Tag Archives: women

Elopement notices in the London Gazette

(Note: This is a slightly edited copy of an article I had published on the Gazette website a few months ago. I am now part of the ‘official public record’! I post it here so place it in my personal record, and because it discusses the consequences of the law of coverture in regards to debt.)

As the official journal of record, the bulk of the London Gazette is taken up with Royal proclamations and political appointments, court arrangements and military engagements, financial affairs and foreign intelligence. But amongst these matters of high state, there are also advertisements taken out by private individuals concerning more personal dramas. For example, one finds such items as this, from July 1714:

Whereas Elizabeth, the Wife of Edward Game, of Bruges in Flanders, Merchant, lately come to England with her said Husband from Bruges, hath eloped from him, and carried away his Papers, Writings, and a Sum of Money; she went away with one Darby Ressell, Mariner. The said Edward Game doth hereby give notice to all Tradesmen, Shopkepers and others, that they do not receive or entertain the said Elizabeth Game, or give her any Credit for any thing whatever, for that he will not pay any debts she shall Contract after the Publication hereof.

More frequently, such advertisements are terser, giving less surrounding detail so as not to detract from the point:

Whereas Jane, the Wife of Francis Fry, of Barnaby Street in Southwark, Baker, hath Eloped from her said Husband, and run him into Debt; these are to give notice to all Persons not to Trust or give Credit to the said Jane Fry with Mony or Goods on Account of her said Husband, for that he will not pay any Debts she shall Contract after the Publication hereof.

In all, a search for ‘eloped’ returns 73 relevent items, all published in the early 1710s. The earliest I have found was published on the 1st of January 1711  and the last in October 1714.  They continued to appear in local newspapers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but not in the official record. For despite the Gazette’s undoubted authority, such advertisements did not take on that lustre. Early in the eighteenth century, that curious forerunner of the advice column the “Athenian Mercury” recommended to a man whose wife had absconded with the silver plate:

The first thing you do, put her into the Gazette, declaring for Reasons best known to your self, that no one give Credit to her, either as to Money or Commodities ….

But by 1736 it was advised that it had no standing in law, Giles Jacob’s handbook “Every Man his own Lawyer” stating firmly:

But on an Elopement, the putting a wife in the Gazette, or other News-Papers, is no legal Notice to Persons in general not to trust her; tho’ personal Notice to particular Persons given by the Husband will be good not to be chargeable to them.

In other words, publishing in a local paper could be seen as a communicating to a more specific audience.

But why were such notices felt to be necessary, and why the stress on credit and debts? At this time – and until the Married Women’s Property Acts of the late nineteenth century – married women were governed by the doctrine of feme covert by which her legal rights were subsumed into those of her husband. She could not own property or enter into contracts in her own name. The converse of this was that the husband became responsible for his wife’s financial obligations. Consequently, any debts she incurred were laid at his door. And so these notices were taken out in a bid to restrict the credit the absconding wife could muster.

These adverts only give the man’s side of the story. We don’t know the woman’s reasons for leaving her home and husband, nor even if the silver plate she took was not brought by her into the marriage. But in 1807, one Mary Hoof responded to a similar notice in an Exeter newspaper thus:

Now I do hereby solemnly inform the public, that I never gave my said husband any just cause or provocation for such illiberal treatment towards me, but, on the contrary, have borne his ill usage with silence and resignation; nor should I now complain, but with a view to justify my character, which might otherwise be injured.

Exeter Flying Post – Thursday 10 September 1807 (paywalled)

The Women of Southwark Mint

For my second post on women in the Mint, I turn from fiction to data. The final clause of the Act against Southwark Mint offered an amnesty to those Minters, discharging debts below £50, albeit at the cost of “assigning all their estates and effects whatsoever, for the benefit of their creditors.” Some 6,254 people applied for this relief, their names, trade or status and parishes being published over 10 months in the London Gazette.

Whilst this sounds like a dream data set, there are a number of difficulties with it, aside from the sheer hard work of transcribing so many words from images of worn pages. Not every entry is complete. Some have extra details, such as aliases. Some information, such as familial connections and gender, cannot always be reliably deduced. Some of the applicants were probably ineligible for the amnesty; some may have known this, others not. Reading this archive requires forensic skill. Nevertheless, it is the only such source for any sanctuary, and offers a real chance to investigate the social composition of the Mint at the end of its existence.

So as a first step in analysing this data I have extracted the records of those I could identify as female. The first question is simply how many women were on the amnesty lists. The gender can be divined from two fields: forename and status. For the latter, many entries were of marital status, generally widow or spinster, very occasionally wife. Only in a handful of cases could I not work out the gender.

Minters by gender

We can see that women were very much in the minority, but it is a significant minority that won’t be affected by resolving the gender of the unknowns. The next chart breaks the 464 women down by their status.

Female Status

As some women gave their marital status, others a trade, in some cases both or two trades, the total number of pieces of information is 527. Although this introduces some complexity into the data-crunching, we can clearly see that the majority of women were either widowed or unmarried.

Following on from this, we can examine the professions the women practiced. In total, 84 different trades are given, which makes visualizing them in a pie chart rather difficult, so I have amalgamated all those with less than 4 respondants.

Female Minters' Trades

This is the least satisfactory of the charts as the trades should really be grouped together by sector: clothing, food, services, etc.

This data set can also be used for other investigations. Here is a pie chart of women’s first names, the most popular being at the top of the key.

I’ve standardized spellings, combining variants such as Anne, Hannah and Anna into one group. As the chart shows, Mary (107) and Elizabeth (96) were by far the most common female names, and with Ann, Sarah, Margaret and Catherine account for over 75% of the total, with 49 other names making up the remainder. Of the 7 Gentlewomen on the lists 3 were called Mary and 1 Margaret, the others were Deborah, Henrietta and Charlotte. I had wondered whether there would be a noticeable difference between higher and lower class forenames, but the sample is inadequate for investigating this.

How accurate was Defoe’s portrayal of the Mint through the eyes of Moll Flanders? Firstly, I think he understated the number of female debtors. At a little over 7% they make up a sizable contingent, even if this is far from being equal to the number of men. And this is just the number of women applying for amnesty; there may have been others as well. Women are not a negligible presence in the Mint.

However, having Moll take on the role of widow, and having her find a friend in another widow, does reflect the marital status of many of the women. Why there were so many widows seeking sanctuary, and how they fell into debt, are very important questions. The number of spinsters also suggests that single women in general were particularly vulnerable to pursuit by their creditors.

These charts are my first attempt at sifting through the amnesty lists. They’re not really satisfactory, technically, statistically or historically. I’d like them to be more interactive, with statistics for each segment shown; there needs to be a way of coping better with those women that gave two professions or marital status and profession; and they need far more careful analysis. Nevertheless they give some indication of the composition of this debtor community, and the place of women within it.

Moll Flanders in the Mint

For International Women’s Day, and for Women’s History Month, the first of two posts about women in the Southwark Mint.

Published in 1721, a few years before the dissolution of the Mint, Moll Flanders gives a rare view of that sanctuary through female eyes. Defoe himself had a chequered business career, that included bankruptcy, seizure of his property (civet cats!), imprisonment and possibly refuge in Southwark. He was a proponent of bankruptcy reform, playing a role in the passage of the 1705 Act to Prevent Frauds Frequently Committed by Bankrupts, but also a stern critic of the sanctuaries, calling them “those nurseries of rogues” in his Essay Upon Projects.

Defoe’s interest in these debates must wait for another time; suffice to note he took a position against the sanctuaries and probably had stayed in one. What interests me here is the gendered account of it. Few accounts of the Mint mention women, and when they do generally only in passing. There are references to the debtors being accompanied by their families; the trade in marriage licenses required a woman to be present; there is sometimes mention of prostitution. But here we have a female character in the central role, observing the men en masse, as a type rather than individuals.

It is due to her husband that Moll Flanders moves to the Mint; she is escaping his, rather than her, creditors, and she takes the opportunity to change her identity and take on the role of widow.  Once in the sanctuary she sees how the male debtors conduct themselves, and describes them in the most cutting terms, “sinning on, as a remedy for sin past”:

…. these men were too wicked, even for me. There was something horrid and absurd in their way of sinning, for it was all a force even upon themselves; they did not only act against conscience, but against nature ….

Special mention is made of the suffering of their families, “objects of their own terror and other people’s charity”, the “poor weeping wife” responsible for the children, facing eviction whilst the husband drinks up what little money they have left.

Using her charm and guile she takes advantage of their weakness for ‘an agreeable woman’, but such company, and the scandal of being a whore without the joy, disgusts her. It is through another woman that she escapes the Mint; like Moll a widow indebted not through any fault of her own, but by her husband.

Is this an accurate picture of the sanctuaries? Did women seek refuge within them, and if so, under what circumstances? In my next post I’ll look at some data that illuminates the female presence.


From Moll Flanders

Vanity is the perfection of a fop. My husband had this excellence, that he valued nothing of expense; and as his history, you may be sure, has very little weight in it, ’tis enough to tell you that in about two years and a quarter he broke, and was not so happy to get over into the Mint, but got into a sponging-house, being arrested in an action too heavy from him to give bail to, so he sent for me to come to him.

It was no surprise to me, for I had foreseen some time that all was going to wreck, and had been taking care to reserve something if I could, though it was not much, for myself. But when he sent for me, he behaved much better than I expected, and told me plainly he had played the fool, and suffered himself to be surprised, which he might have prevented; that now he foresaw he could not stand it, and therefore he would have me go home, and in the night take away everything I had in the house of any value, and secure it; and after that, he told me that if I could get away one hundred or two hundred pounds in goods out of the shop, I should do it; ‘only,’ says he, ‘let me know nothing of it, neither what you take nor whither you carry it; for as for me,’ says he, ‘I am resolved to get out of this house and be gone; and if you never hear of me more, my dear,’ says he, ‘I wish you well; I am only sorry for the injury I have done you.’ He said some very handsome things to me indeed at parting; for I told you he was a gentleman, and that was all the benefit I had of his being so; that he used me very handsomely and with good manners upon all occasions, even to the last, only spent all I had, and left me to rob the creditors for something to subsist on.

However, I did as he bade me, that you may be sure; and having thus taken my leave of him, I never saw him more, for he found means to break out of the bailiff’s house that night or the next, and go over into France, and for the rest of the creditors scrambled for it as well as they could. How, I knew not, for I could come at no knowledge of anything, more than this, that he came home about three o’clock in the morning, caused the rest of his goods to be removed into the Mint, and the shop to be shut up; and having raised what money he could get together, he got over, as I said, to France, from whence I had one or two letters from him, and no more. I did not see him when he came home, for he having given me such instructions as above, and I having made the best of my time, I had no more business back again at the house, not knowing but I might have been stopped there by the creditors; for a commission of bankrupt being soon after issued, they might have stopped me by orders from the commissioners. But my husband, having so dexterously got out of the bailiff’s house by letting himself down in a most desperate manner from almost the top of the house to the top of another building, and leaping from thence, which was almost two storeys, and which was enough indeed to have broken his neck, he came home and got away his goods before the creditors could come to seize; that is to say, before they could get out the commission, and be ready to send their officers to take possession.

My husband was so civil to me, for still I say he was much of a gentleman, that in the first letter he wrote me from France, he let me know where he had pawned twenty pieces of fine holland for £30, which were really worth £90, and enclosed me the token and an order for the taking them up, paying the money, which I did, and made in time above £100 of them, having leisure to cut them and sell them, some and some, to private families, as opportunity offered.

However, with all this, and all that I had secured before, I found, upon casting things up, my case was very much altered, any my fortune much lessened; for, including the hollands and a parcel of fine muslins, which I carried off before, and some plate, and other things,
I found I could hardly muster up £500; and my condition was very odd, for though I had no child (I had had one by my gentleman draper, but it was buried), yet I was a widow bewitched; I had a husband and no husband, and I could not pretend to marry again, though I knew well enough my husband would never see England any more, if he lived fifty years. Thus, I say, I was limited from marriage, what offer might soever be made me; and I had not one friend to advise with in the condition I was in, least not one I durst trust the secret of my circumstances to, for if the commissioners were to have been informed where I was, I should have been fetched up and examined upon oath, and all I have saved be taken away from me.

Upon these apprehensions, the first thing I did was to go quite out of my knowledge, and go by another name.  This I did effectually, for I went into the Mint too, took lodgings in a very private place, dressed up in the habit of a widow, and called myself Mrs. Flanders.

Here, however, I concealed myself, and though my new acquaintances knew nothing of me, yet I soon got a great deal of company about me; and whether it be that women are scarce among the sorts of people that generally are to be found there, or that some consolations in the miseries of the place are more requisite than on other occasions, I soon found an agreeable woman was exceedingly valuable among the sons of affliction there, and that those that wanted money to pay half a crown on the pound to their creditors, and that run in debt at the sign of the Bull for their dinners, would yet find money for a supper, if they liked the woman.

However, I kept myself safe yet, though I began, like my Lord Rochester’s mistress, that loved his company, but would not admit him farther, to have the scandal of a whore, without the joy; and upon this score, tired with the place, and indeed with the company too, I began to think of removing.

It was indeed a subject of strange reflection to me to see men who were overwhelmed in perplexed circumstances, who were reduced some degrees below being ruined, whose families were objects of their own terror and other people’s charity, yet while a penny lasted, nay, even beyond it, endeavouring to drown themselves, labouring to forget former things, which now it was the proper time to remember, making more work for repentance, and sinning on, as a remedy for sin past.

But it is none of my talent to preach; these men were too wicked, even for me. There was something horrid and absurd in their way of sinning, for it was all a force even upon themselves; they did not only act against conscience, but against nature; they put a rape upon their temper to drown the reflections, which their circumstances continually gave them; and nothing was more easy than to see how sighs would interrupt their songs, and paleness and anguish sit upon their brows, in spite of the forced smiles they put on; nay, sometimes it would break out at their very mouths when they had parted with their money for a lewd treat or a wicked embrace.  I have heard them, turning about, fetch a deep sigh, and cry, ‘What a dog am I!  Well, Betty, my dear, I’ll drink thy health, though’; meaning the honest wife, that perhaps had not a half-crown for herself and three or four children. The next morning they are at their penitentials again; and perhaps the
poor weeping wife comes over to him, either brings him some account of what his creditors are doing, and how she and the children are turned out of doors, or some other dreadful news; and this adds to his self-reproaches; but when he has thought and pored on it till he is almost mad, having no principles to support him, nothing within him or above him to comfort him, but finding it all darkness on every side, he flies to the same relief again, viz. to drink it away, debauch it away, and falling into company of men in just the same condition with himself, he repeats the crime, and thus he goes every day one step onward of his way to destruction.

I was not wicked enough for such fellows as these yet. On the contrary, I began to consider here very seriously what I had to do; how things stood with me, and what course I ought to take. I knew I had no friends, no, not one friend or relation in the world; and that little I had left apparently wasted, which when it was gone, I saw nothing but misery and starving was before me.  Upon these considerations, I say, and filled with horror at the place I was in, and the dreadful objects which I had always before me, I resolved to be gone.

I had made an acquaintance with a very sober, good sort of a woman, who was a widow too, like me, but in better circumstances.  Her husband had been a captain of a merchant ship, and having had the misfortune to be cast away coming home on a voyage from the West Indies, which would have been very profitable if he had come safe, was so reduced by the loss, that though he had saved his life then, it broke his heart, and killed him afterwards; and his widow, being pursued by the creditors, was forced to take shelter in the Mint.  She soon made things up with the help of friends, and was at liberty again; and finding that I rather was there to be concealed, than by any particular prosecutions and finding also that I agreed with her, or rather she with me, in a just abhorrence of the place and of the company, she invited to go home with her till I could put myself in some posture of settling in the world to my mind; withal telling me, that it was ten to one but some good captain of a ship might take a fancy to me, and court me, in that part of the town where she lived.

Text taken from Gutenberg