me]rcer in the Strand [and]   behav’d her self [to]the good liking of those she serv’d, till getting [ac]quainted with the aforesaid Thomas Ellis, for whose Wife she had pass’d for some years, she turned shop-lifter.

The Ordinary of NEWGATE his Account of the Behaviour, Confessions and Dying Speeches of the Malefactors that were executed at Tyburn on Wednesday the 3d day of March. 1707/08. Used by the permission of the British Library.

In the other version (pictured) Mary was “born in Pickadilly and a Mantua-Maker by her trade.” Both accounts concurred about her long liaison with Thomas Ellis, with whom “she lived in Fornication for these 10 years past” and “went all along for his wife, though they neither were, not ever intended to be married.”

It is likely that both Mary Buck and Thomas Ellis knew their way around Newgate. Mary was likely the “Mary Buck of the parish of Chelsea” who was convicted in 1702 along with Thomas Twist and Jane Williams “for breaking the House of William Stubbington , in the day time, on the 18th of July last, and taking a Copper, a pair of stuff Curtains, and divers other Goods,”for which she was branded on the left cheek in October (Old Bailey Online t17021014-19). Thomas Ellis was tried and convicted of housebreaking in January, 1702 (Old Bailey Online t17120144-14). One of his co-defendants was Peter Flower, the condemned felon who (as we saw above) was allegedly given access to prostitutes by the turnkey William Robinson. We can imagine, then, that Thomas in 1702, by way of his friend Peter Flower’s experience if nothing else, had a chance to learn that turnkey William Robinson was bribable; and that this knowledge was useful to Mary in 1707 when she needed a place to warehouse stolen goods. It is striking that after having been a prisoner, she voluntarily came back to make use of Newgate for her own purposes.

Elizabeth French also used Newgate for her own purposes. She is the woman who who controlled the room called “ye Change” and who instigated the assault upon the prisoners who informed the Justices of the Peace about her activities there. She must have been fierce: John Easton, one of the complaining prisoners who was brutally beaten, reported that Elizabeth French had appeared at the grate of the prison carrying sticks, announcing “I have brought sticks from Mr. Fell… take them, beat ye justice’s rogues, knock them on ye head, murder them.” It is not clear how she came to control ye Change, or whether she was a prisoner herself, but she had obviously developed an alliance with the keeper James Fell, since she instigated violence in his name.

It is possible that Elizabeth had been running her operation in Newgate for a while. We get an intriguing glimpse of a woman who might be her from the investigation that magistrates conducted in 1702 about abuses in the prison. The prisoners who had initiated the complaints and helped the justices with their inquiries expressed fears of retaliation, asking the JPs to

Order William French James Cross Richard Marshall William Naylor and one Elizabeth Dunn (whom they termed a receiver of stolen goods) to be kept apart, so that they might not come near the petitioners in the daytime, as they had before we came away set the prison in an uproar and they were in danger of being murdered by them.

Given the unlikelihood of there being two vengeful fencers of stolen goods named Elizabeth, I would guess that Elizabeth Dunn and Elizabeth French were same person; and that perhaps her name changed because she married the partner William French, who is also mentioned here. The most intriguing detail that emerges about her, though, is her liking for the”red petticoat stampt with black” which she wore around the prison. I wonder, too, if it was her own sense of humor that lay behind the naming of her room, the “Change,” after London’s fanciest shopping mall, the Royal Exchange.

The one I wonder most about, though, is Mary White. She was not a prisoner herself but was married to one, the debtor Robert White. She had clearly been involved in the goods-fencing operation, employed to run errands to the pawn shop in Aldersgate Street for Mary Buck and Elizabeth French. But then she turned on her employers, giving evidence to the Middlesex magistrates (as did Robert) about their crimes. Nonetheless, she may have had some credibility left with the men who answered Elizabeth French’s call to punish the JP’s dogs: two of the assailants, she reported, had “offered to strike her husband” but “upon her entreaty they forbore striking of him but haled him into the partner’s room.” Of all the characters appearing here, she is the one with a foot in both camps, allied with the prisoners who complained but also with the people they complained about. I wonder how she experienced that split loyalty.

Newgate looks a little different when viewed through woman-seeking lenses. Because so many of the women I discussed here were not prisoners themselves, looking for women can show us more clearly the connections between the prison and the world outside it. Looking for women tells us more about the ways that Newgate was used as a space: it was a site where people made a living, a place of safety for some, a place where relationships were formed and mattered to survival. It challenges us to put together fragments of life stories that circle around but are not entirely contained by the prison itself.

In a recent critique of 13th, Ava Duvernay’s documentary about mass incarceration in the US, Samantha Master notes that this otherwise excellent film leaves black women relatively invisible. We deal at this blog a very different kind of incarceration. But Masters reminds us of how easy it is NOT to see women, unless you make a conscious effort to look for them. Histories of the prison need to include both sexes. I hope this essay is a step in towards that goal.

A big Thank You to Sharon Howard, for help with the Old Bailey Online database! 


For an earlier attempt to reconstruct daily life in Newgate, with some mention of prostitution (though few other mentions of women), see W.J. Sheehan, “Finding Solace in Eighteenth-Century Newgate,” in J. S. Cockburn, ed. Crime in England, 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

Two separate accounts of Mary Buck’s life were published by the Ordinary of Newgate on March 3, 1708. You can access both through the Old Bailey Online’s Wayback Machine:

1. Version in which she is born in Pickadilly

2. Version where she is daughter of a weaver in Chippinnorton

For Mary Buck’s 1702 trial and branding, see Old Bailey Online  Old Bailey Online t17021014-19

For the 1702 trial of Thomas Ellis and Peter Flower, see Old Bailey Online (t17120144-14)  Old Bailey Online t17020114-14

For the complaints in 1702 and their investigation, London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/033/02/046.

For the 1707 complaints, in London Metropolitan Archives, see “5 depositions (on abuses in Newgate Gaol), 1-3 Sept 1707,” CLA/047/LJ/13/1707/005. The deponents are John Easton, Lambert Carter, Jane Morris, Mary White and Robert White; “Copy of the Justices Report concerning abuses in Newgate, September 1707,” MJ/SP/1707/9/13; For the assault on the informing prisoners, see informations from Mary White (MJ/SP/1707/Sept/32), Oliver and Elizabeth St. John (MJ/SP/1707/Sept/34), and John Easton (MJ/SP/1707/Sept/33).


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