Celestina Sommer’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life on 22 April 1856. Because she was still waiting for her sentence to be carried out, she was taken back to Newgate Prison (which was a ‘detentional’ prison, only used for debtors and for those awaiting trial, death or transportation).
She was under the category of ‘Prisoners whose Judgments have been respited or from Various Causes remain in Custody from time to time Brought into Court for Trial or Otherwise. Usually called Prisoners upon Orders’ (London Lives).
However Newgate would soon fill up again with prisoners awaiting their own trials and there was now a second ‘holding’ option for women convicts: Millbank Prison, where they could be accommodated for much longer stretches. And that’s where Celestina and the two other convicted murderers, Elizabeth Ann Harris and Mary Ann Alice Seago, were sent in the next few months.
‘Every male and female convict sentenced to transportation in Great Britain is sent to Millbank previous to the sentence being executed. Here they remain about three months under the close inspection of the three inspectors of the prison, at the end of which time the inspectors report to the Home Secretary, and recommend the place of transportation,’ wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London, published in 1850.
This is where you’d expect me to start on another story of a convict transported to Australia, like many of my posts. But Celestina’s sentence and the identical sentences of the other two women were changed again, to penal servitude for life.
Life imprisonment, to be served in Britain.
This intrigued me. One of my convict ancestors, Nicholas Delaney, had his sentence changed from death to penal service overseas (pretty much a death sentence) and then to transportation. But that was over 50 years before, when there were too many in prison and sending them to Australia was seen as the solution. So why would the authorities prefer imprisonment in Britain to transportation – a complete reversal of policy – in 1856?
One reason seems to have been that those Aussies were getting all uppity about having convicts sent over. They’d got it into their heads that they’d had enough of them, thanks, and anyway there were now enough people to do the work that was needed, so don’t send any more. Only Western Australia, proclaimed a penal colony in 1849, needed the labour.
Meanwhile Mother England was reconsidering the cost of sending her dregs overseas when there were plenty of people ready to go to Australia and pay their own passage, or have it paid for them (like some of my other ancestors). Transportation didn’t reform the convicts, and the threat of it hadn’t lowered the crime rate. It had been a useful experiment, but now it wasn’t working.
Very few people, in fact, were in favour of transportation by the time Celestina was sentenced.
Indeed, in 1853, the Penal Servitude Act had ordered that only long-term transportation would continue and, four years later, the 1857 Penal Servitude Act ended it, in theory at least. Prisoners were transported for another 10 years, with the last convict ship, the Hougoumont, arriving in 1868.
During my research I noticed that the last four ships to take women convicts to Australia had sailed in 1852, with the very last, Midlothian, carrying just 18 convicts from Ireland, arriving in February 1853. So it looks as if there was very little chance of Celestina ever being transported.
Built as a panopticon, reformer Jeremy Bentham‘s design for a prison where all (convicts) could be seen (by their gaolers), Millbank Penitentiary opened in 1816. It closed in 1890 and Tate Britain now stands on part of its 16-acre former site.
Millbank seems to have acted as a holding house for convicts waiting for places to become available on the ships and also in other prisons. As Henry Mayhew and John Binny wrote in The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life in 1862, ‘The female prison here is to Brixton what the male prison is to Pentonville – a kind of depot to which the convicts are forwarded as vacancies occur.’
They elaborated: ‘Males and females of all ages are received here, the prison being the depot for convicts of every description. When a man [or woman, my note] is convicted, and sentenced either to transportation or penal servitude, he remains in the prison in which he was confined previous to his trial, until such time as the order of the Secretary of State is forwarded for his removal; and he is then transferred to us… From this prison he is, after a time, removed to some “probationary” prison (to undergo a certain term of separate confinement) such as that at Pentonville…’ or, in the case of women, to Brixton Prison.
And in Millbank Prison Celestina would begin her next period of waiting.
The papers went quiet about what was happening to her after her transfer to Millbank was reported on 18 August, 1856, in the London Standard.
That doesn’t mean that they stopped talking about her. In fact her case became iconic in the debate about capital punishment, and she was referred to in both Houses of Parliament. But that’s (at least) a whole post in itself and I have a feeling that you want to get to the end of the story fairly soon. Let me know if you want more about the death penalty debate and I’ll come up with something.
Back to Celestina and Millbank Penitentiary. It was a less terrible place to be imprisoned than Newgate – though it was hard to find more feared prisons than ‘Hell above ground‘.
From the outside, it wasn’t as forbidding as Newgate, but it was still obviously a building meant to stop people getting out (or in) and to be a reminder of what fate waited a criminal.
There was one entrance to the prison, facing the Thames. Seen from the river, it looked like a castle from the Middle Ages, with its high walls and watchtowers.
Contemporary writers noted that Millbank was even surrounded by an old moat, now filled in and grazed by cows.
The castle-like impression would have been reinforced for Celestina as she approached the outer lodge, with its huge doors. These were opened by an official wearing a ‘half-police-half-coast-guard kind of uniform’, Mayhew and Binny reported. (From now on, any unattributed quotations will be from their book.)
‘Hence we were directed across the long wedge-shaped “outer yard” of the prison – a mere triangular slip, or “tongue,” as it is called, of bare, gravelled ground, between the diverging sides of the first and last pentagons; and so we reached the barred “inner gate,” set, within a narrow archway at the apex, as it were, of the yard. Here the duty of the gate-keeper is to keep a list of all persons entering and quitting the prison.
‘After unlocking a “double-shotted” door, the warder, under whose charge we had been placed, conducted us into a long, lofty passage, like that of a narrow cloister, or rude whitewashed box-lobby to a theatre. On the right, higher than we could conveniently see, were the exterior windows of the pentagon; on the left, the doors of the apparently infinite series of cells.
‘These doors are double, the inner one being of wood and the outer one of iron lattice- work or “cross-bars.”
‘Every ward consists of two passages or sides of the several pentagons, and ranged along each passage are fifteen cells. The passages are fifty yards long, about ten feet high, and about seven wide, and all of equal size. They are paved and coloured white…
‘Each cell is about twelve feet long by seven broad… The inner door is left open in the day time from nine till five, so that all semblance of a communication with the world may not be taken away from the inmate. At night, however, or upon any misconduct on the part of the prisoner, the inner door is closed or “bolted up,” as it is termed; nevertheless, [s]he can be seen by the jailer through a small vertical slit in the wall-like that of a perpendicular letter-box.’
Celestina was taken to the third of the six pentagons, the one where women prisoners were kept. It was ‘quite shut off from the others, and opened with a separate key.’
It was ‘of slighter construction; though this is a compliment to the sex which unfortunately they have failed to justify, as the female convicts throughout the prison are pronounced “fifty times more troublesome than the men.” The grated iron gates are less massive.’
There are different views in academic writings about whether women prisoners were really worse-behaved than men. Some say that disruptive behaviour was to be expected in a system designed by, and for, men, and which didn’t work for women; others reckon that convict women were seen as worse, because they’d failed to live up to the image of the ‘angel in the house‘, meek, obedient, almost asexual. It’s a familiar picture to anyone who’s looked at early Australian colonial history.
I’ll come back to badly-behaved women in a later post. Let’s get Celestina locked up first.
The third pentagon – the women’s prison – was divided into wards. Celestina would have been taken to B ward, the ‘first probation ward’, for women in their first months of detention.
‘The convicts pick coir for the first two months, and, if well-behaved for that time, they are then put to needlework. Their door is bolted up for the first four months of their incarceration.’
This was one of the principles of the ‘separate system’, where (unlike at Newgate) convicts slept, ate and worked in their cell and were allowed no contact with other prisoners.
Picking coir was similar to the better-known oakum-picking, a boring, difficult job. Oakum was made by unravelling old ropes and picking out the individual strands, which would be used to caulk the seams of boats. Coir, also probably taken from old ropes, was unpicked to make mats or as stuffing for beds – you can still get mattresses with a coir layer in them.
‘Here we find the inner wooden doors thrown back. “These women have all been here less than three months,” adds the principal matron. ” Such as you have already seen at needlework have been here over two months, and those that have coir to pick have been in less than two months.”
‘As we pass, the convicts all jump up and curtsey – some of them bobbing two or three times. All wear the close white prison cap. Some are pretty, and others coarse-featured women; many of them are impudent-looking, and curl their lip, and stare at us as we go by.’
What did Celestina look like in her Millbank prison clothing? Mayhew and Binny mention her white cap. But what about her hair? It was cut off: ‘”Oh, yes, they’d sooner lose their lives than their hair!” said the warder, in answer to our question as to whether the females were cropped upon entering the prison. “We do not allow them to send locks of the hair cut off to their sweethearts; locks, however, are generally sent to their children, or sisters, or mother, or father…”‘
Presumably the woman in the illustration to the right had been incarcerated long enough to regrow her hair.
It was ‘a trial that is always the hardest to bear’, said FW Robinson, a man writing as ‘a prison matron’, in Female Life in Prison.
‘Women whose hearts have not quailed, perhaps, at the murder of their infants, or the poisoning of their husbands, clasp their hands in horror at this sacrifice of their natural adornment – weep, beg, pray, occasionally assume a defiant attitude, resist to the last, and are finally overcome only by force. It is one of the most painful tasks of the prison…’
The horror women convicts felt at having their hair cut off is a thread running through criminal history. It may have been useful, getting rid of nits and lice as well as identifying potential escapees. But above all it was humiliating, defeminising and long-lasting – think of those flowing Victorian tresses, which would take years to grow. Celestina, so pretty and well-dressed, would have felt this as a terrible blow.
Her clothes were taken away and she was given standard Millbank slops (prison clothes): a ‘dark claret-brown’ dress, a check apron, a grey bonnet and, presumably, shifts and any other underclothes.
Then the door was slammed and locked, and Celestina Sommer began life as a convict in Millbank Prison.
A Concise View of the Origin and Progress of the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, downloadable ebook
Victorians Against the Gallows, James Gregory, 2012
Memorials of Millbank, Arthur Griffiths, 1884
The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life, Henry Mayhew and John Binny, 1862
Female life in prison, by a prison matron, Vol 1, Frederick William Robinson, 1863
* Picture credits:
Prisoners on orders: findmypast
Map of Millbank Prison: Stanford’s library map of London and its suburbs
Plan of Millbank Penitentiary: Wikipedia
Convict ship Hougoumont, Millbank from the Thames: public domain
Millbank Prison outer lodge, flank gates: Memorials of Millbank
Millbank rules and prisoner: The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life
Catch up with A Christmas tale:
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