On this Day 14th August 1884

The Girl in the Dock

M has not had a good start in life. Raised in the workhouse up at Madron, she has proved neither biddable more gracious. At times, she has refused to work. When roused to ire, she has smashed windows – “or anything upon which she could lay her hand” as the Cornishman will put it, reporting on the logical conclusion of today’s events. She has caused “immense trouble”, and is “notorious”, the newspaper will tell its readers; her conduct at times “extraordinary”.

Madron Workhouse in 1965 (courtesy of Morrab Library Photo Archive)

Madron Workhouse in 1965. Morrab Library Photographic Archive, accessed July 25, 2017,  http://photoarchive.morrablibrary.org.uk/items/show/9754

But that is in the future. Today, perhaps M is looking back on her immediate past. On her prison spell, back in May, after a particularly bad outburst at Madron. Then the intervention of the Penzance Girls’ Friendly Society, and her fortnight in “respectable service”.

How does M recall this part of her life? Does she differentiate – or does it all seem to her like one weary imprisonment after another? And how does she remember her fits of wrath, of madness: the breakages, the distress of those whose work it is to help her? Is she ashamed? Or still defiant? Does she understand why she has done such dreadful things? Can she even remember? What we do know is that – after a successful fortnight in her new situation, described as “an excellent worker, able and willing”– M’s resolve broke down. “The madness of the girl’s nature”, as the newspaper will put it, “came to the surface, and, in a few minutes, glass was smashing and window frames were paneless”.

Once again, the Girls’ Friendly Society has intervened. Once again, M has been found “decent lodgings”. But – for whatever reason - it’s all gone wrong again today. Now, she is out on her ear – out on the streets. She wanders down to the Eastern Promenade, where she will shortly be approached by PC Clift, who will later claim to have done no more than wish her goodnight. M – perhaps anticipating the shelter of the lockup – will respond by threatening to break every window in Market Jew Street. This is a serious business. It is the height of summer, in this golden age of shopping. The windows in question are large, made of expensive plate glass, designed to show the best that late 19th century Penzance has to offer. And so PC Clift will have no option but to take M into custody – perhaps in a kindly spirit, perhaps not – ready for a court appearance on Saturday.

Perhaps M has already decided, even before her arrest, that she will refuse their lock-up food; will reveal herself to be “as fierce as an untamed tiger”. That she will use such language as “never has… been heard, in Penzance court of justice”. That she will address the magistrates as “dirty bastards”; that she will address the court with “an endearing title said to be common among sailors”; that she will vow to hang herself with her own garter rather than go back to Madron. And perhaps, wandering the streets tonight, drifting downhill towards the seafront with no hope of a third rescue, she despairs of any kind of salvation. “I am going to hell”, she will say in court, “and you ----- ----- are sending me there, the whole lot of you”.

M will be given the option of paying £1 plus costs, and on refusing to pay she will be sent to Bodmin Jail, with hard labour. She will leave town quietly.


Cornishman 28th August 1884, page 6

A Penwith Paper on the subject of aid for women who fell on hard times is scheduled for winter 2017/18.

On this Day:

Browse all 'On This Day' Features

Penwith Local History Group
On this Day:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

price £10
plus p&p


PayPal – The safer, easier way to pay online.