I don’t think that I’m alone with my interest in historical crime and punishment. I was interested in seeing if I could piece together a criminal history of someone picked completely at random. With this in mind, I looked through one our archives from the Wiltshire Constabulary, a ‘Divisional Criminal Photographic Album, with particulars of crime and personal details. 1900-1916’. the date range I chose ensured that I didn’t breach the 100 year closed file rule; this allows anonymity which in this case is quite a sensitive subject.
I decided to choose a female prisoner, Mary Jane Oland, born on the 1st May 1870 in Kempsford, Gloucestershire- just over the county border. Mary was the daughter of a shepherd and his wife, Thomas and Harriet Oland. It appears that she was of average education; as well as can be expected for a labourers’ child, she would have definitely attended the local village school.
It is unclear why, Mary, turned to the life of crime, but it appears to have stemmed from a mental health issue. A taboo subject, especially during this period. Marys’ first conviction was on the 28th June 1883 at the age of 14, shockingly, she was bound over by Swindon Magistrates for an attempted suicide. To investigate this devastating start to Mary’s downward spiral, I looked at the Swindon Advertiser- newspaper reports often give a lot more detail than a criminal register or calendar of prisoners. On Saturday 30th June 1883, it was reported that Mary had cut her own throat in an attempt to avoid returning to service near Bath. She had stated that she had been cruelly treated by her employer Mr C Williams, a farmer. Prior to the incident, Mary had appeared to have gone AWOL with another young employee, a boy, whom she had taken to Bristol and Box over a period of about four days. Was this just an attempt to run away? There was no criminal intent by poor Mary; it was so obvious that she was unhappy.
The following year, Mary was accused of stealing items of clothing in both Swindon and Marlborough, these offences were swiftly followed by two offences of burglary.
By the age of 16, Mary was breaking into dwelling houses and stealing jewellery. Her previous convictions of theft had seen her do hard labour, in those days this would have meant supervised physical work outside the prison walls. This new conviction gave her a custodial sentence with which hard labour was included. Mary was incarcerated in Devizes Bridewell Prison, where there was a large, multi-person treadmill installed. This treadmill was driven by the prisoners for long sessions and the wardens could tighten the screws to make the treadmill harder to turn. Hence prison wardens being dubbed ‘screws’.
Ela, Countess of Salisbury was a very interesting woman and this blog will look at her life, particularly relating to Lacock Abbey, which she founded in 1232.
Ela was born in Amesbury in 1187 and inherited the title of Countess of Salisbury as well as many lands and estates in 1196 when her father died, and at that time she was only nine years old. After her husband William died, she assumed the post of Sheriff of Wiltshire as well, which he had held.
Her early life is a bit blurred: following her succession to her father’s title, it appears she was taken to Normandy and imprisoned there. This may have been her mother’s family, so it may therefore have not been a prison: it is possible that she and her mother both travelled to Normandy and remained there with their family. Whatever the action, though, this was a secret place: it was not intended that she should be found. It has been suggested that the reason for this was to save Ela from possible danger from her father’s brother Philip. Bowles and Nicholls, in the book Annals and antiquities of Lacock Abbey, say that this suggestion “would account for her daughter’s confinement by an anxious and affectionate mother, that she might be placed out of reach of those who perhaps might have meditated worse than confinement”. Anyway, she was taken from the legal wardship of the King and hidden in Normandy. An English knight called William Talbot decided to go and rescue her and went to France dressed as a pilgrim. He then changed his disguise to enter the Court after he discovered where she was kept, and eventually managed to take her back to England where he presented her to King Richard. It was Richard who then arranged for her marriage to William Longspee, who was Richard’s illegitimate half-brother and probably about 13 years older than Ela.
William and Ela were probably engaged when her father died and she became the King’s ward, but weren’t married until she came of age. William then became Earl of Salisbury, taking his father-in-law’s title, and also Sheriff of Wiltshire. Together, they laid foundation stones for Salisbury Cathedral, in which William was buried a few years later.