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.
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 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.
In between archive visits I have begun working on a sketchbook to gather my thoughts and ideas for the new work I intended to make for the Criminal Quilts exhibitions starting in summer 2018 – which is suddenly really quite soon!
I’ve created a sketchbook for sharing with people when I do talks about the project and during archive workshops starting in January. It is very much a working sketchbook; a gathering of ideas, inspiration, notes, thoughts, colours, textures and details but it is also intended to be shared, used and probably included in exhibitions so I have taken care to make it look really nice!
I’m working in a large format spiral bound sketchbook with brown kraft paper pages which is robust, easy to display, has capacity for expansion and the colour fits with the project. As I discussed in a previous post, I am finding the photo albums themselves very inspiring – the layers of papers, the damaged leather bindings and the marbled endpapers which feel like a little incongruous in their luxurious feel.
I’m also working on colour palettes to bring through the work, much of it inspired by sepia photos, cyanotype prints and my early pieces taking colours from the Shire Hall court buildings themselves and most recently I have been working on ways of creatively interpreting the data which the research is uncovering. My next post will explore the growing data collection in more detail.
The research and development phase of Criminal Quilts is now well underway. I have been spending time in residence at Staffordshire Record Office exploring archives and finding out what resources I have to explore during this project and planning what the workshops for volunteers and participants will involve.
Stafford Prison photograph albums from the late 19th and early 20th century form the basis of the entire project. For several years I have been creating work around a handful of photographs of women with no additional information about them at all. One of the aims of this new funded research project is to explore the full collection of photograph albums and trace stories through the records.
There are 10 different albums dating from 1877 to 1915 which gives me a broad window of exploration beyond the Victorian and well into the 21st century. I have begun by cataloguing the women who appear in the photographs. The albums just contain photos, and in a couple of cases, indexed pages of named but very little detail. Each image is marked with the prisoner’s name, a date (of photograph, I assume) and a number. In this first phase I am making lists of all the women (about 10-15% of the total in each album I estimate) and noting name, date, number, approximate age and a detailed description of the photograph. I’ll then be able to cross reference between the albums to see who features more than once and then find out more about them via the written documents which I have yet to explore.
Already I can see women who appear several times over the years. I have identified prison uniforms and what I suspect is prison-issue clothing. There’s also a very clear timeline of fashion, particularly in hats which almost all of the women are wearing. These photographs are known to be a rare record of working class women’s clothing but I am already realising it is going to be difficult to be sure what is prison issue and what is personal property, particularly in the later images. There are also some really lovely shawls appearing which may well inspired new work.
I have a lot of additional research to do about the background to prison identification photography, about prison uniforms and a lot of cross referencing to fashion history in general before I can draw any conclusions about what their clothing says.
The albums themselves are impressive and inspiring objects with marbled endpapers, damaged spines and hand written text. I’ll be exploring the albums in more detail in the next post.
There are still spaces for volunteers to work with me on this project during 2018. Find out more here.
Criminal Quilts exhibition is available for touring in 2019 onwards.
Images of archive material courtesy of Staffordshire Record Office. Project funded by Arts Council England with Staffordshire County Council.
Jan & her finished pieces. Find out more about Jan & her work here.
This was an interesting project. I’m not a traditional embroiderer and although I started my textile career making historical reproductions, it isn’t the way I work now. These embroideries are inspired by Elizabethan stitches, rather than being replicas. I know plenty about Elizabethan embroidery and already knew the Hardwick textiles so had a good idea what Jan wanted when she first asked me about the commission, but I also knew I couldn’t make a reproduction. Working on a commission like this is a challenge, trying to make my own interpretation of the source material but also work within the brief given me by Jan, as the embroideries formed part of her work, with her name on caption. Luckily Jan and I have similar ideas, although different ways of working, and it helped that we had collaborated before. I enjoyed making these pieces enormously and intend to develop the ideas further in my own work, from the stitches used to the idea of working with lettering.
Note added: Some of the linen fabric I used was kindly donated by Scrapiana and came from her handmade wedding outfit!