Criminal Girlhood in Old Bailey Records

Criminal Girlhood in Old Bailey Records:
The Impoverished

Criminal Girls: Old BaileyThe misplaced defiance of Moll Flander’s upbringing and the jollity of Mary Frith’s can provide only a meager prelude to this page examining the historical trial transcripts and the ordinary’s accounts of London’s most important criminal court: the Old Bailey. For all the possibilities within the mirror of fiction and varnish of criminal biography, dealing with these primary sources requires a different approach. I hope these real girls reached a better happiness in life than most of their records suggest. I organized the case studies below according to voice, or perspective, for here provides the only place where girls’ own voices can be heard.



Officials’ Views

  1. Dorothy Hall – 1687 In this ordinary’s account, (the ordinary was the prison chaplain), sixteen year old Dorothy has been sentenced to death for pickpocketing. Her family situation seems dire, as her father is dead and she is “not subject to the Government of her Mother.” She blames her sin both on the bad crowd she fell into and the devil who “had frequently tempted her to evil ways.” She promises to find better friends and appropriate work. The ordinary gives her solid and compassionate advice, that “if she may be reprieved, not to forget the present good resolutions, […] because many in this place have returned to their vain Courses, and leave them not, till, they bring upon themselves an untimely End.”
  2. Margaret Beard – 1690 Eleven year old Margaret was sentenced to whipping for shoplifting. Margaret denied committing this crime, “yet she was known to be a pilfering idle Wench.”
  3. Diana Lawrence – 1694 Twelve year old Diana was sentenced to transportation for pickpocketing. She “strongly denied” stealing the money, saying she found it instead. “But that was lookt upon to be an old Newgate shift, and groundless Excuse; and she was known to be an old Gamester in the Art of Legerdemain, tho but a young Girl.”

Margaret and Diana’s cases represent typical cases for the time. They denied their crimes, and no substantial evidence was brought forward, yet they were sentenced anyway, seemingly because of the judge’s bias. Dorothy’s case provides a somewhat less bleak perspective in that the ordinary appears to honestly want to help her. However, he seems to realize she will return to crime as a matter of course, without any support to help her make a fresh start.

Girls Speak for Themselves

  • Elizabeth Ran – 1733 Elizabeth, “a little girl,” was sentenced to death for theft.  She allegedly stole from her master and tried to run away from her apprenticeship. (See “Work” for more.) She gave quite the brazen confession, apparently. Her master said, “I ask’d her, what it was she broke open the Drawers with ? Why, what should I open them with, says she, but with a Chissel ? I ask’d her, what she had done with the Money and Goods? She own’d she had taken three Guineas; but said, she had been to the Prisoners in Newgate, and they had got them from her.” Her bewildering fleeing to the prison of Newgate with freshly stolen money might suggest she went to help a family member? But one cannot be sure.
  • Mary Thorpe – 1795 Fourteen year old Mary was sentenced to death for stealing from her master. She denied the charge, and revealed something else in her distraught plea: “I was in such a fright; [my master and mistress] were coaxing me, and saying, they would give me this, and that, and the other, and they would not hurt a hair of my head, if I would own it; I was so frightened that I did not know what to say; there is nothing but thieves that use the house, till one or two o’clock in the morning.” In the end, Mary “was recommended to mercy on account of her youth.”
  • Elizabeth Dickinson – 1795 Thirteen year old Elizabeth was sentenced to transportation for stealing and pawning items from a room she rented. Elizabeth admitted her crime, but she gave a sobering account of her intentions. She said, “I was very much distressed, or else I should not have done it; I never left [abandoned] my lodging, I only begged for the next morning, and I would replace every thing; I paid a week’s rent, and six-pence off the other; I owed her but a fortnight, I never meant to leave my lodgings till I had put every thing in its place, and if she had only granted the favour till the next morning I should have put every thing in its place, but she was very much enraged against me, and ordered the door to be locked and bolted, least I should get out of the place, which I never wished to leave the place till I had replaced the things.”
  • Sarah Johnson – 1797 Fourteen year old Sarah was sentenced to transportation for theft. “Prisoner’s defence. I did it from necessity and want.”

These girls tried to explain themselves, but it made no difference. They were no “Gamesters” or “pilfering idle Wenches.” Alone and without a support system, plain poverty drove them to crime.

Glimmers of Mercy

  • “A young Girl of St. Giles Cripplegate” – 1677 While her age and name is not given, this girl was sentenced to whipping for stealing. She confessed, but said “2 apple women that received [the stolen goods] of her prompted and encouraged her to it saying, ’tis a good Girl get some more.” While she was found guilty, the judge or scribe recognized the problem in this case. The record ends thus:  “[S]hes only like to be whipt , But her wicked deducers deserve a severer Punishment.”
  • “A Servant Girl” – 1678 Her name is not given, but this fifteen year old girl was sentenced to whipping for stealing from her mistress. The record states “nothing else could be positively laid to her charge, and the Maid young enough to be taught more Honesty.”

Both these cases, the only examples I could find of girl criminals being shown some mercy in explicitly kind comments in the record, occurred around the same time near the end of the seventeenth century. Although record keeping improved into the eighteenth century, showing an increase in the amount of transcription for trials and thus the amount of transcription of girls’ voices, it appears that better administrative records did not lead to better understanding of girls’ criminality.


Regardless of the outcomes, these records demonstrate how the fiction and literary non-fiction of the eighteenth century that I have examined bear only the slightest resemblance to what actually drove girls to crime. Instead, those texts support common views of the time–namely that crime lay inherent in individuals and that girls deserved no agency–without recognizing the underlying social issues that hindered girls living in poverty. Criminal girls arguably stood in the most marginalized of marginalized positions in the eighteenth century: female, poor, and deviant. With no interest in serving or protecting criminal girls, representations of criminal girls succeeded only in the goals of those in power: to perpetuate commonly held, disenfranchising perspectives.

What was a criminal girl to do? Perhaps more may be gleaned from Mary Frith, whose biographies provide advice to those acquaintances concerned by Frith’s unwillingness to take on her feminine roles, a “Proverb favourable to their Hope”:

1662: “That an unhappy Girl may make a good Woman.” (The Life and Death 7)
1719: “That an unlucky Girl may make a good Woman.” (Smith 138)

So which is it: unhappiness or unluckiness? Is girlhood criminality a choice or a destiny? Ideally, it would be neither.

Nicole DeGuzman ~ 5/6/15

18th century child girl crime

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