METHOD IN A MOTHER’S MADNESS
In December 1841 a shabby, careworn woman entered a London shoe shop, brazenly picked up several items and walked out. It was a theft that made no sense at all; she had taken a random couple of boots and a single clog! The owner followed, asking her to give them back. He was a decent fellow and had no desire to get her into trouble. To his amazement she refused, saying she would only surrender them to a policeman. As soon as a Bobby was called she handed over the property, but said she wanted to be charged with robbery.
The motive behind about this strange behaviour was heartbreaking.
The woman was 47 year old Catherine Bryan, a widow from the slums of Stepney, in London’s East End.
She was originally from Ireland. It was not the first time she had been in trouble. In August the same year she and her 17 year old daughter Eliza had stolen some pewter drinking pots from local pubs. They were arrested after a policeman saw them loitering near the King’s Head and told them move along.
As they moved off, two pots fell from Eliza’s clothing. Two more were found on Catherine, who freely admitted their crime. She said she did it only to prevent them starving. The prospect of gaol didn’t seem to worry her in the slightest, at least she and her daughter would be housed and fed.
The pair appeared in court at the London Mansion House, accused of stealing pots, including one from publican Thomas Thornton of The King’s Head. Catherine was asked by the Lord Mayor why she hadn’t applied to the parish for poor relief instead of resorting to theft;
‘Oh your Lordship, if only you knew what it was to apply to a parish for help. God help us, we did apply. I went with this poor child to ask for even a little bread and the ‘relieving’ overseer as they call him….the devil relive him!…..shut the door in our faces.’
She then stated that several years prior to this occasion her younger daughter had been flogged to death by the overseer, and that she had been forced to carry the coffin to the grave herself. It appears she was speaking the truth. Records show that in 1836, Mary Bryan, aged two and a half, had died and been buried in Stepney’s Globe Field burial ground.
Catherine’s final comment was so eloquent; a true reflection of society’s treatment of the poor in the 19th century;
‘A mother of children without anything to give them is the best judge of distress.’
The Lord Mayor was unmoved. He told the prisoner that she was especially culpable because she had led her daughter into crime. He committed them both for trial. Young Eliza burst into tears, but her mother appeared quite satisfied. She had achieved her goal.
CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT (OLD BAILEY)
The pair appeared for trial later that month, where it was revealed that Eliza had a previous conviction. When she was 16 and employed as a farm servant she had stolen a shawl from her employer. She had been sentenced to six months imprisonment. This made her situation far more serious and completely wrecked her mother’s plans. As a second offender, Eliza was sentenced to seven years transportation. Catherine was sentenced to only three months gaol, but for a loving mother it must have felt like a death sentence. It occurs to me that Catherine may not have been aware of her daughter’s past trouble, especially if Eliza had been employed somewhere in the countryside. If she did know, then it showed an unfortunate ignorance of the judicial system.
Catherine behaved impeccably as she served her time. All she could think about was being released as soon as possible. Transportation took time to organize and she hoped to at least see Eliza before her ship sailed
Eliza had been placed on board the convict hulk Emma Eugenia, moored down the Thames at Woolwich. Her mother left prison at the end of November and hurried down to the docks. I wonder what she was thinking? Perhaps she had wild ideas of stowing away, or of somehow spiriting her daughter off the ship. Or did she just hope for one last glimpse of her child?
Tragically, It was all too late. The ship had sailed for Van Dieman’s Land on November 24. On April 9 the following year it arrived in Hobart. Eliza was now 11,000 miles from her grieving mother.
RECKLESS AND DESPERATE
Back in London, Catherine refused to give up. If two offences meant transportation then she would simply commit another theft. It was at this point that she entered the shoe shop and calmly walked out with the boots.
When she appeared before the magistrate she was asked if she had appeared before.
Catherine – Oh indeed, I have so, and I won’t easily forget it. My daughter, the only relation and friend I have in the world, has been transported for what brought her and me here, for taking pots, and I am left alone.
The Lord Mayor, Sir C. Marshall, told Catherine she was deliberately trying to make the court system pay for her journey out to join her daughter, and that it would never be allowed to happen;
Lord Mayor – ‘You led your poor girl into the offence of pot stealing…… and now you are sorry when it is too late.’
Catherine – ‘It was sheer famine that drove us to anything to get victuals Hunger was the cause, and what chance can I have remaining? I shall, if you don’t commit me, go away and commit a more serious robbery.’
Lord Mayor – ‘I shall certainly send you for trial. I place too much credit in your word to let you go at liberty.’
Catherine – ‘I shall not deny a word of this in court., my Lord, you may depend upon it. The Lord in Heaven forgive me my sins.’ She then burst into tears and was led from the court.
Several days later her trial took place. She was asked if she had a character witness, to which she replied, ‘Almighty God’. After pleading guilty she was sentenced to two years with hard labour. In the circumstances of her case, this was an act of utter bastardry. What harm would it have done to transport the poor woman, and reunite a desperate mother with her daughter? However, by this time Catherine had done with tears and was back to her feisty self. the trial report reads;
‘The prisoner, who was unprepared for this decision, seemed startled, but quickly recovering herself she replied, folding her arms in a determined manner, ‘Oh very well, do as you like; as soon as ever I get out I’ll go a thieving again, you’ll see if I don’t!’
But she never did go ‘a thieving’ again. I suspect she understood that her papers had been marked, ‘NEVER TO BE TRANSPORTED’.
Catherine spent the rest of her life in and out of workhouse houses, at Wapping and at Raine Street, Stepney. She died in her mid sixties. What a tragic figure, and yet how courageous she was.
In Tasmania, Eiza eventually gained her Ticket-of-Leave. In 1845 she married another convict, William Singleton, my 3 times great grandfather. Theirs was no rags to riches story, but there were certainly more opportunities in their country of exile than in the one they left behind.Neither had been model prisoners, particularly William, who endured the most awful punishments for his transgressions. But eventually they pair settled down and created a decent life together at Sassafras, in north-west Tasmania, where William became a farmer
It is unlikely that Eliza kept in touch with her mother, as she was virtually illiterate. However, I was touched to find that she called her first child Catherine. Her second daughter was named Mary, no doubt in memory of her little sister. William and Eliza produced six other children, including my great-grandfather, John.
In 1890, Eliza died from heart failure, aged 69. It has recently been discovered that she lies with William in the Methodist churchyard at Sassafras. Plans are in place to erect a memorial stone.
I have been thinking back to the trial where Catherine named Almighty God as her character witness. It seems to me that he would have given a pretty good account of her. Her only crime was in attempting to provide for and protect her child, and she certainly did her best. Her life was a sad indictment against the society she and so many like her were born into, chronicled so movingly by authors such as Charles Dickens. In January 1861 he visited the women’s section of workhouse at Wapping, where Catherine spent a good deal of time in later life In his essay published in The Non-Commercial Traveller he described what he found;
I’m proud to acknowledge Catherine as my ancestor. I have no idea what she looked like and nor do I have a photograph of Eliza. But Eliza’s son John Singleton was a very decent, hardworking man.
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