Criminal Quilts is my 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 part of a series of case studies of some of the women recorded in the prison photographs.
Bridget first appears in the photograph albums in 1895 (first image above). This is among the last set of images with hands included. You can see her wedding ring clearly. She has been hard to trace through the records as she seems to have also used the surname Coomer which may have been her maiden name and another Bridget Warrilow in Wolverhampton confuses the issue. Her given date of birth also varies from 1860 to 1870, but she generally recorded having been born in Hanley, probably around 1862. If we have the right person, Bridget’s mother was born in Ireland and the family were Roman Catholic. A Bridget Coomer is recorded in the 1891 census as an inmate at Stafford Prison which may be the same woman but it is impossible to tell.
Bridget was recorded as 4’10” tall, with brown (later grey) hair and green/hazel eyes. She had a number of distinguishing marks including scars on her face and right wrist and broken (crooked) nose, as well as pockmarks and small scars on her face.
The conviction in 1895 has quite a lot of detail with it; she was sentenced to three calendar months hard labour for the theft of a counterpane. Some records show her as a potter at this time and an address recorded as 11 Bow Street, Hanley. There is a note that she has 46 previous convictions at this time. There are no further records until 1905 and the next photo is 1908.
From 1905, Bridget is convicted a number of times for thefts of items including scrap iron, a bicycle and an overcoat. In 1910, she received four years in prison for stealing a doormat, which she sold for threepence to spend on food. This shockingly long sentence was highlighted by Frank Witty, who was to become a minor supporter of women’s suffrage, in the national press. He compared Bridget’s situation to another criminal case in which two men were given just six months each for procuring girls for prostitution. As a result, Bridget’s sentence was later reduced on appeal to three years. A newspaper reported that the ‘The court regretted that the legislature did not provide them with a means for properly dealing with the case’. There was really little option for a woman in Bridget’s situation and a prison term was considered preferable to being on the streets.
This excessively long prison sentence is harrowing to imagine. Bridget was working as a hawker (door to door sales) or as a rag sorter, both among the very worst-paid and insecure jobs. She was clearly in a desperate situation with no financial support and had to turn back to theft every time she left prison. She stole to buy food and to survive in a world with no safety net for people on the wrong side of the law. He story is desperately sad and I’ve not been able to find out how it ended. I hope that by remembering her here, with dignity and respect, she has a legacy she would never have imagined.
This photo from 1910 has been key to my research into prison clothing. In all other images, Bridget is wearing outer garments including a hat. The 1907 and other 1910 pictures are also prison clothing. In this one she is without hat and coat and it clearly shows the loose-fitting prison smock-like blouse and checked neckerchief which are mentioned in prison documents. There is much more information about my prison clothing research in the Criminal Quilts Book.
Additional research including newspaper records by Jan Bray, project volunteer.