Amelia Acton, a petty thief with a string of convictions

Some of Amelia's previous convictions, 1866 (TNA PCOM 4/45/7)

Some of Amelia’s previous convictions, 1866 (TNA PCOM 4/45/7)

Amelia Acton can be identified (with certainty) in the Old Bailey Online just once, in a trial for uttering (passing) counterfeit coin in 1854 – even though she was tried using a different name, Amelia Smith, and there is no mention of an Amelia Acton in that trial. We can connect Amelia Smith with the Amelia Acton who was convicted of a string of thefts using several different aliases between 1851 and 1866 because 19th-century bureaucrats were increasingly concerned to identify and record recidivists so that they could be punished more severely. Several of the records the project is using included information about previous convictions.

This list for Amelia is compiled from two sources: TNA PCOM4, Female Prison Licences (1853-83, records relating to women prisoners sentenced to penal servitude and released early on licence), and LMA MJ/CP/B, Calendars of Prisoners in the Middlesex House of Detention (1855-1889). MJ/CP/B is not currently online, and these records are in the process of being digitised for Digital Panopticon. Brief item-level descriptions for PCOM4 can be found on TNA’s website and the images are at Ancestry.co.uk. We will be rekeying more extensive data from these (and PCOM3, the counterparts for male prisoners), including information about previous convictions, health and physical descriptions, and offences in prison.

Another list of previous convictions, 1866 (LMA MJ/CP/B/13, 5 Nov 1866)

Another list of previous convictions, 1866 (LMA MJ/CP/B/13, 5 Nov 1866)

  • Middlesex Sessions, February 1851, as Sarah Smith: larceny (table cloths); sentenced to 4 months
  • Middlesex Sessions (Westmr), September 1851: larceny (shawl?); 12 months
  • Middlesex Sessions (Westmr), November 1852, as Amelia Welsh: larceny; 9 months
  • Central Criminal Court, February 1854, Amelia Smith: uttering counterfeit coin, 6 months
  • Middlesex Sessions, December 1854: larceny; 4 years.
  • Middlesex Sessions, April 1855: felony; 4 years penal servitude
  • Middlesex Sessions, August 1859: larceny; 4 years penal servitude
  • Middlesex Sessions, February 1861: larceny; 4 months
  • Westminster police court, March 1864: 3 months
  • Marylebone police court, July 1864 as Amelia Sayers: 4 months
  • Middlesex Sessions, November 1866: stealing a gown; 7 years penal servitude

I’m not certain that all of these records are completely accurate. I’ve definitely identified the following Middlesex Sessions convictions:

  • Middlesex Sessions (Westminster) 15 August 1859 (MJ/CP/B/6): tried as Amelia Acton, aged 40, trade “ironer”, for the theft of 23 yards of carpet value 15s. of Ann Boyce widow (felony); pleaded guilty to larceny after previous convictions and sentenced to 4 years penal servitude.
  • Middlesex Sessions (Clerkenwell) 5 November 1866 (MJ/CP/B/13): tried as Amelia Acton, aged 54, trade “washer”, for the theft of a gown value 12s of Thomas Gardner; pleaded guilty to larceny and receiving after previous convictions and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude.

Penal servitude was a harsher form of imprisonment in special ‘convict prisons’, including hard labour, which replaced transportation in the 1850s for repeat offenders. Amelia was sentenced to penal servitude on three occasions, in 1855, 1859 and 1866. Prisoners serving penal servitude sentences might be released early on licence (probation), but if they re-offended they were likely to have their licences revoked and be returned to prison. This happened to Amelia in early 1863 – just months after she’d been released on licence in October 1862. She was released when that sentence expired in August 1865, but she was back in the convict prison system again within 15 months. She was released on licence once again to the “Battery House Refuge” in February 1871 and I haven’t found any further offending records.

Are there other trials before 1851 or after 1866 that aren’t recorded in this list? But I’ll keep looking as we get more data… There are other Amelia Smiths who might be the right age in the Old Bailey Online, but no Amelia Acton or Amelia Welsh. If there are more, why aren’t they recorded with the rest? But if not, why did Amelia turn to crime in 1851 and why did she stop in 1871 after barely being able to stay out of prison for more than a few months at a time for 15 years?

What else do we know about Amelia? Quite a lot, though there’s one slight puzzle. In the records before 1866 Amelia’s age is quite consistent, with a year of birth around 1820. But in 1866, her age is given as 54 (y.o.b. about 1812) – she’s gained about 8 years! We know that ages were rarely precise for people born before civil registration started in 1837, but this seems an unusually large variation (there doesn’t appear to be any question that it’s the same woman). It certainly makes tracking her in other records more difficult. But so does the variety of names we have to search for: four different surnames and two given names!

We know a lot about Amelia from the PCOM4 records (which are amazingly rich). She was already  married with a child by 1855; Acton was her married name, and her maiden name may have been Welsh (or Welch). Her mother was living in Nightingale Street, Lisson Grove in 1855. Her complexion was dark, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, and she was just over 5 feet tall. She put on weight as she reached middle age – she went from being described as ‘thin’ in 1860  to ‘stout’ in 1866. She was a laundress (or in closely related trades) according to several of the records. In 1870 she suffered from rheumatism – maybe age and poor health are the main reasons why she didn’t reoffend after 1871.

Beyond the criminal records, there are some possible matches in Census and civil registration records. There is an Amelia Welsh, aged 20, living in the St Pancras area in the 1841 Census. And there is an Amelia Acton, a widow aged 70 (consistent with the older age given in 1866), and whose occupation is given as laundress, in the 1881 Census. Sadly, this Amelia was a pauper in St Marylebone Workhouse. It looks like, for her, crime really didn’t pay. Finally, possibly, there is a death record in 1888 for an Amelia Acton, aged 79, at Guildford, Surrey.

Do you know anything about Amelia? Please let us know!

[This post is one of a series of Convict Tales, in which we post about individual convicts whose lives the project has begun to link together. It may be updated as we learn more.]