I find researching and writing about an ordinary person from the past fascinating (perhaps it is my natural nosiness). At times it is captivating, at others, difficult to comprehend. After all these folks aren’t around to explain their actions or to defend themselves. Records for the regular person on the street are scant, we often left with small snippets of information, and those few tantalising facts can have your imagination running wild.
When I started researching Hannah Jory it was because of a West Briton article I had seen about her in 1841. She was described as ‘Hannah the Sweep’ and she had been imprisoned for 3 months for ‘riotous behaviour’. I thought that she sounded fun so looked into her a little further.
What I found out both intrigued me and distressed me. And my next problem became how to write it all down.
This was a woman that history had forgotten completely and yet her life was full of colour. This story doesn’t have a happy ending, however but it is the fascinating tale of one woman’s life in 19th century Cornwall, warts and all.
Hannah Jory was already a prostitute by the time her story hits the newspaper columns. And it was not her first appearance in a courtroom when she stood before a judge in Truro with two other women, Elizabeth Davis and Mary Payne, in 1839.
That day the three women were described as prostitutes and charged with assault and theft. Life for women in the early 19th century was very difficult, especially at the lower end of the social scale. If you fell into poverty or suffered some kind of scandal, there was very little support, you could quite literally end up in the gutter. Life was hard and society unforgiving.
Hannah first appeared in the West Briton as a witness giving evidence in the case of a murdered child. It is a very unpleasant trial which saw the mother, the only suspect, walking away because of insufficient evidence. But what of Hannah? She was only in the courtroom because she and her 2 very small children are sharing a house, with a number of other women and children, in Charles Street, Truro. Why she is there without her husband isn’t clear. The court describes her as a married woman, not a widow. But from this point on Hannah’s life descends into chaos.
As far as I can gather Hannah was first sent to Bodmin Gaol in the late 1830s. I am guessing something happened for Hannah to find herself in this situation because at this point in her life she had been married for nearly 10 years and had two small children, Courtney (her maiden name) born in 1832 and Elizabeth born 1836. Her husband William Jory was a chimney-sweep, hence her nickname, was 20 years older but I can find no other record of him.
Hannah was convicted 8 times over the next few years, mostly for theft and drunken behaviour. She was described in the papers as ‘a nymph’, ‘a notorious prostitute’ and a ‘riotous drunk’. It seems that she was smart and sassy too, mostly preying on men drinking alone in beer-houses in the side streets of Truro. When she stole John Mayor’s wallet in an Inn on Calenick Street in April 1839 he rather comically reported ‘she took off like a hare’.
We have a full description of her from her gaol records, she was 5’4″, brown hair, hazel eyes, fresh complexion, she had a tattoo on her right arm and could read but we only know all this because she got caught . . . a lot! The West Briton said in 1840 ‘Hannah Jory . . . is very familiar with the inside of a gaol’. And of course inevitably at some point the Law was going to run out of patience.
In July 1842 the West Briton reported the following:
Hannah Jory, aged 32, notorious character in Truro, was charged with stealing ten shillings from the person of ROBERT LIDDICOAT in the streets of Truro, on the evening of the 11th of May. Much of the evidence in this case, and still more the defence set up by the prisoner was of a disgusting character, such as we cannot attempt to publish; but we regret to say that it did not appear to affect the modesty of any of a large number of apparently respectable females in the Grand Jury Gallery. Ten Years’ Transportation. The Chairman, in passing sentence, said the Bench had reason to believe that this prisoner had been eight times before in gaol, for different offences. On receiving her sentence, the prisoner burst into tears, and begged, for mercy’s sake, that she might be allowed to have her dear child with her.
Hannah’s youngest child, Elizabeth, was 6 at the time of her mother’s conviction. On the 7th September 1842 the Garland Grove sailed for Tasmania, Australia with 191 convicts on board, they were all women.
The ship arrived at its destination in January 1843 and the women were put to work at the Launceston Female Factory just outside Hobart. Ironically the name Launceston would have been very familiar to Hannah, it’s namesake was a small town in east Cornwall. In this facility the woman were put to work as seamstresses and laundresses. It was an overcrowded house of correction where the poor diet and conditions led to frequent rioting. Hannah died about 12 months later aged 33 on 21st March 1844.
We will never know the exact circumstances of Hannah’s life and it will always be difficult for us to judge her looking back over the intervening 150 years or so. But she gives us a window into what could be a different world. And for me real lives such as hers are as exciting as any Soap Opera and tell us so much about ourselves and our county’s history.
Hannah’s children disappear into the mists of time, I can find no further record of Courtney after the 1841 census however a girl called Elizabeth Jory, of the right age, is working as a domestic servant for a large farming family in 1851. I hope she managed to shake off her past and went on to live a happier life than her mother.