Claire Richardson is in the second year of an MRes at the IHR. Her dissertation centres on prostitute networks in Stamford and Peterborough in the nineteenth century.
The recent IHR Vagrancy Conference was a useful experience for me: my research on nineteenth century prostitutes had revealed many vagrants within my historical sample and the conference allowed me to better understand these women within their wider historical context. I knew from my own research that a number of prostitutes were also labelled as vagrants, including Charlotte Webb, who was transported for 14 years from stealing from a farmer in Stamford, but such cases were infrequent and only accounted for a small proportion of vagrants, the majority being men.[i] My records seem to point to another type of vagrant, that of unsettled poor women; those who might appear to have settled in a small defined area, but who were in a continual state of movement from one property to another. One woman’s story explains the reality of this life the best: that of Betsey Rist.
Elizabeth Rist, Betsey to her family (and the 1861 census), was born in Yaxley, near Peterborough, in 1850. [ii] Her path through life was readily traceable in the local court and newspaper records, with convictions for drunkenness, violence, being a prostitute and possible insanity: Betsey’s life was unstable, insecure and fraught with uncertainty.
Almost all of Betsey’s life story appears to have transpired within an area of a few miles, but her feet never stood still for long. She was in a continual state of movement from street to street, never pausing for longer than a few years and never seeming to find a home. The image of the idealised property-holding Victorian family, safely settled in the domestic sphere behind a closed door, was a distant prospect for Betsey. In 1897, she was fined for aggressively damaging a door.
Betsey married John Ashworth in 1874 in Peterborough, only a few miles from where she had grown up. Her family all remained in the area. Her father claimed damages on behalf of Betsey’s sister after she had been seduced; her brother Isaac was tried for bigamy and an association with local body snatchers. However, none of her family appeared in court as often as Betsey. In her married name of Elizabeth Ashworth, she appeared before the courts for assault, damage, maliciously wounding and stealing, and was labelled as a prostitute. This label was not used at the time just to demarcate a woman engaged in prostitution, but any woman found debasing herself on the street through drunkenness, poor behaviour, or being on the streets after an acceptable hour. Women not abiding by these rules were vulnerable to being labelled as prostitutes, and any woman deemed to be a prostitute and found in the streets in Peterborough after 10pm could be arrested by the police[iii] [iv]. The expectation was that a respectable woman would not be seen outside after dark unless she was in swift transit or at least in the protection of her husband. Betsey, although a frequent visitor to court, was never accused of any sexually deviant behaviour: she was first labelled a prostitute when convicted for stealing seven shillings in 1878 and again in the 1881 census whilst she was in Great Stukeley Jail, having been convicted for unlawfully and maliciously wounding her husband. Later prostitution was given as her ‘trade’ in an 1892 conviction, so it is likely that is how she was surviving.
It is unlikely that Betsey’s husband was an innocent victim in this story, for Betsey’s criminal log started only four years after she married John and he was convicted of assaulting Betsey. He also appears to have entered Peterborough workhouse without Betsey and is recorded there in the 1901 census, whilst Betsey was living alone in City Road. If Betsey’s personal relationships were so unstable then it follows that her residential status was likely to be correspondingly precarious. Betsey was regularly admitted to jail and the sum of her prison time was 42 months, 38 of those being hard labour. Her frequent admissions in the winter and a continuing pattern of entering jail every three or four years could suggest that this was a familiar and predictable choice, which was an easier prospect than struggling to survive alone without support from her husband.
Thanks to Betsey’s regular arrests, we are fortunate enough to have an image from her 1892 recorded in the Liberty of Peterborough Police Force’s Repeat Offenders book.[v] Rather than having a frail, ragged appearance like many of the other prostitutes in the book, Betsey has the build of a prize-fighter and a steely glare. The photograph was taken when she was 42, but Betsey looks older, browbeaten and devoid of emotions. This is the face and build of someone who has had to fight her way through life and knows no other way of living.
Quite unexpectedly Betsey vanishes from Peterborough records after the 1901 census and there is no evidence of her death in or around Peterborough. However, there is a record of an ‘Elizabeth Ashworth’ entering Kesteven County Asylum (one of the closest to Peterborough) on the 16th of February 1906 and dying shortly after on the 10th of May.[vi] A woman with the same name is also recorded entering Leicester Asylum on 15th December 1884.[vii] It seems plausible that this was Betsy, who had just come to the end of a 12 month sentence of hard labour. This would take her total time in institutions to almost four years and her age to 56.
Betsey led a tragic life, one of violence and poverty. She never settled, never found her safe place to call home and possibly ended her life as a patient in an asylum. Her story does not exist in isolation and stands alongside numerous other men and women who throughout their lives, moved from house to house, job to job and institution to institution. She may not have been a vagrant, in the proper sense of the word, but Betsey’s experience of unsettled habitation and legal marginality is bound up with the condition of tramps and vagabonds–the restless, penniless few, whose stories add depth to our past.
|1851 census||Yaxley (no street names given)||6 months old|
|1861 census||Yaxley, Week Lane||Living with parents and 4 older siblings, all agricultural labourers including 11-year-old Elizabeth|
|1871 census||Yaxley, High Street||Living with parents, working as a servant|
|1874||Peterborough||Married John Ashworth|
|1878||Peterborough||Stealing – 3 months|
|1881 census||Great Stukeley Gaol||Wounding – 12 months hard labour|
|1884 January||Peterborough||Common Assault – 12 months hard labour|
|1888 26th December – sentenced 3rd Jan 1889||Peterborough||Wounding George Taylor – 9 months hard labour|
|1891 – census||77 St John’s Street, Peterborough||Living in a lodging house with husband John|
|1892 April||Peterborough||Stealing a coat and handkerchief – 5 months hard labour|
|1894 July||Peterborough||Drunk and disorderly – 1 month|
|1897||Peterborough||Damaging a door – 5s 6d fine|
|1901 – census||4 Smith’s Yard, City Road, Peterborough||Living alone, but recorded as married|
With kind thanks to Peterborough Archives Service for use of images from the Repeat Offenders book.
[i] Stamford Mercury, 6th January 1837, p.4 https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000237/18370106/016/0004 [accessed 17th January 2018]
[ii] All census records accessed on Ancestry.co.uk
[iii] For more information on the nineteenth century definition of a prostitute and depravity see H Mayhew and others, The London Underworld in the Victorian Period, (Dover Publications, Inc, 2005) and F. Barret-Ducrocq Love in the Time of Victoria, (Verso, 1991)
[iv] Stamford Mercury 25th June 1852, p.3 <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0000237/18520625/009/0003>
[accessed 17th January 2018]
[v] Peterborough Archives, Liberty of Peterborough Police Force Repeat Offender Book, p16 PAS/PPF/1/1/1
[vi] Freereg.org.uk have the most informative record of this death, but Ancestry.co.uk have the admission record in the UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Register, 1846-1912 catalogue
[vii] Ancestry.co.uk UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Register, 1846-1912 catalogue