Criminal Quilts and food poverty

Criminal Quilts tells the stories of women who fell through the cracks in Victorian and Edwardian England.

Bridget Warrilow struggled to make a living and ended up in prison so many times after stealing small things to sell to buy food. Over 100 years later and millions of people still struggle to make ends meet when wages and welfare are too low and living costs are too high. I’ve just shared a case study of Bridget, along with the stories of 5 other women. I’m also fundraising for my local food bank where I volunteer as treasurer and on the committee. We are trying desperately to stop families falling through the cracks but we shouldn’t need food banks in such a wealthy country. Find out more in this Guardian article and support us or your local food bank if you can. They need volunteers, funding and campaigning, as well as food donations.

New Edition of Criminal Quilts Book

Two years ago I created Criminal Quilts exhibition and self-published the accompanying book, alongside each other. Looking back, I am not sure how I managed to do both in a few short months as well as my other work. But somehow I did. It’s has taken a couple of years for the first print run of the book to sell out so I have revised and reprinted this year. The new version has a couple of extra pages and some new images as well as (hopefully) no more page reference errors!

The first print run was only ever sold directly by me online, at events and alongside the exhibition in gallery shops. The new version has an ISBN number and is already listed on Amazon and I will be selling wholesale to bookshops too. Self-publishing allows me total control of the book production and sales. Both editions are printed on recycled paper with no plastic coating of the cover, for maximum sustainability. This has cost me more but fits with my values. It is also printed by a small (female-owned) local company, a few minutes from my house so I can walk to the printers to check things. My brilliant graphic designer Sophie has done a great job as always. The downsides of self-publishing are that all the copies have to be stored in my (small, already crowded) house! Please help me make space to move by purchasing a copy (or 10) of this book.

It’s been an amazing couple of years with this book. The best part of being both author and publisher is that I know exactly where this book has been sent. It has travelled all over the world which amazes and delights me. It has been devoured by textile enthusiasts, criminologists, historians, Stafford residents, prison, probation and community work professionals, schools, photographers, universities and academics. It’s been reviewed in an academic publication too as well as in textile press.

The back cover blurb reads:

Criminal Quilts is an art & heritage project created by artist Ruth Singer which explores the stories of women photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. This book covers the research which Ruth and a team of volunteers undertook in the development of the project, including many of the personal stories of women in the archives of Stafford Prison.
It also covers additional research around clothing in the photographs as well as daily life in a Victorian prison.

This book is also a catalogue of the textiles pieces which Ruth has created alongside her research, giving the full background from the initial commission in 2012 to the work created in 2018 for the touring exhibition. This is a revised edition for 2020.

Ruth Singer is an established British textile artist with a background working in the museum sector. Her training and first career continue to influence her artistic practice through her interest in heritage, narrative, material culture and society. Ruth’s work is focussed on research and personal exploration of stories, resulting in subtle, emotive and sensitive work. She creates exhibitions, commissions, community projects and undertakes artist residencies to explore subjects and places in detail. She has presented a number of solo exhibitions as well as Criminal Quilts and was awarded the Fine Art Quilt Masters Prize in 2016, and written several books. She also works as a consultant, artist mentor and tutor.

Criminal Quilts Review

My Criminal Quilts exhibition has been reviewed in the academic journal Textile: Cloth and Culture, by Dr Annebella Pollen, Principal Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton.

The article is available free to read or download here and I’m delighted that the editor Dr Catherine Harper (a long time supporter of my work) chose one of my images for the journal cover too.

Criminal Quilts, in its display and book form, is deeply informed by scholarship and made with skill. It is both a beautiful set of works and a call to action. 

The exhibition will be back in September at Shire Hall Dorchester. (4th September – 8th November 2020) and then to Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre in January 2021. Keep up to date with events, talks and exhibition by subscribing to my newsletter. And in the meantime, come along to my talk on Friday where I will be sharing the background to the project, my research, the work I’ve made and some of the new collaborations and directions I’m taking the project in 2021.

My Criminal Quilts book has also been reviewed in another academic journal: Family & Community History Volume 22, 2019 but this is not freely available online unfortunately. This review is by Dr Vivienne Richmond, Lecturer,  Goldsmiths, University of London

And what all readers, historians included, will find in the first part of the book and the project as a whole, is an innovative means of bringing to a public audience in an accessible, intelligent, sensitive and thought-provoking way, the largely neglected history of the numerous women incarcerated in Victorian and Edwardian prisons.

I’ve almost completely sold out of the first edition of Criminal Quilts, with the last few copies available in my shop here.

Criminal Quilts talk

Textiles Inspired by Women Photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916.

Friday 24th July 2020 
4-5.30pm BST

In this talk, I will look at the background to this project which I started in 2012, creating textiles about the stories of Victorian and Edwardian women prisoners. As well as showing the textile artworks from the touring exhibition, I will also share some of the historical research which the volunteer team and I put together, including case studies of several women and my own research into prison clothing visible in the photographs.

This talk will be live on Zoom with a recording available afterwards. You will be able to ask questions. Book here.

Criminal Quilts Case Study – Harriet George

Criminal Quilts is my an exhibition, research project and book.  The textiles I have created are inspired by the stories of women who were photographed on release from Stafford Prison between 1877 and 1916.

I was fascinated when I first saw the photographs from the 1870s where the women have their hands on their chests. This was in case of missing fingers which would be used for identification. This is the first time prisons took photographs of prisoners to identify them if they offended again. They are usually photographed in their own clothes so we get to see what they really looked like. Photographs of working women are rare so these are very special images of women who wouldn’t normally have photographs taken. Original images and documents courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

This is the third in a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.

Harriet was born in Stoke-on-Trent to a working family. Her father was a miner. The photograph was taken when she was released in 1880 after serving 16 months for stealing a shawl. The document suggests she has previous convictions but I can’t find them. She was released to the ‘Stafford Female Refuge’. I researched this institution and found out that it was officially called The Staffordshire County Industrial Home for Discharged Female Ex-Prisoners and Friendless Women, and was built in 1878 on Sandon Road, Stafford and funded through public donation. It was the first of its kind. The Home was locally known as ‘The County Refuge’, ‘Female Refuge’ or ‘County Industrial Home’, and took in younger women with no families to return to after their release. Women who accepted this support would stay for two years, with a placement as a domestic servant afterwards. Harriet was there when the census was taken in 1881 with 29 other young women between 13 and 22 years of age. I can’t find any further record of her but there is Harriet George who died aged 68 in 1928 and this might be her. It is possible that after her time in the refuge she did not offend again.

History of The County Refuge

Academic journal article by Dr Jo Turner about prisoner aftercare. Dr Turner supported the Criminal Quilts research in 2018.

Criminal Quilts Case Study – Caroline Pulley

Criminal Quilts is my an exhibition, research project and book.  The textiles I have created are inspired by the stories of women who were photographed on release from Stafford Prison between 1877 and 1916.

I was fascinated when I first saw the photographs from the 1870s where the women have their hands on their chests. This was in case of missing fingers which would be used for identification. This is the first time prisons took photographs of prisoners to identify them if they offended again. They are usually photographed in their own clothes so we get to see what they really looked like. Photographs of working women are rare so these are very special images of women who wouldn’t normally have photographs taken. Original images and documents courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

This is the second in a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.

Caroline Pulley appears four times in the photograph albums. The first was in 1879 when she was 29 years old and unmarried. Caroline was from Brockmoor, Brierley Hill (Dudley) and was 5ft 3in, with brown hair and grey eyes. This record is shown above.
She had been sentenced to six months hard labour for stealing iron, presumably to sell on for food and essentials. She was also given one year police supervision. She was a repeat offender, often in and out of prison and was photographed for the prison records in 1884, 1885 and 1886. In 1885, she refused to show her hands as required for which she would have been punished. The poor state of her clothes in 1884 shows the state of her poverty. She was sometimes recorded as a charwoman (a cleaner) or labourer, but often had no employment. Most of her crimes were thefts of iron or coal, including 60 pounds of coal from a canal boat. Caroline also appears in a prison record for HMP Wakefield in 1883 and in various other prison records for Staffordshire.

Caroline’s 1884 photo was one of the first ones I used as inspiration when I made the first series of miniature quilts. I haven’t used her photos very much but this quilt (below) now in Staffordshire Museums collection, was named after her. I think it’s time I created Caroline another quilt of her own, with her determined and powerful face.

Criminal Quilts Free Activity Sheets

I’ve recently created an activity pack around Criminal Quilts for community workshop participants who I can’t currently meet up with. I’ve made a couple of the worksheets free for anyone to try. Download the free PDF here. You could use the case study of Fanny & Ada Riddle or Caroline Pulley as your creative inspiration.

The full pack of 16 activities plus resource sheets and background information is now available in my shop for individual use. If you are interested in using this pack with schools, groups or creative workshops please contact me to discuss options.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

Criminal Quilts Case Study – Fanny and Ada Riddle

Criminal Quilts is my an exhibition, research project and book.  The textiles I have created are inspired by the stories of women who were photographed on release from Stafford Prison between 1877 and 1916.

I was fascinated when I first saw the photographs from the 1870s where the women have their hands on their chests. This was in case of missing fingers which would be used for identification. This is the first time prisons took photographs of prisoners to identify them if they offended again. They are usually photographed in their own clothes so we get to see what they really looked like. Photographs of working women are very rare so these are very special images of women who wouldn’t normally have photographs taken.

Find out more in the online exhibition of Criminal Quilts including a film and all the exhibition text. My Criminal Quilts book covers the photo albums in detail, includes many more case studies, a background to women in prison in the 19th century and is illustrated with my textile works. It is available in my online shop along with cards, books and artworks.

This is the first in a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.

Fanny and Ada Riddle

Sisters Fanny and Ada Riddle were born in Rutland to a family of labourers. In 1881 they were both at school but later worked as servants in Handsworth, Birmingham where some of their family also lived. They seem to have lived in Loughborough at one point but by 1895 were living in Birmingham. Both were able to read and write which is very unusual in the records of women prisoners.

This photograph was taken on 1st January 1895 when they were both released from Stafford Prison. Fanny was 21, Ada was 20. Fanny was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences. We think Ada was convicted of the same crime at the same time. Over a few years they were often convicted together for thefts of food, clothing and other small items for which they received sentences of 21 days to 3 calendar months.

Despite their respectable clothing and jobs, life was clearly difficult for them. Our research shows that their mother died in 1888 when they were 15 and 16 years old which may have been when the went out to work. By 1901, they were both in the Wolverhampton Union Workhouse, and Ada had a one year old illegitimate baby son with her, called Victor. Both of them worked as laundresses in the workhouse. Their family are quite easy to trace and both of their older brothers worked as postmen and were married with children. Sadly it seems their family were unable to support them and keep them out of the workhouse. I can’t trace either of them after 1901 but Ada’s son Victor does appear in records as emigrating to America as an unaccompanied child and seems to have family in Canada too. Fanny and Ada’s father remarried and had another young family in Handsworth and one widowed son lived with them too, but there is no sign of Fanny or Ada returning to live with them. They may have been cut off from their family because of their criminal records.

I have made a couple of small commissioned pieces featuring Fanny and Ada by customers who were touched by their story. I am happy to make commissions using other photographs from Stafford Prison or your own family photos.

Visit Criminal Quilts (online)

While my Criminal Quilts exhibition is behind bars (in boxes), I have created a free online version of the exhibition. I’ve included lots of high resolution images including details of embroidery, quilting and showing textures and stitches as much as possible. All the exhibition panels, labels and other resources are also on my website for you to explore. There’s also a digital version of the exhibition display book which includes some case studies and historical information. The only thing missing is the surreptitious touching of textiles which you aren’t supposed to do! It also includes work which is now sold and no longer in exhibitions and pieces which haven’t been in all the versions of the touring exhibition. Very soon there will be some brand new work added which is currently in my studio awaiting photographs.

 

 

Don’t forget to visit the gift shop after your visit… There are copies of the Criminal Quilts book, greetings cards with my original digital designs and a handful of postcard packs available too.

There’s also a virtual donation box if you would like to support my future work.

 

Criminal Quilts is back!

After a little pause on Criminal Quilts, I am pleased to say that we are back up and running!  From January I will be working on new collaborations, community work and a symposium taking place in 2020-21. First up though, the exhibition is coming up very soon at Galleries of Justice, Nottingham from 7th December 2019 to 29th March 2020.

Image of textile quilt made from images of women criminals

I have a workshop at the museum in March 2020 which is now open for bookings

Criminal Quilts – Embroidered Images workshop
Saturday 21st March 2020 11am-4pm

Working with Criminal Quilts artist Ruth Singer, you will have the chance to try some of the techniques she uses to create her Criminal Quilts artworks. In this workshop you will learn how to embroider and embellish onto digital prints and screen prints of archive photos from Stafford Prison. You will learn some new embroidery stitches to embellish and transform a black and white photograph into something completely new. Some hand embroidery experience necessary.
Workshop for adults. £59 including all materials and drinks.

National Justice Museum
High Pavement
Nottingham
NG1 1HN