Nineteenth Century Prisons and Gender Diversity.

By James Whitfield (he/him/his)

The following post came about while I was sifting through the British Newspaper Archives. My purpose was not to provide a particularly systemic account of history but look for small stories or narratives that could highlight gender diversity within the prison system. I wanted to focus upon the nineteenth century, primarily because this was a period that saw a major expansion in the prison system (Soothill, 2007). In addition to this, providing a broader past to gender diversity within prisons allows for a recognition these events were not limited to the contemporary period. In other words, there have always been challenges to the gendered order of prisons and there always will be. Such histories may provide an interesting addition to criminological scholarship which has mainly focused upon how binaries were inscribed in the prison service during this time (see: Zedner, 1991a, Forsythe, 1993, Johnston, 2019). However, considering the brevity of this blogpost and the inability of myself to thoroughly analyse the newspaper archives this forthcoming analysis is more dedicated to raising (hopefully) interesting questions rather than delivering concrete answers. The post will begin with a small description of how prisons came to be the preeminent form of punishment during this time and then discuss the cases of George White and Catherine Smith who seemed to demonstrate a disruption to the normative order of gender whilst in prison. For both of these individuals, I have decided to use they/them pronouns because within the sources George and Catherine’s gender identity is unconfirmed by them, and the evidence remains too limited to make a conclusive judgement. It will also touch on the myriad of issues encountered when performing such an analysis. These include issues of power, the potential distortion of information and the dearth of information upon these prisoners.

Although, ideas for imprisonment as a major form of punishment had been around prior to the nineteenth century, this period is when we see the first national carceral institution in the form of Millbank in 1812 and a general expansion in prison building (Soothill, 2007). Prior to this, prisons were mainly local and primarily held debtors with a smaller population consisting of petty criminals and those awaiting transportation or execution. The development of prisons was significantly advanced when transportation came to an end in Australian states. With a decline in the ability to expel those who had committed illegal actions, the government embarked upon a large programme of prison building (Soothill, 2007). During the various experiments with prisons, women were often assigned separate wings in male prisons however, it was not long before exclusively women’s prisons were built including Fulham and Brixton prisons (Zedner, 1991b). Within these institutions, the regime sometimes attempted to instil ‘feminine virtues’ and attributes by employing them to do the tasks of cooking, baking, knitting and laundering (Davie, 2010).

However, the cases of Catherine Smith and George White show transgression to the normative order of gender by moving between gender binaries within the criminal justice system. It is likely that both were female at birth and moved through spaces of criminal justice as men. In the case of Catherine, The Falkirk Herald and the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reported in 1871 that Catherine had been living as a man for sixteen years and was arrested because of intoxication and riotous behaviour. After arrest Catherine appeared in the ‘dock’ (the space for a defendant on trial within a court) as a man and was similarly attired within the prison cell they were housed. It is implied this was initially accepted by those within these institutions until the superintendent became suspicious and determined they were born female. This moment is particularly interesting as Catherine had been breaking a system of gender through transgression across multiple institutions of criminal justice including the courts and prison cells.

Unfortunately, much of this narrative that had to be deciphered from the article comes from small amounts of incomplete information. The mention of courts and cells only occur once, and whilst Catherine is referred to as a prisoner throughout the text it is unclear whether this was confinement to a permanent prison institution or merely a holding cell until bail. This lack of information is further evidenced by there being no exploration of Catherine’s personal perspective of imprisonment and what being gender non-conforming meant within the criminal justice system at the time. There is no discussion of how this may have impacted the justice process nor what the reactions to it were from guards or other prisoners. This is not to reprimand the source material but point out the flaws I have seen in attempting to understand this prisoners’ experience as gender diverse, when analysing a source that gives little to no credence to this position. What is mostly discussed is Catherine’s experience outside of the prison, leaving me questioning: what forms of cultural repercussions were there for being gender non-conforming within that space, if there were any? And how would Catherine have recounted this experience if told by themselves rather than through a news article whose authorship is obscure?

A more detailed case happened in 1841 to a person by the name of George White as reported by Bell’s Weekly Messenger and the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent. George was sentenced to six weeks imprisonment and hard labour at the Westminster Bridewell. Admitted on the 7th of August, they performed the tasks of “wheel labour and picking oakum” and was “treated in all respects as a male prisoner”. George wore the male prison clothing, shared all the bathing times with the other male prisoners and had passed the physical examination by the surgeon of the prison. This treatment as a man came to a halt early in their imprisonment when the authorities became suspicious of George due to their apparently pale neck and decided to investigate further, soon after they determined that George was born female and questioned the prisoner extensively. This case is particularly interesting as it documents moments which according to the newspaper should have ‘revealed’ George’s gender, most notably, the investigation by the surgeon and sharing bathing times with other prisoners. If looked at in this way, we can understand better the disciplinary processes within the prison that were meant to control gender either informally or formally.

Exploring examples of gender diversity such as these could be a productive line of inquiry for criminological research, as looking at the period from a perspective of transgression rather than conformity may help further understandings of how systems of gender were regulated and what social ramifications were there for breaking these. Additionally, it would add to the historical work on gender diversity by highlighting its occurrence within one of the most hyper-gendered institutions. However, problems still abound when analysing these reports. For instance, in all cases, the information I am provided with is only partial and does not address the specific viewpoints of the prisoners themselves. These would be invaluable as documentation of their incarceration experience. Another problem stems from the fundamental power imbalance between those who wrote these articles and the people who were written about since any attempt to know whether the accounts provided are ones that George and Catherine would have agreed with or wanted is nearly impossible. Linked to this is the fact that in both cases it is difficult to ascertain whether these events have been discussed accurately or have the reporters placed these events within a framework more palatable for their audience, in order to sell newspapers. In the case of Catherine, did they always use that name? Or is it one the author has ascribed upon them when the authorities determined they were of another gender?

This analysis is often frustrating as it leaves more questions than it fully answers. However, this should not discourage further investigation as inquiry within this field would enable us to reconceptualise prisons during this time by viewing them as place wherein gender binaries could be challenged and subverted. Any research on this topic would provide a better understanding of how gender diversity historically operated within spaces of incarceration. Analysing a small number of news reports is not a systemic account of this process merely an indication of it occurring. Nevertheless, considering the growing body of scholarship on gender diversity more generally it may provide a small starting off point for future studies. It should also be noted that my post has been complicated by news articles being the object of my analysis, these are often written by reporters who can alter the narrative in such a way that may distort the experiences of the prisoners under discussion and contain information that is only partial and incomplete. Even though this means the evidence considered is fragmentary, it still proves to be an invaluable source for rethinking past gender dynamics in prison.

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