The Widow and the Barrister
Clickety-click, clickety-click. A slight matron, just over five feet tall, scurried across the cobblestone lane in the well-groomed residential neighborhood known as Bloomsbury.
On the first day of December 1838, Ludlow Tedder’s pursed lips bore her trademark press of determination. As London’s morning sun filtered through the “pea soup” fog, her wooden heels echoed off the tiny lane she now called home. The woman with hazel eyes and dark brown hair quickened her steps down Keppel Street and lifted her skirt, trying to avoid the gooey sludge splashing over her boots whenever a carriage passed. One hundred tons of horse manure dropped in the streets each day, and Mrs. Tedder didn’t want to clean one more thing.1 It was but nine o’clock in the morning, and she’d already scrubbed floors, cleaned grates, and polished furniture. The widow worked as a servant in the city’s chic center, where middle-class professionals lived in terraced Georgian town houses adorned with lacy grillwork.
Hours before sunup, the forty-five-year-old had swept soot from the front steps, lit the fireplaces, and prepared the daily soup for Fitzowen Skinner and his wife, Laura. At five thirty in the morning, the mother of four shook her nineteen-year-old awake from dreams of silk dresses and handsome suitors, pulling her sleepy frame upright onto the damp basement floor. Eliza, her adopted daughter from her husband’s unmarried sister, had been hired as a maid-of-all-work in the Skinner residence. Ludlow’s youngest, eight-year-old Arabella, could sleep a bit longer. It was best for her not to be underfoot with so much to be done. Besides, talking was not allowed below stairs, and sometimes Arabella needed reminding that they were to speak only in their “under voices.”
Already Arabella had been taught her place. There was no laughing permitted for those who lived belowground in the servants’ quarters. She and her mother shared a straw-stuffed mattress in the scullery adjoining the kitchen. Eliza slept on a quilt atop a wooden pallet, where mildew was a chronic problem. It invaded the tiny room in a constant assault on Ludlow’s bedding, on her hairbrush, and on the cotton apron tied around her waist. Yesterday’s grease clung to the stone walls like a sticky veneer. A single tallow candle shed a band of light, illuminating the relentless patrol of black beetles and cockroaches crawling over the walls and across the kitchen floor. Smoky coal fumes crept down the narrow stairs from the dining room, where Ludlow lit the first fire of the day.
The essence of Ludlow’s station was captured in the words of Eliza Lynn Linton, who also lived in nineteenth-century London and was among the first women to earn a living as a journalist: “When harshly spoken to she must have only the soft answers which are said to turn away wrath. When fretted, nervous, ill, in trouble, she must wear the same smooth manner, the same placid face. . . . She must abandon every personal affection and the outward show of all personal desires when she enters this cold stranger’s house.”2
The moment Ludlow accepted the position in the thirty-year-old barrister’s household, she surrendered her private life. The no-nonsense widow had grown accustomed to the strict demarcation drawn between employer and maid. Practical and clever, she quickly honed the skills required for the part of obedient servant, exhibiting just the right calibration of deference and devotion. Careful not to wake the master and mistress, mother and daughter plunged into their sixteen-hour day. As senior housekeeper, Ludlow was also Eliza’s supervisor and didn’t hesitate to remind her about lighting the kitchen stove and heating water for the barrister’s shave.
Ludlow attacked the early-morning tasks in earnest. Down on all fours, she brushed the carpets by hand, cleaning a few inches at a time. Then it was back to the kitchen to awaken Arabella before kneading dough for the breakfast rolls she would later serve with jam and tea. Since Ludlow’s arrival in London nine months ago, the diligent head servant had acquired a knack for anticipating her twenty-nine-year-old mistress’s every need. From the second floor, a steady jingle of the bell alerted Ludlow to the family’s imminent arrival in the dining room.
While the Skinners sipped tea, Eliza toted hot water up two flights of stairs to their bedrooms. She retrieved their chamber pots and emptied them in a cesspit next to the garden. During the day, the pots were stored in a dining room sideboard. For the middle class, this was eminently superior to the single privy shared by more than a hundred people in London’s working-class neighborhoods.
Cleaning box tucked under her arm, Eliza trundled upstairs to scrub the barrister’s bedroom fireplace. After sweeping out ashes and cinders from the spent fire, any coal residue stuck to the grates had to be rubbed off with brick dust or sanded smooth with scouring paper. Finally, the fireplace was polished with oily black lead to prevent rust. Only after the hearth was properly prepared was Eliza allowed to run back down the stairs to the basement, fill the coal scuttle, and lug it up the two flights to the master’s bedroom. She would repeat this grungy process at the dining room hearth.
Arabella, too, was expected to pitch in with the interminable chores. Among other duties, she polished silverware, broke the lump sugar into small pieces, and folded the laundry. While living in Chelmsford, Ludlow had taught each of her children to read and write. Knowing her letters had proved an invaluable asset when her husband died. Her ability to read and keep household accounts had spared her the fate of mill-work. Still, even a literate widow had few options for employment. She certainly wanted more for Arabella.
Monday through Friday, the eight-year-old could attend a “Dame School.” Typically run by an elderly woman at a cost of three or four pennies a week, it was the cheapest education available to the working class. Students age two to fifteen were taught reading and writing in a crowded parlor. The youngest were enrolled primarily for child care while their parents worked, making for a rather disruptive classroom. Amid the chaos, Arabella could keep up with her reading as well as learn to sew and knit. Girls were taught these useful skills to make them employable by the time they turned nine or ten.
Ludlow considered little else than trying to make ends meet while she dusted rows and rows of porcelain bric-a-brac calling for her attention from their mahogany shelves. Next on the list was the boiling of the barrister’s shirts, pants, and drawers. Soap was not particularly effective in 1838, so scrubbing clothes in hot water was the only way to get them clean. On the heels of wringing out her master’s wool flannel drawers, she climbed up on a stool to wash coal grime from the stained-glass fanlight above the front door. The cleaning never seemed to end.
Ludlow did her best to maintain a tidy appearance, just as she had in her country home in Chelmsford. The prim matron washed her uniform in the kitchen sink at least once a week. She removed the heavy apron that protected her print dress and allowed herself a quick glance in the oversized mirror above the mantel. Eight months on the job and the maid’s collar still scratched annoyingly at her neck. The overstarched white doily stuck at permanent attention, tickling her chin as she finished with breakfast and prepared to go to market. For the sake of her youngest child, Mrs. Tedder tolerated the ridiculous rules of etiquette a proper maid was expected to obey. Thankfully, on this day she needn’t suffer the indignity of walking several paces behind her mistress or delivering misplaced items on a silver salver, the type of tray used to present objects before royalty.
Looking neat and clean wasn’t enough to disguise Ludlow’s station, despite her contrast to the unwashed figures skulking about in London’s underbelly. She was missing the accoutrements that would adorn an upper-class lady, including a feather-trimmed bonnet, satin muff, pink silk flounce sleeves, and fringed parasol. Furthermore, women of a certain means rarely wandered the metropolis unless accompanied by a gentleman chaperone.
The hardworking mother threw a shawl over her shoulders and ventured out into the December cold. With hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a severe bun, her high forehead and long face carried the imprint of family tragedy. Still, she looked much younger than her forty-five years. Her mahogany hair showed not a touch of grey, and her cheeks were covered with freckles. On this busy Saturday, she planned to squeeze in an additional stop. Ludlow needed to finish the Skinners’ shopping with all possible speed so that nothing would seem amiss.
The Bells of Chelmsford
Ludlow’s slim frame carefully maneuvered the mist as she made her way through London’s yellowish haze. This infamous soup came from coal fires mixed with the stinging residue from paper mills, tanneries, and breweries. Everyone around her was coughing, and no matter how tightly she held her breath, she could not stop herself from hacking up the coal dust lodged in her throat. Water might have soothed her were it not for its brown tinge and rancid taste from overflowing privies and factory waste. Her mob cap, the small gathered muslin hat worn by servants, would not stay white for long. On the streets of London, anything light-colored turned shades of grey within minutes. At this time of year, the thick pollution caused such low visibility that lamps were lit inside homes during the day.
With barely an hour to complete her errands, Ludlow slipped through the fog. Visibility was often so poor that she could stretch her arms out and not see her fingertips.3 She kept close to the stone buildings and counted the gas lamps, making her way toward the butcher shop to purchase a mutton chop, sweetbreads, bacon, and beef. Despite an increased availability of fruits and vegetables, meat was the preferred food for most Victorians and filled several courses for the evening meal.
Though she had no time off, save two or three hours on Sunday, errands allowed the dedicated mother to steal a few moments for herself. These past five years, she’d done little more than scrimp and save, trying to preserve a semblance of her former family life. After her husband, John, died, she’d worked in vain to hold on to their little cottage on Slades Lane in Chelmsford, just thirty-two miles northeast of London. Now it seemed a world away.
Ludlow and John had married twenty-five years before on May 14, 1813, at the All Saints Church in Maldon, a small town ten miles east of Chelmsford. Just twenty on her wedding day, the young bride walked through the church’s arched stone entrance and stood beside her future husband. John’s siblings had sprinkled the tiles with spring blossoms to ensure a happy union. Ribbons of gold, sapphire, purple, and deep green shone through the stained-glass window in the Friday morning light. As Ludlow and John joined hands under the ornately carved oak choir screen, five bells tolled from the church’s seven-hundred-year-old unique triangular tower.
Rather than spending earnings on elaborate nuptials, the working class put aside funds for proper funerals. A bride did not always wear white, choosing instead a Sunday frock in pastel pink or blue, crowned with a wreath of wildflowers. Grooms wore a frock coat of mulberry or claret, often borrowed, with a flower in the lapel. Following the ceremony, family members served the couple a breakfast of fruitcake covered in white frosting. After the celebratory repast, the groom usually went to work to avoid losing a day’s pay.
There was a pressing reason the young couple had decided to marry. Four months later on September 22, John and Ludlow returned to the All Saints Church to baptize a son, John Bulley. Daughter Frances was born in 1816, followed by namesake baby Ludlow in 1818. The Tedders expanded their brood to four when they adopted their niece Eliza from John’s sister, who had fallen on hard times. Life was about as stable as it could be for a working-class family. They’d moved to Chelmsford, a prosperous market town, situated on two transport rivers, with well-stocked shops and busy taverns. Like Ludlow, John was literate and held a steady job as an ostler who groomed horses at an inn. His wife, born Ludlow Stammers on July 28, 1793, grew up in a working-class family in Southminster, Essex. Her parents were ahead of their time and ensured that their daughter was literate. Ludlow, in turn, did her best to pass this skill on to each of her children.
After ten years of comfortable family life, tragedy struck the Tedder clan. At age seven, oldest daughter Frances fell ill. She likely suffered from measles or scarlet fever. The illness quickly overwhelmed the little girl, who passed away on August 10, 1823. The grieving parents prepared to bury their daughter in the village plot. On a warm August Sunday, the bells in the All Saints Church tolled thirteen times for their beloved Frances. In rural communities, “passing bells” were rung for those close to death, six times for females and nine for men, with an additional peal for each year lived. The hollow sound of the death knell reverberated across the village green. As people started to count, the brevity of peals alerted the town that it had lost another child.4 During the first half of the nineteenth century, nearly half of Britain’s children died before their tenth birthday.
Nothing was more important than a proper church burial, even if it depleted a family’s savings. As was tradition, their daughter’s body was kept at home until it was time to bury her. The Tedders drew their curtains closed, and family members gathered around for an informal wake and prayer. A neighbor’s wagon slowed to a stop by their front door, and the family tied white “love ribbons” along its sides.5 John held Frances’s coffin steady for the solemn ride to the cemetery. Frances would be laid to rest in an elm casket painted white. She wore a white dress and was covered in a white shroud. The family, too, dressed in white, including ten-year-old John Bulley, five-year-old Ludlow, and four-year-old Eliza. At the end of the service, the church bells tolled one last time for Frances, alerting the parish that she had been laid safely to rest.
The day after the funeral, Ludlow, like so many grieving mothers, brought the tailor a light-colored dress to be dyed black. John wore a simple black armband. All but the destitute followed a prescribed period of mourning, one year for a child, two for a husband. Ludlow wore her black mourning dress every day well into 1824.
Six more years passed as the Tedders raised eleven-year-old Eliza and their two biological children: John Bulley, now seventeen, and Ludlow, now twelve. In September 1830, they were all quite surprised when new life entered the cottage with the birth of Arabella. Sadly, the youngest Tedder barely had a chance to know her father. She had just turned three when John passed away in November 1833. He was forty-two years old, about the average life expectancy for a man living in the country. Working-class city dwellers generally died even younger, before turning forty, many felled by epidemics. John passed away at a time when Chelmsford suffered a cholera outbreak, and that may well have killed him. Ludlow, a new widow and mother of four, buried her husband next to their departed daughter as the bells in the churchyard tolled a final farewell. They had been married for twenty years.
For the next two years, Arabella saw her mother dress only in black. Ludlow, like most widows, wore a bracelet she made from plaited strands of her husband’s hair. Gradually the recovering widow began to don a light-colored bonnet or scarf until she felt comfortable enough to put on a dress of grey or purple. Living in the country, Ludlow was offered more support than those in the city, who had fallen upon hard times. Villagers often took up collections to help widows who needed time to find work and figure out how to survive on their own. The mother of four rejected the prospect of moving into a workhouse. There she would be separated from her children, and they, too, would be conscripted into hard labor. As for the future, widows rarely remarried because of a shortage of eligible men, most of whom died earlier than their female counterparts.
Widow Tedder continued to pay her rent with the help of her two oldest children. Later on, when John Bulley and daughter Ludlow approached their twenties and started their own families, the widow had no choice but to move. Like nearly half of Britain’s population, she chose London, believing it offered the best prospects for steady work. Her ability to read job listings in a newspaper offered Ludlow a supreme advantage. Servants were hired by ads in the paper, through a servants’ registry office, or by word of mouth.
Ludlow had worked as a cook before her marriage, and in March 1838 she arrived at 25 Keppel Street with references in hand. Although well beyond the average age for new staff, the widow was hired because she could write a grocery list and maintain household accounts. Barrister Skinner compensated her with room and board along with a small allowance, from which he deducted the cost of feeding Arabella. Ludlow might not be able to get ahead on her wages, but she could at least count on food and shelter for herself and her two youngest children.
Despite working seven days a week, Ludlow’s pay was not enough to make ends meet. Even as an experienced cook, she earned only forty pence for every one hundred that a man took home, even though the work of female servants was often more physical. Like most cooks, Ludlow supplemented her earnings by selling leftover fat drippings. Tenement families spread it on bread or used it to flavor potatoes and provide extra calories for their children. Today she delivered a small tin to a stall vendor, who handed her a few pence in return. Still, Mrs. Tedder was caught short. Candles and soap, along with clothing and milk for Arabella, cost more than she earned.
Arabella needed leather shoes and a wool cap for the walk to school. She wore a pinafore to keep her one dress clean and a wool cloak that doubled as her blanket at night. Adherence to unwritten rules of modesty was expected from all classes save the homeless. Young girls were required to cover their legs with pantalettes should a gust of wind lift the skirt that fell just below her knees. Arabella’s were sewn from simple white linen, unlike the frilly silk versions worn by wealthy girls under dresses of velvet and lace.
Ludlow consistently practiced the eleventh commandment: Do whatever it takes to provide for your child. As her situation grew more desperate, she resorted to small dishonesties just to get by. Never had she expected to be a thief, and she convinced herself it was only temporary until she could get back on her feet. Like any mother, she had fears about her children’s future, alongside dreams of advancing their station. For the present, such dreams were cast aside in favor of the barrister’s needs.
Because there was no refrigeration in 1838, Mrs. Tedder shopped for fresh provisions every day of the week. Today was no different. The din of the marketplace rose ever louder as Ludlow distanced herself further from Keppel Street and entered the gritty world where most Londoners dwelled. She jostled her way through the hanging carcasses of cattle, sheep, and pigs to make her purchases. Dogs barked and hawkers argued over the price of beef. Beggars pleaded for a copper halfpenny. Fishmonger carts rattled through the alley, clearing the path of pigeons, rats, and flies.
After selecting a mutton leg, beef filet, and larded sweetbreads for the Skinners, she purchased eggs, milk, and butter for the rice pudding she often served with dinner. In a few weeks, she’d be buying figs, almonds, and ribbon candy for the Skinners’ holiday guests and preparing the goose and the brandy pudding. On this Saturday, vendors hawked Christmas wares, especially the Advent candle wreaths families lit beginning the first Sunday in December. The wreaths were displayed on dining tables and illuminated with four candles, three purple and one pink, signifying the season’s hope and glory.
For the thrifty Ludlow, a fresh tallow candle might do. Gifts were rarely exchanged among the poor unless handmade. Children like Arabella didn’t expect a Christmas package and were delighted if they received a handknit scarf or a pair of gloves.
Even though it was only December 1, the pawnshops were already decorated with boughs of evergreen garland tied with red ribbon. Blurry images behind dingy glass displayed valuables from the rich, abandoned through bad luck or filched by the ragged. Silver boxes, gold watches, lace handkerchiefs, jeweled brooches, and silk scarves lay in loose disorder and out of place inside the musty storefront. Among the scattered finery lay treasures less grand, which had been given up by the laboring poor: a pair of children’s boots, a plain wedding ring, a man’s threadbare overcoat, a family Bible, and housewares of every sort. All matter of irretrievable ill fortune stocked the overfull shelves.
The economics of shop trade were painfully simple, as described in signs above the door: “Money advanced on plate, jewels, wearing apparel, and every description of property.”6 London’s underground economy pulsed through the heavily trafficked pawnshops that marked the edge of a deep chasm between abundance and struggle.
Earlier that week, Ludlow had pocketed a few pence advanced for some spoons she’d left at John Wentworth’s pawnshop. Over the past few months, she supplemented her income by occasionally slipping a piece of silverware into her dress pocket. The petite cook didn’t expect to make much from the items she’d “borrowed” from the house on this Saturday morning. But it might be enough to cover family expenses, with perhaps a little left for a small bottle of gin for herself. Surely Barrister Skinner could do without a few spoons when there were so many he barely touched.
Mrs. Tedder was well familiar with the doorway marked by three hanging balls. She popped in from the fog and headed straight to the counter. Mr. Wentworth barely looked up to see what misfortune had blown through his door. He’d seen it all and never asked questions. Stepping up to the dusty display case, the determined widow pulled a little bundle from under her cape and unwrapped two spoons and a bread basket. Mr. Wentworth leaned over the countertop and examined what was brought to him. After a bit of polite bargaining, in contrast to transactions typically more heated or pleading, they settled on payment of a few shillings. Mr. Wentworth made out numbered tickets and issued her “duplicates,” as pawn slips were called. Lifting her chin in the air, Mrs. Tedder straightened her skirt, pivoted on her heels, and headed back toward Keppel Street.
Back in the smoky cellar kitchen, Ludlow set down her groceries and put the receipts in a glass storage jar, where they would stay dry for the weekly accounting. The position of cook offered tempting opportunities to skim a bit off household accounts. Tenuous loyalty offered ready justification for stealing from what was viewed as a master’s cornucopia of riches. An article in Nineteenth Century described the perspective of those who lived below stairs: “They are connected with the wealthier classes principally as ministering to their material well-being. . . . No people contemplate so frequently and so strikingly the unequal distribution of wealth: they fold up dresses whose price contains double the amount of their year’s wages; they pour out at dinner wine whose cost would have kept a poor family for weeks.”7
For the present, Ludlow concentrated on carving gristle off the meats, peeling potatoes, and beating eggs for the boiled rice pudding. Pounding spices and stoning raisins were the next tasks awaiting her attention. Already eight hours on her feet, she was halfway through her shift. Not a minute was left idle. She mended linens and scrubbed the sheets white while pots simmered on the coal-fired stove.
As the maid-of-all-work, daughter Eliza was charged with emptying Master Skinner’s spittoon and polishing his boots. Mixing turpentine and wax, she made her own polishes. After her mother served the meals, she plunged her arms into hot greasy water and scoured the pots and dishes piled high from lunch and dinner. Harsh washing soda stung her hands and reddened them beyond their nineteen years. Arabella was tasked with wiping the dinnerware dry and stacking it neatly in the china closet.
In London, one-third of young women between fifteen and twenty worked in domestic service.8 Marriage offered the preferred route of escape from the basement servant quarters. Officially excluded from social interaction, other than opening the door for the occasional delivery, Eliza faced scant opportunity to meet potential suitors. Servants were allowed no visitors and were rarely given a day off. If a young lass somehow managed an admirer, she would have met him in secret, slipping out of the house as the others slept.
In her magazine article “On the Side of the Maids,” Eliza Lynn Linton describes the lonely frustration girls like Eliza Tedder experienced: “No friends in the kitchen, no laughing to be heard above stairs, no romping for young girls to whom romping is an instinct all the same as with lambs and kittens . . . moping in the dreary kitchen on the afternoon of her Sunday in. All grinding work claustral monotony, with the world seen only through the gratings of the area window as the holiday folks flock to and fro . . .”9
The end of the day was finally nearing for the downstairs staff. On her hands and knees, an exhausted Eliza scoured the sticky mix of grease and soot stuck to the kitchen floor. When the upstairs hall clock chimed eleven, mother and daughter bedded down next to the scullery sink, where Arabella lay fast asleep. Ludlow recounted the coins received from Mr. Wentworth and tucked them into a small pouch pinned to the inside of her bodice.
The Case of the Missing Plate
After his three-course dinner Saturday evening, Master Skinner walked to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of port. Perhaps he was suspicious of his staff, because it was not uncommon for servants to pilfer from their employers. For whatever reason, this was the night he noticed forks and spoons missing from his silver drawer. In the household hierarchy, the maid-of-all-work was responsible for care of utensils and plates. Early Sunday morning, the agitated Barrister rang for Eliza and asked the whereabouts of the missing silverware. At this time, the nineteen-year-old may not have known her mother was the culprit.
Eliza must have felt desperate. She knew that a conviction for theft meant gaol at best and more probably transport to the other side of the world. When pressed by the barrister, she didn’t even try to cover for the mother who had adopted her and who had unintentionally put her in great peril. Perhaps she felt frustration over her lot in life and miserable job, or anger with her mother for drawing her into this entanglement. Given her daunting workload, she might have lost hold of reason and simply lashed out at a supervisor who was also her parent. Whatever Eliza’s motivation for informing on her mother, a furious Fitzowen Skinner confronted his cook. Ludlow immediately confessed her transgression, handed him the duplicates, and offered to retrieve the pawned cutlery from Mr. Wentworth first thing Monday morning. The barrister’s response was clear as he uttered the words, “Justice must take its course.”10 A sense of dread permeated the remainder of the Sabbath.
When she found free moments, Ludlow had scanned the barrister’s discarded newspapers that lay scattered across the upstairs parlor. The Times and the Morning Herald posted accounts about women convicted of stealing household items who were punished with transport to Van Diemen’s Land. The worried mother knew it wasn’t just her own future at stake. She shuddered at the thought of Arabella in a London orphanage. Who would care for her? But staying together meant gaol for her little girl, or possibly transport. Could they even survive the sea voyage?
Ludlow had lost her gamble, and she couldn’t blame Eliza. At least the poor girl was old enough to be on her own. Sometime during the morning of Monday, December 3, 1838, a distraught Ludlow crept out of the maid’s quarters at 25 Keppel Street, fearing an imminent arrest. With Arabella in tow, she hustled through the gardens in fashionable Russell Square. With Christmas barely three weeks away, Bloomsbury town houses were adorned with spruce boughs draped above the doorway and around the railings. Pine cone wreaths, decorated with scarlet holly berries and dried fruit, hung from ribbons on the front doors.
Holiday merriment was the last thing on Ludlow’s mind. On the run with her eight-year-old, she lacked the street skills Agnes and Janet had relied on for food and shelter those many nights in Glasgow. With little money in her possession, choices were few. Perhaps they stayed with friends or relatives, moving from place to place every night or two so as not to get caught. Mother and daughter couldn’t stay in one location very long because harboring a fugitive might endanger those who, out of kindness, had provided a temporary safe haven.
For nine days, the pair somehow managed to remain in hiding and elude arrest by London’s bobbies. The widow from the country had lived in the city only nine months and rarely navigated London’s seamy street circus. Options for a bed for the night quickly wore thin. As what little money she had started to run out, Ludlow pondered the prospect of begging on the street in the midst of one of the coldest winters on record.
She was probably searching for a boardinghouse when a bobby wearing an oilskin cape grabbed her by the arm. On Tuesday, December 11, 1838, he delivered the still neatly dressed servant for processing at the Bow Street station house. This was the first stop for prisoners who would be tried in London’s Central Criminal Court, also known as the Old Bailey, for the street on which it is located. Mrs. Tedder was ordered to appear before Judge Baron Parke the week before Christmas. There would be no cooking of the holiday goose this year. For the next six days, she awaited trial in a Newgate holding cell with Arabella as well as dozens of women accused of various crimes.
The following Monday, the seventeenth of December, police officer Richard Lesley ushered mother and child into a packed Central Criminal Court. The wind whistled across the courtroom. Although it was the middle of winter, the windows were wide open because officials feared catching diseases from the prisoners. As the accused approached the bench, jurisprudence seldom smelled sweet. “Juries, counsel and judges chewed on garlic, citrus peel, cardamom and caraway to prevent infection from the prisoners’ breath.”11
Property owners, all men, formed the grand jury that would decide Ludlow’s fate. After swearing them in, Judge Parke rambled on about the common law of England, liberty, and morality under the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. It was the kind of public spectacle that appealed to sordid sensibilities. The court’s galleries were filled with the curious, who paid a small fee to catch a view of the upper-crust jury, but “what they were really waiting for was the thrill of seeing felons in irons stumble up from the gaol and tell their stories.”12 It was all a rather tedious affair until the accused entered the front of the courtroom to stand behind the bar of a raised platform known as “the dock.” Once the court officer motioned the gallery into silence, the sound of light footsteps resonated through the drafty hall. Unless a female spectator attended the session, Ludlow would have been the only woman in the room.
The accused stood alone under a sounding board used to amplify her voice from the prisoner’s dock.13 Herbs lay strewn across the ledge before her as a means of disinfecting whatever the prisoners touched. There were no public defenders, so only the affluent were guaranteed legal counsel.
Mrs. Tedder stepped forward to raise her manacled hand before the clerk, who asked: “How will you be tried?” She replied as she’d been told at the police station: “By God and by my country.”14 As was tradition, a visibly bored Judge Baron Parke inquired, “Have you any witnesses that will speak to your character?” The only answer that might have conveyed a lighter sentence was: “Yes, sir, I have a letter from my vicar speaking to my good character.” Without that, there was no hope for her acquittal. Ludlow was doomed.
The prisoner stood directly before her accuser. Barrister Skinner was the first to rise from the witness box. With well-practiced intonation and outrage, the professional member of the bar testified: “The prisoner was in my service as cook since March last. I missed fourteen forks and eleven silver spoons, on Saturday night, the 1st of December, after the prisoner and her daughter were gone to bed. Her daughter had the charge of the plate, but she had access to it. On the Sunday night her daughter came to me, and said her mother would drive her mad. I went down into the kitchen, and asked the prisoner what was the matter. She [Ludlow] said it was about the plate that was missing. I asked her where it was. She said she had pawned it, but she would get it back on Monday morning. I had said nothing to induce her to confess.”15
When pawnbroker Wentworth took the stand, Ludlow knew she was done for. His testimony was short and damning: “I have a bread basket, pawned on the first of December by the prisoner. This is the duplicate I gave for it. I have also eleven spoons, pawned by her at different times.”16
As Christmas approached, judges were sometimes inspired by the season of giving and imposed lighter sentences. The majority administered “justice” with casual indifference and were not held to consistency in punishment guidelines. Ludlow’s luck had run out. Judge Parke was not inclined to be merciful. Neither was the jury. The Crown demanded efficiency, so trials were conducted at lightning speed. Most sentences were preordained. On average, it took eight and a half minutes to go from accused to condemned.17 Once the evidence was presented, the all-male jury didn’t even bother to leave the courtroom. They huddled together and went through the motions of conferring from their box. In truth, many jurors cared very little about the law and simply followed the foreman’s judgment. Some read newspapers during the proceedings, while others dozed politely, with their chins resting on stiffened shirt collars.
The foreman for the fifth jury announced a swift verdict for Ludlow Tedder: “Guilty. Stealing on the first of December two spoons, value one shilling, and one bread basket, value ten shillings, the goods of Fitzowen Skinner, her master.”18 With a resounding thump of his gavel, Judge Parke pronounced the sentence: “Transported for Ten Years.” Amid the public buzz from the galleries, he took a moment and adjusted the great white wig that fell clumsily over his shoulders. But what was to be done with the child? Perhaps because it was nearly Christmas, Judge Parke informed Ludlow she would be allowed to take Arabella with her. She looked at her little girl and signed her name on the Sessions Papers. At least they would be together.
A Newgate Christmas
British justice was a hodgepodge of haphazard sentencing that thrived on corruption, prejudice, incompetence, and bribery. On the streets, the police were commonly in cahoots with the criminals. A cash payoff or sexual favor often bought a look in the other direction instead of an arrest. Judges were observed giving preferential treatment to the police and the pretty girls on trial. Inside the courtroom, gaolers, clerks, ushers, police sergeants, and barristers greased one another’s palms to get what they wanted. If a policeman didn’t like a certain lawyer, he could have him blacklisted and barred from entry to court. Barristers were busy bribing court clerks, who solicited business for them from the prisoners’ loved ones. Families with no savings were encouraged to pay the lawyer with wedding rings or family heirlooms, which could be pawned. Many attorneys barely understood the law and entered the profession as a way of earning easy money. Onetime barrister Sir William Gilbert, who became a famousnineteenth-century playwright, made this observation about the Central Criminal Court: “There are, among the thieves’ lawyers, men of acute intelligence and honourable repute, and who do their work extremely well; but the majority of them are sneaking, underhand, grovelling practitioners, who are utterly unrecognized by men of good standing.”19
Sir William went on to write: “Probably the first impression on the mind of a man who visits the Old Bailey for the first time is that he never saw so many ugly people collected in any one place before. . . . The jury have a bull-headed look about them that suggests that they have been designedly selected from the most stupid of their class; the reporters are usually dirty, and of evil savour; the understrappers have a bloated, overfed, Bumble-like look about them, which is always a particularly annoying thing to a sensitive mind; and the prisoner, of course, looks (whether guilty or innocent) the most ruffianly of mankind, for he stands in the dock.”20
Dressed in a velvet cape held by gold chains, the Lord Mayor Samuel Wilson was driven to the Old Bailey from his town palace a few blocks away. He attended the court proceedings in his role as chief magistrate for the city, but his primary focus attended to pomp and circumstance. Common thieves like Ludlow were simply another London nuisance to be disposed of in the most expeditious fashion. At three o’clock precisely, the Lord Mayor paused the session and retired to consume a lavish banquet in his private dining room inside the courthouse. Seated on leather chairs around a mahogany table, mayor and judges were served foie gras, turtle soup, haunch of venison, and filet of pheasant.
As his guests relaxed next to the mosaic-tiled fireplace, their feet resting on the sumptuous Turkish carpet, they sipped wine from the Lord Mayor’s private vault and smoked cigars. In less grand settings, jurors, barristers, and witnesses drank heavily in nearby pubs. British writer, lawyer, and chaplain Martin Madan noted that it often took an hour for a judge to bring order to the court when so many returned drunk. In the summer, it was even worse: “The heat of the court, joined to the fumes of the liquor, has laid many an honest juryman into a calm and profound sleep, and sometimes it has been no small trouble for his fellows to jog him into the verdict—even where the wretch’s life has depended on the event!”21
Ludlow’s trial took place late in the day amid this drunken chaos. Such timing undoubtedly worked to her disadvantage. For the judges weighted down by heavy wigs and thick robes, it was just another boring day, as a blur of humanity briefly stood before them. Sleepy from their ample meals, they prepared for the grind of the afternoon session. Beneath the courtroom’s four brass chandeliers, 155 trials took place that day. Ludlow’s was just one of many.
On this December 17, glaring inconsistencies were recorded, typical for the Old Bailey. Depending on the judge, the jury, and who the prisoner might know, people convicted of similar crimes received radically different punishments. Policeman Henry Jones stole a goose. He was pronounced not guilty despite being caught with the bird in his kitchen. Young Benjamin Lambden pleaded hunger for his crime of stealing a sheep: “being determined to have a turnip, or something to eat, but did not get it, and found the sheep. . . .”22 He was punished with ten years’ transport.
Twelve-year-old David Barry stole six knives from a shop. The judge sentenced him to a whipping and one month imprisonment in Newgate. William Singleton, fifteen, was also whipped and confined six days for stealing a few pieces of beef and pork. Stripped to the waist, the boys were flogged up to fifty strokes with a leather whip. Husband and wife Francis and Ellen Morris, both twenty-two, stole a watch from a man who had fallen asleep on a bench. Ellen pleaded not guilty and was set free, but the judge imposed a sentence of ten years’ transport on Francis. He would never see his wife again.
Londoner George Bird picked a handkerchief from the pocket of an ironmonger. Once in custody, he lashed out at the officer who arrested him. Sealing his fate, George’s indictment record was marked by an obelisk (†), indicating “that a prisoner is known to be the associate of bad characters.”23 Guilt by association carried a heavy burden for those on trial. At thirteen, it was his good fortune not to be hanged and instead sentenced to ten years’ transport. Under the “Bloody Code,” earlier judges had sentenced pickpockets to death.
When eighteen-year-old Princess Victoria became Queen of England in 1837, the royal duty of presiding over executions was transferred immediately to the House Secretary for the sole reason that he was a man. She was considered too delicate for the task. By 1838, execution was limited to those who committed murder, arson, or violent crime. Still, every Monday morning a crowd gathered in front of Newgate to watch the spectacle of death. “Publicity was traditionally an essential feature of this punishment, serving to shame the offender and deter others from committing the crime.”24
On the Sunday before execution day, the condemned listened to a long sermon in the prison chapel and gathered around the very coffins that would lower them into the ground. “The Old Bailey, although extremely inconvenient, is beautifully compact. You can be detained there between the time of your committal and your trial—you can be tried there, sentenced there, condemned-celled there, and comfortably hanged and buried there, without having to leave the building, except for the purpose of going on to the scaffold.”25
Most of those tried at the Old Bailey had committed petty theft, adding hundreds daily to the 162,000 convicts ultimately transported to Australia. Detailed records kept by the British government indicate that youthful boys were more likely to be transported for minor crimes than older prisoners who committed similar offenses.26
Seventeen-year-old Frederick Osborn had stolen his dinner and three plates on which to serve it. His beggar’s banquet of beef, cheese, and butter brought a seven-year sentence. Charles Griffin stole two loaves of bread while his mother waited outside the market. The fourteen-year-old was punished with transport for seven years because he had been in custody before. Charles’s defense fell on callous ears: “I took the loaves because I was hungry. I did not touch the till.” The Transportation Policy specifically targeted healthy young boys like Frederick and Charles, who could best serve a new colony.27
It seems the plea of poverty was heard only when a lawyer was paid. Indicted for house robbery at sixteen, John Sherwin admitted the crime and somehow afforded counsel. In pleading his case, his lawyer stated “that poverty had led him to commit the offence, and that he threw himself on the mercy of the Court.” The jury “recommended to mercy in consequence of his destitute state,” and the judge imposed two months’ confinement.28
The inventory of goods stolen by those on trial during Ludlow’s day in court reads like a list of family necessities. Henry Brown, age twenty-two, pinched two pots valued at three shillings. He pleaded his own case, stating: “I was out of work. These two pots were in the street, and I picked them up.”29 Thomas Saunders, just sixteen, stole a pair of trousers. Seventeen-year-old Thomas Cook purloined a pair of boots from a display in a shop doorway. For these crimes, each received seven years’ transport.
Whether sentenced to seven or ten years, this was the era when only a tiny percentage of those transported would ever make their way back to England. Convicts who completed their sentences rarely returned to their homeland. The only way back was through a daring escape at the Cape of Good Hope or by paying a large fee for ship’s passage.
Five other women were among those convicted the same day Widow Tedder was exiled to Van Diemen’s Land. Like Ludlow, forty-seven-year-old Amy Wilson stole from her master and was sentenced to ten years. Twenty-five-year-old Ann Price, with friend Mary Grady, had taken two pairs of stays, the boning used in corsets. Valued at eight shillings, their small heist brought seven years’ transport for each. Mary Sullivan also received a seven-year punishment. At forty-six, she was caught stealing clothes and a bedcover. Hannah Herbert stood trial just before Ludlow. She had committed forgery, an offense that typically carried a life sentence. Somehow the thirty-four-year-old convinced the court that the laudanum she had taken the day of the crime impaired her judgment and was “Recommended to mercy by the Jury” with a seven-year sentence.30
The Central Criminal Court adjoined Newgate Prison and made for the convenient transfer of Ludlow, Arabella, and the five other women, all new chattel for the Crown’s colonies. They were convicted during peak years for the transport of women, a period that spanned 1826 to 1840.31The gaoler led them back through the underground passage that ran between the Old Bailey and Newgate’s female ward, the sound of dragging chains wailing through the tunnel with hollow despair. When they approached the ward, the clanking of iron intermingled with the screams and shouts of prisoners from behind the great wooden door.
Arabella clung to her mother and followed the turnkey’s silent instructions. He pulled the creaking entrance open and motioned the pair inside. Mother and daughter reentered the icy darkness that had been their home over the past six days. If they huddled with the other newly convicted, they might stay warm. For the next 143 days, the future shipmates waited for the black carriages that would transfer them to the docks to begin their journey to Van Diemen’s Land.
At first, time passed quickly. In a week it would be Christmas, the first holiday Ludlow would observe without Eliza, John Bulley, and the younger Ludlow. Instead of delighting in Arabella opening a small trinket from the pawnshop, she watched her nine-year-old struggle to get comfortable on a dirt floor crawling with cockroaches and rats. Yet it might have been worse. Some judges separated children from their mothers. Youngsters older than twelve were rarely allowed to accompany their mothers.32
As Ludlow shared her daily bread ration with Arabella, bells pealed from across the street, calling parishioners to St. Sepulchre for services on Christmas morning. For the wealthy, Yule logs burned in fireplaces as families dined on goose, plum pudding, and steaming wassail flavored with cloves and cinnamon.
This was one holiday that inspired philanthropy among the well-to-do. Some brought mince pies, cakes, and a few precious oranges into the gaol, although such treats rarely made it beyond the guards. Elizabeth Fry, however, delivered her kindness directly. Her schoolroom for prisoners’ children had been in place since 1817. Since then, at least one member of her Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners visited Newgate every day. The dedicated Quaker continued to comfort women and children awaiting transport until 1843. She delivered clean clothes for Arabella and sewing materials for Ludlow and her new companions. She helped them sell the clothing and quilts they made as a group, enabling them to purchase tea and meat from their gaolers.
As days passed more slowly and winter turned to spring, Newgate’s hell began a slow thaw. The lives of Ludlow, the two Marys, Amy, Ann, and Hannah were soon intertwined. With no such intention, Old Bailey’s Judge Parke unknowingly set in motion the foundation for kinship, solidarity, and protection among unlikely allies. Over the next seven years, friendships born from fear and uncertainty began to thrive, as overturned futures unfolded. First cell mates and then shipmates, these six women were bound together for whatever fate might offer beyond the seas in Van Diemen’s Land.