Criminal Women 1850-1920 (Paperback)
Researching the Lives of Britain’s Female Offenders
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Women are among the hardest individuals to trace through the historical record and this is especially true of female offenders who had a vested interest in not wanting to be found. That is why this thought-provoking and accessible handbook by Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey is of such value. It looks beyond the crimes and the newspaper reports of women criminals in the Victorian era in order to reveal the reality of their personal and penal journeys, and it provides a guide for researchers who are keen to explore this intriguing and neglected subject.
The book is split into three sections. There is an introduction outlining the historical context for the study of female crime and punishment, then a series of real-life case studies which show in a vivid way the complexity of female offenders’ lives and follows them through the penal system. The third section is a detailed guide to archival and online sources that readers can consult in order to explore the life-histories of criminal women.
The result is a rare combination of academic guide and how-to-do-it manual. It introduces readers to the latest research in the field and it gives them all the information they need to carry out their own research.
The first part surveys the type of crimes committed by women in Victorian and Edwardian times, the penalties that were available to deal with them and the system of aftercare. The core of the book consists of some 30 case studies of women who went through the system, their offences (from drunkenness and petty theft to murder) and their punishments (from fines or prison to transportation or execution). Sadly, few of them seem to have come through it to live a better life. This type of research is not made any easier by the way in which many women frequently changed their names, both on marriage or less formal relationships and as deliberate attempts to evade detection or further punishmentPolice History Society
The third and final part reviews the source materials that may still be available for similar research. It also includes a short section about four gaol museums in the UK, Ireland and Australia: the authors note that the need to provide visitors with entertainment as well as education obscures the reality of life for the prisoners.
The book is intended, and will be most useful, as a guide for both academic and family history researchers. The subject matter is peripheral to police history but it will still provide relevant guidance for those researching the lives of police officers and their customers.
A well-researched and instructive book, in which the authors share their considerable professional expertise in this fascinating, yet often overlooked, area of research into life in the past. It is easy to follow, with clear explanations and ideas for further study. The title is an essential reference for those who are interested in crime history, as well as providing inspiration for all family historians to look more closely at the experience of lawbreaking women in the past.WDYTYA?, August 2018 – reviewed by Angela Buckley