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Crown of Thieves

Glasgow Green

Agnes felt light-headed as she stepped across the threshold defining the boundary between the mill and the street. Over and done at last; the sooner forgotten, the better. Eagerly she took in Glasgow’s June breeze, a welcome relief from the stale air in Mr. Green’s bothy. Today even a whiff of coal dust smelled like freedom. Her shabby shift felt comfortable and familiar compared to the coarse factory uniform she had tossed behind her. Relief, however, was fleeting. Her newly found liberty was sweet, yet it quickly left a bitter aftertaste.

Agnes’s hair was a dead giveaway to her status as thief. The thirteen-year-old was marked, and there was little she could do about it. Her closely shorn locks invited suspicious looks from shopkeepers and street vendors alike, who knew all too well what such short hair meant. It would be months before it grew back to a length that allowed her to blend into her surroundings. Even a bonnet was only a temporary disguise. Her workhouse haircut effectively barred her from any honest occupation. Nobody had any interest in listening to an ex-mill girl sing. What’s more, her spot by the Glasgow Green had been taken over by another anonymous young balladeer, and it would take a tussle to get it back. Everything had changed, and nothing had changed.

In 1834, a young girl came of age when her “crowning glory” grew long enough for an up-do, complete with layers and layers of cascading ringlets. So valued was a woman’s hair that the wealthy saved every strand to weave into ornamental bracelets, hair adornments, and watch fobs. Agnes, however, wore the crown of thieves, branded for as long as it took her hair to grow back. The shorter a lass’s locks were, the more recent her gaol time.

During her eighteen months at the mill, Agnes had, in the eyes of society, graduated from ragtag orphan to reprehensible thief. Gone were the days when a concerned mother offered a cup of milk or a kindly shopkeeper tossed a penny her way. Begging was a lost cause for a young adult. She would only be swatted away with an angry “Gae straecht to hell, ye sneak!” Besides, the blind, the crippled, and the infirm staked out the prime street corners for donations from passersby.

In Sketches by Boz, published in 1836, Charles Dickens observes the tragic drama of two London girls the same ages as Agnes and Janet: “These things pass before our eyes, day after day, and hour after hour—they have become such matters of course, that they are utterly disregarded. The progress of these girls in crime will be as rapid as the flight of a pestilence, resembling it too in its baneful influence and wide-spreading infection. Step by step, how many wretched females, within the sphere of every man’s observation, have become involved in a career of vice, frightful to contemplate; hopeless at its commencement, loathsome and repulsive in its course; friendless, forlorn, and un-pitied, at its miserable conclusion!”1

Meandering through the morning’s damp mist in search of Janet, Agnes considered her options—though certainly with a bit more optimism than Dickens, or she might have given up entirely. Fortunately, she’d been blessed with a bit of talent, and her singing brought in a few shillings every now and again. Yet her days as a street performer were dwindling. Though there was nothing cuter than a wean belting out a lively tune from a doorway, she was a betwixt-and-between awkward adolescent, emaciated like everyone else but not nearly as pathetic as young mothers crooning with babes in arms.

Agnes could not return to the mill. She’d rather die in the alley. Nearly fourteen, she was old enough to work as a housemaid or cook, but she needed references to be considered. Moreover, why would anyone risk hiring a convicted criminal with so many others in line for a job? From an economic perspective, it made sense to be a thief. For girls her age, the rewards of theft were higher than those of millwork—and the hours much shorter. Thieving was also preferable to prostitution.

Nineteenth-century British social reformer Mary Carpenter echoed this reality as she lobbied for the education of children like Agnes: “If a helping hand be not extended to raise them . . . these form the perishing classes . . . who unblushingly acknowledge that they can gain more for the support of themselves and their parents by stealing than by working.”2

Agnes understood, and followed, Carpenter’s conclusion. With true-blue friend Janet Houston, she returned to the life she knew best. Her first heist was for newer clothes. Pawnshops and secondhand stores thrived in abundance around the Glasgow Green. Many residents operated cellar shops located underneath their homes. Entered from a flight of steps off the alley, they were the cheapest places to find used shoes and boots. The prize selection for a girl like Agnes was a sturdy pair of low-heeled half boots that tied just above the ankle. Well broken in by several previous owners, the leather was a soft and pliable shabby brown. Cellar shoppers also hunted for thick wool socks, practical and warm albeit thoroughly dingy. Homeless youngsters either bartered for clothing with freshly pilfered booty or purchased it with coins received from stolen merchandise they sold to fences.

For some, the instinct to survive fueled the unseemly practice of literally stealing clothes off the backs of the weak and gullible. According to Henry Mayhew, a journalist of the time: “This is generally done by females, old debauched drunken hags who watch their opportunity to accost children passing in the streets, tidily dressed with good boots and clothes. They entice them away to a low or quiet neighbourhood for the purpose, as they say, of buying them sweets. . . . When they get into a convenient place, they give them a halfpenny or some sweets, and take off the articles of dress, and tell them to remain till they return, when they go away with the booty.”3

Known as “child stripping” and performed by those hardened from decades on the street, this lowly act of desperation bode ill promise for both Agnes’s and Janet’s future. The two youngsters, however, spent little time worrying about what might lay ahead. What they dreaded most about winter—the fear of freezing to death during the night—was on temporary hiatus. Now that Scotland’s warmest season had arrived, the closely knit pair felt as though huge boulders had rolled from their backs. They would only need to pilfer food for the day and not bother about buying a bed for the night.

Agnes hadn’t seen her mother since she’d been in the mill and didn’t feel welcome on Goosedubbs Street anymore. Some summer evenings, the grey-eyed lass and the spirited redhead hunkered down in a familiar doorway inside the East End wynds. Other nights they crawled into a sheltered hideaway along the River Clyde. Hours before industry’s stir-rings shook Glasgow from restless slumber, the clear sweet song of the lark awakened the girls.

Soon after dawn, their idyllic river retreat lost its luster. Once the winds picked up, an inescapable stench arose from the raw sewage and industrial waste being dumped directly into the River Clyde. Pollution killed the fish, whose corpses then lay along the shore, adding to the fetid odor. It was time to move on.

Careful to avoid the stinging bristles of nettle plants that had taken over the muddy river’s edge, Agnes and Janet watched glossy black-birds dive and swoop along the banks. Atlantic winds warmed by the Gulf Stream brought an unusual lightness to the air, and Agnes found a bounce in her step. She felt like singing again. This was going to be the best summer ever.

The fair on the Glasgow Green was a week away. This working-class holiday was a bonnie break from the press of sixteen-hour days on the docks or in the tannery. For street waifs, it was a celebration of unlimited possibilities. Young thieves like Agnes and Janet were known as “sneaks.” Lacking the skill for picking pockets and the tools for clean house breaks, they sneaked about seeking ready targets for theft.

Although a good friend, Janet was not an ideal partner. Her russet tresses stood out like a flashing beacon in a crowd. On July 2, 1834, two days after Agnes’s release, a constable caught Janet carrying off a bolt of blue-and-white fabric from a shop owned by James Fraser on High Street. A judge sent the sassy redhead straight back to Mr. Green’s mill for sixty days. Only half the pair was arrested because the lookout did not get caught. Out of the officer’s direct sight, Agnes must have blended into the crowd and made her getaway. It was Janet’s turn to take the fall. Theirs was a friendship but also a business partnership that helped them through another day. The fair wouldn’t be the same without her trusted confidante. Bad luck and bloody hell. Now she was a gang of one.

On her own for two months, Agnes knew enough street people to get by. The summer of 1834 lumbered on as she drifted through the alleys, counting the days until Janet’s release. She had big news to share. No sooner had Janet been freed from Mr. Green’s than Agnes grabbed her hand and dragged her to the corner of Saltmarket and Greendyke Streets. Ta-da! Englishman William Mumford had opened a theater in a ramshackle shed next to the Glasgow Green.

Listening for the sound of musicians who signaled the lifting of a canvas flap, the laboring class and the homeless gathered around and watched a new form of entertainment in a neighborhood rife with brothels and unlicensed taverns. Sword in hand, Mr. Mumford played the lead in Rob Roy, a play about the romantic Scottish outlaw born in the seventeenth century. As he poured glass after glass of gin down his throat, he lectured his patrons on the evils of drink.4 Mr. Mumford might have been rather surprised to learn that his primitive theater would become Scotland’s most famous penny geggy, a Scottish term for “show.”

Boxing matches, cockfights, fortune-tellers, jugglers, and players of the “mouth organ” (harmonica) brought a kaleidoscope of entertainment to Glasgow’s teeming East End. These spontaneous, frequently ribald, and sometimes bizarre performances diverted attention from the daily real-life dramas of the weary and abandoned playing throughout the tenement slums.

Agnes turned fourteen during the second week in September, when the deep purple heather burst into full bloom. Her hair had grown long enough to be less conspicuous as she roamed the wynds around the Green. Janet had completed her sentence just in time for Agnes’s birthday and the lingering remnants of summer warmth.

The days were soon shorter as autumn approached and October’s heavy rains returned. By November, the sun all but disappeared. The first snowflakes fell in December and posted a stark reminder of the holiday celebration that had gone so terribly, terribly wrong nearly two years ago, when Agnes was involved with the gang of burglars. This year, Agnes and her blue-eyed chum managed to sing holiday songs and pilfer their way through the season without getting caught.

On December 31, Glasgow came alive in holiday celebration. Agnes and Janet brought 1834 to a close as they bellowed out a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne,” written by national poet and favorite son Robert Burns. Church bells across the city chimed at the stroke of midnight. This was Hogmanay night, Scotland’s most important holiday, elevated in importance because of a long-standing ban on Christmas. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Presbyterian Church forbade Christmas celebrations, fearing pagan origins among its traditions.

Hogmanay traditions, practiced continually since the 1600s, marked the season of rebirth as days became longer and nights shorter. Scots cleaned their homes thoroughly, paid off their debts, and burned juniper branches to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. Inside Glasgow’s west-side mansions, holiday merrymakers feasted on whiskey and steak pie. This was followed by traditional black buns, a type of fruitcake filled with raisins and currants, covered with pastry. If Agnes and Janet were quick enough on their feet, they’d lift a bun or two from a delivery basket left unattended. After all, Hogmanay was a high holiday for thieves. An abundance of revelers carried bottles of whiskey from door to door, and as midnight approached, inebriated celebrants provided easy picking for their watches and their money.

The upper crust exchanged gifts on Hogmanay and practiced a custom called “first-footing.” Depending on who it was, the first guest to enter a home after midnight brought either good or bad fortune for the new year. Visitors delivered coins and packages of coal, signaling the wish for security and warmth. According to folklore, the preferred first guest was a tall, dark, handsome man, because he was more likely a “true” Scotsman than someone fair-haired, perhaps descended from Viking invaders who terrorized Scotland for three hundred years. A redheaded first-footer was considered bad luck, a redheaded woman the worst of all.

Janet’s bright hair caused her own bad luck, as she stood out in Glasgow’s wynds. She was arrested again for petty theft on February 16, 1835. While Janet plodded through another mill sentence, Agnes took Helen Fulton, a kimmer (young girl) from the Goosedubbs neighborhood, under her wing.

Then, shortly after Janet’s return, Agnes was arrested for petty theft. On April 14, 1835, the comely fourteen-year-old was sentenced to another sixty days in Mr. Green’s mill. The grey-eyed lass fingered the locks that would be mercilessly shorn. Her hair had just started to grow out, and now she was back in chains. Back to the bothy again, bloody bad luck.

Agnes took her place in the cart with the other prisoners. The wagon creaked forward as the workhorse headed down the familiar path toward the mill. Yellow marsh marigolds and white hawthorn buds marked Agnes’s trail of frustration.

Frolic o’ the Fair

Agnes spent the spring in the mill, but was happily released from picking wool before temperatures reached 120 degrees inside the building. Through a stroke of good luck, the fourteen-year-old stepped out of the factory in time for the 1835 Glasgow Fair. It was the one holiday she could happily celebrate without a home. Established by William the Lion in 1190, the fair opened on the second Monday in July and lasted a full week. Everyone in Glasgow was in a better mood, even the shifty-eyed fences who turned stolen goods into a few coins. A halfpenny admission transported the youngsters through a rainbow of fluttering flags. “The air resounded to the strains of bagpipes, trumpets, trombones, cymbals, bass drums, and touters’ horns. Sideshow touters, dressed in threadbare stage clothes of many and soiled colours, were doing their shouting and cavorting best to attract people with pennies in their pockets.”5

Like all adolescents, Agnes and Janet primped a bit for special occasions, though their clothing was never laundered and was worn until it fell apart. As temperatures rose to a comfortable sixty-five degrees, Agnes and Janet joined the many poor who washed their faces, arms, and feet in the River Clyde, cleansed a bit by runoff from the highland snows. Bathing from head to toe was a rarity for every class, not just the homeless.

With their new friend, Helen Fulton, in tow, the girls linked arms and headed straight to the Glasgow Green, just steps from where Agnes had been born. Early summer harvests brought a temporary freshness to the city’s dingy wynds. Flower hawkers brightened the morning fog, their wagons bursting through the muddy lanes. The sun peeked playfully in and out through the dispersing afternoon clouds as the Gulf Stream warmed the Atlantic winds.

Coal-dust-covered streets surrendered to dazzling yellow and red banners hung across the fairgrounds. “Tumblers performed miraculous feats of gymnastics, bears danced, jugglers juggled and clowns wandered about with fixed smiles painted on tired faces, among pressing crowds of eager urchins, grown-ups and the young men and women-about [sic] town.”6 Before the annual celebration began, the wealthy left town and headed “doun the watter” to summer resorts along the Clyde, deftly avoiding this lower-class festival.

Agnes, Janet, and Helen had been around long enough to know how to sneak into one of the tented shows or beg coins from the older gents leisurely smoking clay pipes. A crowd of thousands from both the city and the countryside pushed and shoved to gain a closer look at conjurers, Punch and Judy puppets, sword swallowers, and fire eaters. The boisterous festivities offered prime pickings for thieves and pickpockets, with hundreds of stalls to be stalked, watches to be stolen, and handkerchiefs to be snatched.

For a ballad singer of any age, it was peak musical season. Agnes had been born with the talent and desire to perform, and her singing often kept her out of trouble. Listening to the competition, she’d be able to pick up a few new songs and expand her repertoire. At the festival, she could get away with wearing a floppy felt hat that covered her convict hair. Laborers came to the fair ready to spend a bit on entertainment and cheerfully pressed a coin into the hand of a pretty grey-eyed girl who belted out favorite tunes like “Rob Roy,” “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” “Glasgow Peggie,” and “My ’Art’s in the ’ighlands.” There was also a popular ballad about the fair:

Glasgow fair on the banks of the Clyde, 

That pure winding stream of the City, 

Where all sorts of fun doth preside. 

Which help to arouse up my ditty; 

Large Booths are arrang’d to the eye. 

There’s Horsemanship, Theatres, and Tumbling; 

With all sorts of games to rely. 

Where losers are always a Grumbling.7

A ten-year-old boy whose family owned a grocery store next to the fairgrounds described what he saw in a book he later published: “the Savages from Africa, the Armless Lady from Newfoundland who could sew and cut watch-papers using her toes, the Fire-Proof Lady who pranced about on a hot iron, the Hercules who could bear tons of weight on his body and toss immense weights around like balls of wool, the Smallest Married Man in the World and sundry pairings of giants and dwarves.”8

All was not as exotic as it appeared. The street-savvy Goosedubbs girls soon figured out that the native African tribesmen were actually Irish laborers paid to dance in rabbit skins and feathers, but it didn’t matter. Children of the street grew comfortable with illusions that allowed them to view the world through rose-colored glasses every now and again. During this week of fantasy, they collected enough tall tales and adventures to last through the wintry weather, when laughter alone soothed the chill in their bones and the pangs in their stomachs.

Agnes, Janet, and Helen each managed to avoid arrest through the remainder of the year and into the winter, but it was getting harder and harder to get by in Glasgow. Agnes’s voice was beginning to change, too, and she hadn’t quite figured out how to stay in tune. She and her two mates decided on a fresh start. Shortly after Hogmanay, the trio would head south toward Kilmarnock.

The Castles of Kilmarnock

Before sunrise on Monday, January 25, 1836, Agnes cinched her boots tight, tucked the laces inside her droopy socks, and walked purposefully through the neighborhood where she was born. The days were short and the sun set early, but today it wasn’t snowing or spitting sleet, and it was high time she got out of town. She had become too well known on these sinful streets, more for her nimble fingers than her lilting ballads. With each passing hour, her means for survival were diminishing.

As a wean, Agnes remembered her mother reminiscing about a charming little village called Kilmarnock, where her cousins lived. She couldn’t recall their names or addresses, but the promise of finding family members gave her the kick she needed to start walking south. Trudging down Goosedubbs Street for what would be the last time, she touched the few pennies and the stale bread she had squirreled away in a handkerchief and fixed her gaze on the low hills that circled the River Clyde.

Kilmarnock lies about twenty-two miles southwest of Glasgow. If she kept up a brisk pace, Agnes could make it in a day. It was much too dangerous for a lass so young to walk the sparsely populated glens and moors alone. Fortunately, Janet and Helen had eagerly agreed to make the journey. The motley troupe looked forward to a great adventure and made haste past the gritty tenement slums in the Gorbals village, home to Irish immigrants and Glasgow’s growing Jewish population.

The ragged damsels hugged the south banks of the River Clyde and followed Pollokshaws Road toward Kilmarnock Road. Out of the city proper, one hour and three miles later, the view turned magical. Barely visible under grey camouflaging shingles, a pointed turret poked through the morning mist, heralding the first castle along their route. It was Haggs Castle, the fortress named for the bogs, or “haggs,” on which it was built in 1585. Upon closer inspection, the castle, one of Scotland’s oldest secular buildings, didn’t look as grand as it had appeared from a distance. Nearly deserted since 1752, the fortress’s rubble walls, once five feet thick, had fallen to ruin. Elaborate carvings around the doors and windows, uniquely squared gun loops, and round shot holes for explosives belied its current use. Agnes saw a castle occupied once again and converted to a blacksmith’s shop that serviced a nearby coal pit.

Ancient remnants of history lay prostrate across the Scottish hillsides, where feudal lords had built fortunes by subjugating peasants. For generation after generation, the poor worked the land they could not own. Never far from reminders of Scotland’s past, Agnes understood her dictated fate. No matter where she lived or what she did, the rich reminded her of opportunities that lay completely beyond her reach. There were the lords; there were the lowly. Scottish society had never allowed for social mobility. For Scotland’s bottom rung, the promising economic freedom of the Industrial Revolution offered few differences from the old feudal system. Throughout the centuries since Scotland’s founding, little had changed for its poor.

Over the farm-studded hills into miles and miles of wide-open country, the girl from Goosedubbs walked the fields where peasants had long toiled. But out here, Agnes was no peon repressed by a greedy baron. Step by step, she made her way across the timeless landscape, experiencing what it meant to feel free, if only for a day.

A toll road constructed in 1820 eased travel in and out of Glasgow and was built according to the broken-stone “macadam” method developed by Scotsman John Loudon McAdam. Perhaps Agnes and her ragtag team hitched a ride on the back of a farmer’s cart or with a benevolent mail-coach driver. Though advantageous to wagon wheels, the crushed rocks were not so kind to tired feet and skinny ankles.

Seven miles into the journey, it was time for a rest. Crossing into Newton Mearns, Agnes spotted a “halfway house,” as roadside taverns were called. Here horses were fed and watered or changed if the travel was long, creating an ideal spot to catch a ride. Vagabonds, locals, and travelers stopped for a smoke and a drink. In the city, women were generally not seen in saloons, but in the country, all paying customers were welcome. A few pennies would buy Agnes, Janet, and Helen a steaming bowl of soup and a soft piece of bread. Weary foot travelers, they huddled near the warm fire, removed their boots, and rubbed the bottoms of their feet. The three lasses dared not dawdle because nightfall approached by half past four and they had fourteen miles yet to go.

Over the braes and past sheep that grazed the gentle grasslands, the city girls arrived in real farm country. Unlike drab January in Glasgow, this landscape was bursting with winter wildlife. Geese, ducks, black-bird-sized woodpeckers, and bright blue-and-orange kingfishers kept the wooded lochs alive with activity. Giant whooper swans migrating from Iceland were everywhere. Their silly honking, echoing through the hollows, would have cracked a grin on the face of even the gloomiest adolescent.

As the city disappeared, it was like walking through a looking glass and emerging into an enchanted countryside of glistening lakes, streams gurgling pristine water, and cozy thatched-roof cottages. The determined damsels tramped down the track toward Kilmarnock, lapsing into silence. The only sound was from the footfalls of their rough-worn boots. The lonely road dragged on and on. Four hours of majestic beauty had become tedious and exhausting.

Five miles outside Kilmarnock, Agnes, Janet, and Helen happened upon another inviting halfway house, its pristine whitewashed stucco and shiny black shutters unlike anything they’d seen in Glasgow. Amid the merriment inside of gin drinkers and tobacco puffers, the girls made a beeline for the coal-burning stove. Toasting her feet before the fire, Agnes rubbed her aching toes. Janet, knowing that daylight was in short supply, soon pulled her younger charges onto their feet and back into the January cold. Lengthening shadows signaled the final leg of their trek. The sun’s quick descent had begun to dull the soft green palette cast across rolling farmland.

In the thick of gnarled sycamores tinged pink, turrets rose from the horizon. This late in the day, nearly twenty miles on the road, Agnes, Janet, and Helen probably didn’t care much about abandoned castles, but the Rowallan estate commanded attention from the most road-weary traveler. Located in a sheltered hollow, it is “environed with trees, many of which have braved the blast for centuries, and still wave their branches as majestically as they did in days of yore, when knights and ladies gay walked beneath their shadows.”9

Rowallan was, in fact, the birthplace of scandalous Scottish royalty. Countess Elizabeth Mure was born on its marshy grounds in 1315. Longtime mistress to Robert II, High Steward of Scotland, she married him after giving birth to nine children. Because they had violated forbidden degrees of kinship, approval to marry required a papal dispensation. Had she not died before Robert ascended the throne, Elizabeth would have been crowned Scotland’s queen.

The three untamed princesses carried less regal concerns. As shadows fell, questions arose. Where would they sleep this night? Would they be able to locate Agnes’s cousins? Could they prosper as thieves in a new town?

One mile from Kilmarnock, the girls turned onto Glasgow Road and walked straight toward Dean Castle, built by Lord Boyd in 1457 and situated in a wooded glen, or “dean,” for which the palace was named. Two square towers, unequal in height, loomed over the enclosed courtyards and three-story palace. Barren orchards, weedy gardens, and overgrown rhododendron bushes blanketed the deserted estate.

Nineteenth-century Kilmarnock historian Archibald M’Kay offers this view of the castle: “Though grey and rent with years, it looks as if conscious of its strength, and as if frowning defiance down the valley that stretches before it. From the same eminences we have a glimpse of the town, with its towers and spires, which give it an air of importance; and the eye, ranging still farther, rests delighted on the beautiful green hills of Craigie.”10 A fairy-tale panorama welcomed three hungry, grumbling lasses. Kilmarnock’s grand entrance was nothing like Glasgow’s.

The Best-Laid Plans

The turn toward Kilmarnock revealed handsome villas adorned by wooded grounds and well-groomed shrubbery. Spires from eight churches poked their silhouettes through the waning afternoon light. Situated in a valley through which the rivers Kilmarnock and Irvine flow, the village was just two miles long and a half mile wide. It would be easy to find the heart of what the girls hoped was their new home. Glasgow Road merged with Wellington, then Portland, bringing the girls directly to the town’s center. Seven streets branched off Kilmarnock’s spacious and open town square, known as the Cross. Chimes rang from the Laigh Kirk (low church) tower clock that anchored the commercial center.

Agnes, Janet, and Helen had been on the road for more than ten hours. By chance they arrived in Kilmarnock on Robert Burns’s birthday, a celebration that had become a national holiday. Born two miles south of Kilmarnock on January 25, 1759, Scotland’s favorite bard had frequented the Cross on market days. Like Agnes, Burns had been born to the labor class, but he was fortunate to have lived in the country and received an education. A schoolmaster who visited farms in return for room and board taught Burns to read and write and introduced him to Shakespeare.

In July 1786, Burns, the impoverished farmer who wrote in his free time, shuffled into John Wilson’s print shop in Kilmarnock. After negotiating a good price for six hundred copies of Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, Burns published his first edition. The village had offered a struggling writer the break he needed. Perhaps Agnes would find good luck here as well.

On this holiday night, traditional Burns suppers all across Scotland featured haggis, “tatties” (potatoes), and “neeps” (turnips), each course garnished with humorous toasts to the poet. A dessert course of sherry trifle or Caledonian cream was washed down with uisge beatha, Gaelic for “water of life,” or whiskey. After dinner, inebriated men in kilts roamed the alleyways and belted out Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne.” The Glasgow girls must have felt right at home and thought: Lord, we’ve gone to heaven. The town is crawling with rich drunks making for easy targets.

More pressing matters, however, consumed their attention. Sleeping in alleyways was not so easy in a small town. The charming red stone buildings on King Street, the main thoroughfare, offered no alcoves or doorways where they wouldn’t be noticed. On the lookout for a neighborhood not so posh, the girls followed King Street to a somewhat shabby lane called Croft. A sign outside Mr. Cairns’s lodging-house advertised rooms for rent.11 For a good night’s rest, it was worth spending the few coins they had left.

Shortly after daybreak on Tuesday, January 26, Agnes hauled herself out of bed and set out to find her cousins. The trio needed to survey Kilmarnock and figure out if they could afford to stay, ideally with Agnes’s relatives. The girls began by exploring the confusing maze of streets and intersections. Winemakers, hairdressers, coffee rooms, and candy shops lined its elegant center, casting an air of refinement. 12

Agnes’s mother, Mary, must have loved living here as a young girl. How different Agnes’s story could have been had Mary wed a chap from Kilmarnock. Most residents enjoyed a prosperous, peaceful life. Bankers sported double-breasted wool suits and white shirts with starched high collars. Ladies strolled the freshly swept shopping district, casting demure glances from under bonnets tied with lavish loops of satin ribbon.

In startling contrast, three city girls with unruly hair and dirty frocks clomped heavy-footed over the cobblestones. The harsh sound of Glasgow street dialect screamed trouble times three and drew vigilant, if discreet, stares. Agnes, Janet, and Helen were probably unaware of how out of place they appeared. Every newcomer to Kilmarnock was noticed.

While Agnes searched for her cousins, whom no one seemed to know, she discovered rows and rows of shops fully stocked and brimming over with capes, calico, and richly toned plaid woolens. Hatters and hosiers advertised their specialties on neatly painted signs wrapped across the front of each building. The town was filled with beautiful things. More than thirty bootmakers and shoemakers displayed hand-stitched footwear, much of it for export but with samples available for retail sale. 13

The twenty-two-mile trek seemed worth it. This fashion paradise was enough to make a little thief ’s head spin. Where to begin? What to choose? Tuesday was market day, and the Cross bustled with vendors and shoppers. It was an opportunity that seemed too good to be true.

Among the well-dressed shoppers, the girls noticed someone who looked familiar. His belongings were tied in a red napkin, a style that was typical for a vagabond. Agnes recognized him to be Daniel Campbell, an acquaintance from the back streets of Glasgow.14 Daniel boasted about his fencing connections in Kilmarnock, professing to know who would pay quick cash for stolen merchandise without asking questions. He convinced the three that he was exactly the fence they needed, a trusted accomplice who would generate a stack of shillings to pay the boardinghouse, buy food, and purchase finery from the shops. Everything was falling into place.

Each member of the quartet signed on for a specific role. The dance of the robbers was about to begin, a well-choreographed ballet that depended on a flawless performance by every member of the ensemble. One misstep, the curtain dropped, and the matinee turned to melodrama.

Agnes, Janet, and Helen had already targeted several merchants for the sting. The first hit was a clothing shop run by Hugh Young. The girls memorized their parts. In the lead role, one girl walked in with a group of customers. The supporting cast assumed a post on the opposite side of the street, poised to whistle at the first sight of a constable. A second lookout positioned herself just outside the shop’s entrance. Her job was to trip the shopkeeper should he spot the thief and attempt her capture.15

Once inside the busy store, a member of the Glasgow gang slipped two men’s cotton shirts off their hangers, opened a drawer to remove two women’s cotton shifts, and on the way out lifted a cloak from the counter. 16 Mission accomplished. It had been fast and easy. They handed over the goods to Daniel Campbell so that he would have their cash by nightfall.

Next stop was a visit to 63 King Street and tailor John Granger, where the gang lifted twenty-four “braces,” the elastic garters worn by both men and women to hold up stockings. Just three buildings away at 57 King, Janet Rankin ran a lovely hosiery boutique filled with stockings for day and evening wear. Her merchandise was especially inviting now that the girls had braces to hold them in place. The moment Mrs. Rankin turned her back, the thief stuffed stockings in her pockets, seven pairs in all.

A quick trip to the boardinghouse gave the Glasgow girls a place to stash their latest plunder. Before heading back to King Street, Agnes couldn’t help herself and succumbed to temptation. She tore off her smelly socks and pulled on a pair of the sinfully soft wool stockings. In her hurried excitement, she forgot to remove Janet Rankin’s hosiery label.

It was now four o’clock and time for one final stunt before the shops closed for the day. The seller of sundries looked particularly inviting, with draped fabric displays and trimmings of ribbon and lace. Now it was Agnes’s turn to shoplift. It was also her misfortune to get caught exiting the shop with stolen beads pressed into her palm.17

It didn’t take long before the full ensemble, the trio plus one, was hauled down to the police station, where the officer immediately focused on Agnes’s new hosiery. The clean stockings looked unusually bright in contrast to her shift’s fraying hem. Upon questioning, Agnes told the officer they were a gift from her sister. Her lie was naïvely transparent. When she was ordered to remove the stockings, damning evidence immediately identified them as stolen. The Rankin’s tag was still attached. 18

Kilmarnock’s low crime rate had skyrocketed overnight, the charm of the village interrupted by the rustle of rogues from the north. Agnes, Janet, and Helen had blown into town like a gale-force wind, joining forces with the hapless Daniel Campbell. With the troublemakers arrested, calm returned to the township.

The book Robert Burns published in Kilmarnock included the poem “To a Mouse” and the line, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” This translates to “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” prophetic words for fifteen-year-old Agnes McMillan, arrested just a block from where Burns’s poem was published. Errors of desperation had lowered the curtain on the daring troupe. Their case would be tried on the first of the month in Ayr, the county’s capital at the time.

The four scoundrels spent the next five days in the dusty little holding cells underneath Kilmarnock’s council chambers. Built on the arch of a bridge, the government offices also housed a few lockup cells in “the most objectionable parts of the building, being low-roofed, almost without light or air.”19 At sunrise on February 1, 1836, the youngsters crept from the cramped holding cell, heads bent down like trolls emerging from a subterranean dwelling. Chained together at the wrists, the band was put in the back of a wagon for the thirteen-mile ride to Ayr.

The prisoner cart crossed the arched Auld Brig over the River Ayr, built in the fifteenth century and immortalized in Burns’s poem “The Brigs of Ayr.” Only wide enough for one vehicle to pass at a time, the stone bridge had been financed by two maiden sisters whose fiancés drowned when they attempted to ford the brackish water.20

Auld Brig converged with Weavers Street, where the cart of captives turned down the capital’s Main Street. Ayr’s town hall, erected eight years earlier, stood under “perhaps the finest spire in Scotland,” rising two hundred twenty-five feet toward a cloudless sky.21 A short ride from Newmarket Street to Sandgate brought Agnes and friends to the Wellington Square courthouse, where their tomorrows would soon be decided. The rhythm of the horses’ hooves began to slow as the driver pulled on the reins and townspeople peered at the young prisoners in chains. Because of its coastal location along the Firth of Clyde, rarely is Ayr covered in fog. The view was crystal clear from the sprawling fenced lawn. A huge courthouse with eleven bays and a “scowling fourcolumned Ionic portico” housed the heavy hammer of British law.22

As the gaol wagon rolled away, Agnes, Janet, Helen, and Daniel bore the gravity of an impending county court trial. They scuffled against the marble floor in small steps, the sound of their leg irons echoing off two semicircular staircases that rose off the entrance hall. Large stained-glass windows, casting bands of red and blue from the county’s coat of arms, lit each stairwell. Flashes of colored light ran across the deeply shaded fumed oak that decorated the entrance.23

Intimidating in both its beauty and its function, the Sheriff Court was adorned with highly polished Borneo cedar. The shining waxed mahogany benches reflected the dark silhouettes of the Glasgow hooligans, who would be tried as a group before Sheriff Substitute of Ayrshire William Eaton. John Archibald Murray, Esquire, Advocate for His Majesty’s Interest, read the prisoners’ statements before the court. He droned on in the bored monotone expected from a civil servant, his words reverberating off the walls and perishing quickly. Nobody cared what he had to say, save the four prisoners at the bar.

Agnes dictated her statement because she could neither read nor write. In her arrest report, she admitted to having met Daniel Campbell in Kilmarnock. She pretended not to know Janet and Helen in a desperate attempt to protect her friends, but the die was already cast. Sheriff Eaton announced his judgment for “crimes of an heinous nature and severely punishable.” Barely looking up, he declared that Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, and Helen Fulton did “wickedly and feloniously steal and theftuously take away” from Kilmarnock merchants two men’s cotton shirts, two women’s cotton shifts, twenty-four braces, a cloak, and seven pairs of woolen stockings. Furthermore, he declared that Daniel Campbell had “wickedly and feloniously” and knowingly received the stolen goods.24

The four were scheduled for sentencing on May 3, 1836, before the Circuit Court of Judiciary. They would spend the next three months locked inside the Ayr County Gaol, an overcrowded holding area that adjoined the rear of the court. With a backlog of cases, it was a long wait for everyone.

Deep inside the cavernous passages, Agnes had ninety long days to contemplate her past and her future. The present looked very black. Agnes would not have known that a Quaker social reformer named Elizabeth Gurney Fry had labored fervently since 1816 to spearhead prison reform for the burgeoning population flooding into gaols. William Crawford, a Quaker who traveled in the same circles as Mrs. Fry, was, in 1835, appointed one of the first inspectors general of prisons for Great Britain. His words had explained Agnes’s situation: “It is very easy . . . to blame these poor children, and to ascribe their misconduct to an innate propensity to vice; but I much question whether any human being, circumstanced as many of them are, can reasonably be expected to act otherwise.”25 Crawford was ahead of his time, yet too late to make a difference for Agnes. Rather than condemning her, he understood that parental neglect, lack of education, poverty, and just plain hunger propelled too many children into a life of crime.

When Elizabeth Fry and her brother Joseph John Gurney inspected prisons in Scotland, they witnessed the practice of housing the mentally ill, violent felons, and petty thieves together. In overcrowded gaols, they were packed into unheated cells, furnished with only a handful of straw and a single tub for every purpose. As was her custom, Elizabeth knelt down on the straw to pray with the incarcerated and encourage them to turn from crime to wage-paying work. During a visit to Glasgow, one prisoner, in particular, conveyed the raw hopelessness that led to thievery and the regret that lingered still. In her journal, Fry describes the “old woman, with the appearance of a menial servant and hardened features, [who] said, ‘No! no use work!’ But these rugged lines were at length relaxed, and I saw a tear fall over the brown visage.”26 She had worked her whole life, and here she was in gaol.

Age mattered hardly at all when it came to being poor. Realities and regrets were embedded in nearly every decision it took to survive. At fifteen, barely a woman, Agnes appeared to have reached the same conclusion. She’d seen what the mills had done to her mother—“no use work.” Little did she know that in a London gaol four hundred miles away, the well-heeled and well-known Mrs. Fry had already woven herself into Agnes’s destiny. The worst thing that had ever happened to the worried youngster was going to open up opportunities she’d never thought possible.

Four Hundred Miles

On Tuesday, May 3, 1836, true-blue mates Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston were refitted with irons and yanked out of their cells to appear before the Ayr Court of Judiciary. Helen Fulton and Daniel Campbell appeared as well. Records from the Glasgow Police Court were called into evidence, listing Agnes’s prior arrests for housebreaking at age twelve in December 1832 and for theft in April 1835. The record included Janet’s arrest for “a conviction of the crime of theft” on July 2, 1834, and the following February.27

Lord Justice General Charles Hope, head of Scotland’s highest court, read aloud the report that deemed Agnes “habite and repute a thief,” guilty of “crimes of an heinous nature and severely punishable.”28 It took all of five minutes. There were too many poor to be sentenced to spend much time pondering the merits of justice for one grey-eyed girl. From under his dusty wig, he sentenced the fifteen-year-old petty thief to seven years’ transportation to “parts beyond the seas.” Janet fared no better and in short order was condemned to the same punishment. Because the Kilmarnock heist was Helen’s first offense, she was sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment. Daniel, like Agnes and Janet, received seven years’ transport, but he managed an escape and turned outlaw and fugitive.29

Wrestling away fear, wrists and ankles in chains, Agnes shuffled back to her holding cell to await she knew not what. While the young women were summarily dismissed, they were also meticulously numbered and documented for the authorities in Van Diemen’s Land. As dawn broke on May 4, 1836, Agnes was rousted from her cell, where she and Janet lay in restless sleep on the clay floor. Gaol keeper John Kennedy attached black iron manacles across Agnes’s wrists.30 He chained her legs to Janet’s and led the two girls to the front of the courthouse, where a commercial coach was waiting. Shoulder to shoulder, attached at their ankles, the duo was careful not to act too chummy. After everything they’d been through, these stoic soul sisters from Glasgow’s streets dared not risk separation.

Their destination was Newgate Prison, where they awaited shipment to Britain’s most distant colony. Men were marched in chain gangs, while convict women were transported on the outside of commercial stagecoaches. Getting up on the carriage required the agility of an acrobat for the two wrongdoers handcuffed at the wrists and chained at the ankles. With a hearty boost from gaoler Kennedy, Agnes and Janet were secured to the coach and plunked onto the wooden plank serving as a seat. The sooner such riffraff was removed from his jurisdiction, the better. As was typical for the times, a crowd of onlookers gathered for the send-off and watched with disgust and amusement as the two lasses tried to keep their skirts from flying above their knees. Small fingers poked through the manacles as the driver picked up his whip and prepared for departure.

Drawn by four horses, the stagecoach was cheerfully painted, belying the unpleasant bumping, bruising ride ahead. Travel by coach frequently included getting stuck in the mud or losing a wheel and crashing off the road. The carriage held up to eight passengers on the top and six inside. A guard armed with blunderbuss, pistols, and cutlass was perched next to the coachman. Dressed in signature scarlet livery, he watched the prisoners, protected the carriage from highway robbery, and secured the mailbags.

The coach company received a small stipend from the Crown for prisoner transport. Now that their cargo was secured, it was time to pick up the paying passengers booked for Preston, Birmingham, or London. The driver snapped his whip, and the carriage jolted forward, knocking Agnes and Janet against the iron rail.

Stagecoach travelers were bundled up in bonnets, scarves, and shawls and carried baskets of provisions on board. Like the upstairs-downstairs hierarchy inside fine homes, paying customers pretended not to see their traveling companions. For the duration of the four-hundred-mile, four-day trip to London, insiders were held captive themselves, sharing company with smelly, drunk, or overly talkative passengers.

The stagecoach traveled at a speed of seven or eight miles an hour. In May, it crossed the moors at their greenest, with the bluebells in full color. Every twenty miles or so, the driver made comfort stops, primarily for the horses’ benefit. Coaching inns were open twenty-four hours a day and provided stables where the horses were groomed, fed, and changed when necessary.

Sounding his bugle, the driver alerted the innkeeper to their approach. Passengers could buy a rushed meal consisting of “scalding soup-stained warm water . . . underdone boiled leg of mutton, . . . potatoes hot without and hard within.”31 Unscrupulous innkeepers delayed serving meals until just before the carriage was scheduled for departure. Travelers barely had time to inhale a few mouthfuls. As they hurried out of the inn, the food was scraped from their plates and served to the next customer. Businesses stole from customers, and customers stole from businesses. Nearly everyone pursued a criminal pursuit of one sort or another. It was merely a question of who got caught.

The stagecoach driver scheduled a stop for the night before darkness fell. In early May, that meant close to nine o’clock. Most prisoners were ill-equipped for evening temperatures that plummeted close to freezing. “Sometimes they had insufficient clothing to even properly cover themselves and it was not unknown for women to arrive frost-bitten and suffering from other physical disabilities brought on by the ravages of exposure and hypothermia.”32

For a convict lass, the ease or difficulty of her transport depended on the weather and the driver’s disposition. Some of the prisoners had families who gave them a cloak and a hat for warmth. Most, like Agnes, wore one thin layer of clothing. If the coachman felt kindly, he might have offered Agnes and Janet a spare blanket on the road. If generous, he might have shared a piece or two of bread and sips of warming brandy. If not, his charges went cold and hungry for four or five days. After three years on the streets, the girl with the glint in her eyes had learned how to draw on the sympathies of those who might help her. It was one additional survival tool in her growing reserve.

Years earlier, Elizabeth Fry, whom the Glasgow pair would soon meet in London, followed a similar route during her inspection of Scotland’s prisons. Although she traveled by private coach, her diary recorded an arduous journey, traversing bogs and streams in weather similarly damp and chilly. Fry’s nights were spent inside the warm homes of fellow Quakers, while for three nights in May, Agnes and Janet slept in stables with the horses. It was, however, a step up from their typical alleyway dwelling, and it would be their best housing for some time to come.

When she awakened from her bed of stable straw on Saturday, May 7, 1836, Agnes had already traveled more than three hundred miles. Tethered to Janet, she sloshed through the mud in her crinkled and droopy brown boots, her skinny ankles raw from the irons. The driver hoisted the youngsters back atop the stagecoach and reattached the shackles that tethered them to the seats. Over the past few days Agnes had figured out how to brace herself, pulling her knees tight against the seat and balancing against the carriage’s unpredictable drop and sway.

As evening drew near, the petite Scot watched her dreaded destination come slowly into view. Built on London’s highest point, the blackened dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral rose 365 feet in the air and dominated the skyline. To the west of the cathedral lurked the grim façade of Newgate Prison, known to Londoners as “the Stone Jug.”33 The granite vault for the poor sat across from St. Sepulchre, the church whose bells tolled on execution days.

The two friends linked by heavy chains and iron loyalty had never traveled more than twenty-five miles from home, so London must have seemed like the end of the world. The city proper grew ever more congested. Children taunted the girls and threw stones at the coach. Janet’s bright red hair made for a fine target. This was not the performance Agnes had imagined in her dreams of singing on a London stage.

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