Crime and Punishment: A Convict’s Tale (or: the truth is sometimes far more complex than you might think)

Crime and punishment

I suspect I’m not alone in being endlessly fascinated by the subject of crime and punishment. In fact, I know I’m not: there’s a reason why Agatha Christie’s novels outsell even The Bible. Tonight, London Historians organised a fascinating evening on that very theme, but linked to two particular countries: England and Australia. Our speakers, Dr Lucy Williams and Professor Tim Hitchcock, represented The Digital Panopticon – a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Tasmania, Oxford and Sussex, set up to explore the impact of different types of punishments on the lives of 90,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1875.

Both talks were excellent – thought-provoking and informative – but I was particular struck by Lucy’s talk, which involved the life & times of one particular lady, a convict by the name of Mina Jury. Mina’s experiences, as Lucy would later explain, were not at all what you might expect on first meeting her.

Lucy began her talk by explaining why the Digital Panopticon initiative is so close to her heart. London, she asserted, has one of the richest and most accessible histories of crime in the world – one that has been well-documented in records and in newspaper reports. What’s more, the likes of Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens have chronicled it in the most captivating of ways – meaning that it continues to be a subject that endlessly intrigues.

With that in mind, we travelled back to May 1876, where we found Mina Jury in the dock at the Old Bailey, charged with stealing goods from a doctor’s surgery in Hammersmith. Dressed as a genteel lady, it was alleged, Mina had visited the surgery and, not having an appointment, was shown to the waiting room. Shortly afterwards, she left the surgery – with a surgical bag containing £50 of knives concealed under her dress. Mina’s defence? “I’ve never been to Hammersmith, and I don’t know where it is.” Unfortunately, for Mina, whilst a jury might have given the benefit of the doubt in this particular instance, she had also been indicted for similar crimes in Greenwich and Chelsea. A “guilty” verdict was duly delivered – and Mina was sentenced to seven years’ servitude.

At first glance, Lucy explained, Mina’s case is not particularly unusual – however, the sentence she received was quite steep. She was a repeat property offender, it’s true – but there were many more prolific offenders, some of whom had committed far more serious crimes. Mina also, at the age of 46, was a fair bit older than many of her contemporaries.

Why might a woman like Mina commit such offences? Ill health and an inability to work could be one reason, as might a bereavement. It could be very difficult in the 1870s for a woman to find employment; Mina’s options would have been limited and her experiences similar to those of many other women.

And yet, scratch beneath the surface as the Digital Panopticon Project has done and a completely different story emerges. Over the course of the evening, it transpired that Mina was anything but typical. Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, to a large Protestant-Irish family, Mina moved as a teenager to Dublin. These were difficult times – Ireland was ravaged by famine – but she managed to secure a job as a domestic servant. Alas, temptation struck and Mina stole some of her mistress’s jewellery; duly caught (she was not, as we would learn, a particularly competent criminal), Mina was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.
Today, that seems an incredibly harsh punishment, but in this time of appalling famine the courts took every opportunity they had to send people out of the country.

Arriving in Tasmania, Mina seems to have settled quite happily into her new life and in 1848 she was permitted to contract for private work. Convicts in Australia had far more freedom than they did here, and in 1849 Mina married a free settler called Francis Jury and together they set up home. Thanks to a Ticket of Leave, Mina was able to live freely in the colony subject to certain conditions and she and Francis seem to have been happy. They had 11 children in 15 years and n 1862 moved to Hobart Town, where they ran a business.

This success, which Mina found on both a personal and professional level, is a good indicator, argued Lucy, that the system of transportation worked. You could pay your debt to society and come out the other side. Furthermore, convicts in Australia enjoyed a much higher standard of living than they would have in London, where prejudice and poverty were encountered on a daily basis.

In 1865, the Jury family moved to Adelaide and Francis took up employment as a guard at the city’s Labour Prison. Sadly, after 20 years of marriage, Francis was killed in a freak accident – and Mina was left to bring up their children on her own. Almost immediately, despite receiving some support from her local community, she ran into financial difficulties – and the next few years were to prove difficult.

Five years later, however, the Tichborne claimant scandal occurred. If you aren’t familiar with this infamous case, the facts are these in a nutshell: an individual named Thomas Castro, or Arthur Orton, claimed to be the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. In another example that life really is stranger than fiction, Mina was connected, if not particularly closely, to the case. Accordingly, in 1872, she travelled all the way to London to testify, having been promised various different fees plus her return fare paid. The case concluded (and Arthur was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment), and Mina decided against returning to Australia (and her children), choosing instead to set up home with a fellow witness. One year later, they moved to Macclesfield, in Cheshire…where it may or may not surprise you to learn that Mina was soon up to her old tricks again – this time robbing a lodging house. Discovered with pawn tickets upon her person, Mina was carted off to prison, from where she managed to escape, only to be recaptured.

A further series of crimes and sentences led Mina back to the Old Bailey, where we discovered her, having committed more than one dozen offences in London. She served all seven years of her sentence (also unusual, and most likely due to her, by now, extensive criminal record). Upon leaving prison, Mina turned to fraud, where her victims included the Duke of Edinburgh. Back again at the Old Bailey, Mina ended up again in prison, eventually being released in 1885.

By now, it is clear, a pattern had emerged and it was perhaps inevitable that more crimes and more charges would lead to another five years in prison. And this is where the trail begins to turn cold; the last reference that the Project has been able to find to Mina comes at the end of the 18th century, aged 60+, when she was on the run, using various aliases – and wanted for robbery, fraud and not (self-evidently) fulfilling the terms of her licence. It being much easier to disappear back then than it is now, any further events in Mina’s life are likely to remain unknown to us.

Lucy concluded this engrossing talk by reminding us that Mina’s story is an excellent example of why we should take a much wider view of criminals in the dock in the 18th century than has traditionally been taken. Mina was a wife, widow, mother of 11, star witness, daring fraudster and travelled across the world and back; she does not fit the standard narrative of women, crime and the history of crime. She challenges our assumptions – which can only be a good thing.

The Digital Panopticon

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