Disorderly women, broken windows and social outcasts

Alana Piper and Victoria Nagy explore the criminal careers and offending patterns of female prisoners in Victoria across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Most criminal offending by women in common-law jurisdictions during the nineteenth and early twentieth century fell into three main categories: property, personal, and public-order. As Lucy Williams comments in respect to Victorian England, ‘Whilst crimes of theft most often saw women convicted of felonies and sent to convict prisons and violent crimes stole newspaper headlines, women who drank excessively or sold themselves on the streets (often both) probably constituted the largest single group of female offenders…’ Many historical studies of female offenders consequently approach the study of the different crimes committed by women in isolation from each other, largely treating the women involved in each category as belonging to a different group. Seldom do they deal with the potential overlap between these groups in depth. Yet contemporary criminological research suggests women are more likely to be versatile than specialist offenders, engaging in a range of offences over the course of their criminal careers.

Mugshot of Elizabeth Turnbull, circa 1918, the most persistent offender in our sample. In 1929 Turnbull even asked police to arrest her so she had some time to recover from a hard drinking bout in prison. Image via PROV, VPRS 516/P2, vol 13, p 212.

The use of longitudinal data from the criminal records of a sample of 6,042 women first imprisoned in the colony, later state, of Victoria between 1860 and 1920 reveals limitations in the traditional method of examining criminality within specific offence categories. As with female offending elsewhere, the bulk of women’s criminal activity in Victoria during this period consisted of offences against public order, mostly vagrancy and disorderly conduct. Women who first entered the prison system following the commission of what might be considered serious crimes were in the minority, with only 20 per cent first entering the prison system as the result of a theft conviction and just 10 per cent for violent offences.

However, although the vast bulk of women’s criminal histories still consisted of minor offences, the proportion of women engaging in more serious forms of offending rises as repeat offending is taken into account. At some point in their criminal careers, 29 per cent of female prisoners were convicted of theft, 13 per cent of violent offences, and 11 per cent of various other crimes (e.g. arson, property damage, perjury, suicide). In all, 23 per cent of female prisoners were convicted across two or more of the different crime categories of public order, theft, violent and other offences.

Versatile offending across different offence categories was unsurprisingly associated with increased recidivism. For instance, Elizabeth Turnbull, the most convicted woman in the study, had 188 convictions between 1910 and 1947, mostly for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour; however, she also had several convictions for theft. Likewise Ellen Green, the woman with the longest criminal career – spanning fifty-two years from her first known conviction in 1860 to her last one in 1912 – achieved a prolific fifty-eight convictions during this period. This included one for assault, eight for theft, and forty-nine for various public-order offences.

These versatile offenders moreover experienced higher rates of disciplinary problems in prison and were more likely to have multiple alias identities. They were also more likely to be convicted in Melbourne than regional or rural areas. Contemporary risk factors associated with persistent offending for women, such as histories of substance abuse and sex work, likewise find expression in the significant proportions of versatile offenders among women convicted of drunkenness and prostitution-related offences.

The tendency of historians to focus on specific types of offense has largely obscured the existence of this troublesome group. While they may have been arrested predominantly for petty offences, such offenders also routinely engaged in more serious crime. Late nineteenth-century commentators were far from unaware of offenders’ propensity to mix minor and serious criminal acts. Many drew attention to particular subtypes: prostitutes robbing customers; vagrants breaking and entering; or drunks given to fits of violence. In their work Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman (trans 2004, Rafter & Gibson), Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero speculated that female ‘born criminals’ were more prone to versatility than men, specialising ‘in not just one but several types of crime.’

Closer examination of specific offences reveals patterns that suggest varied narratives among versatile offenders themselves. Women with convictions for pickpocketing were among the most highly recidivist offenders with great diversity across different offence categories; this likely indicates more general participation in a criminal subculture connected to the sex trade, which provided abundant opportunities to rob men in brothels, hotels or on the street. Conversely, the few versatile offenders convicted of homicide were mostly convicted of one or two public-order offences, such as drunkenness or vagrancy, following their initial incarceration, possibly indicating a difficulty in adjusting to life after an extended sentence.

But there were also surprises. The offence of ‘breaking windows’ had the strongest association with versatile offending (95.3 per cent of the eighty-six women convicted of it) and the highest average recidivism rate of any offence (17.7 convictions). It appears that breaking windows was a common form of vengeance among women from criminal subcultures. Melbourne Gaol Superintendent John Castieau noted in his diary in 1870 that one notorious woman had been imprisoned for smashing all the windows of a café proprietor that refused to serve her.

Mugshot of Louisa Davis, circa 1892, one of the few persistent offenders imprisoned for homicide. Convicted of manslaughter after stabbing a female neighbour in 1891, Davis amassed 26 convictions between 1890 and 1911. Image via PROV, VPRS 516/P2, vol 10, p 391.

Ironically, the broken windows theory is actually a criminological concept positing that lack of policing of petty crime in a neighbourhood (such as property damage) can gradually result in an escalation to more serious offending; this has been used to justify ‘zero-tolerance’ policies towards relatively minor offences. Was the hard line taken against public-order offences in Victoria during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – resulting in the repeated imprisonment of large numbers of women – an anticipation of the ‘broken windows’ theory?

Possibly to some extent. Yet women who first entered prison because of violence or theft were the ones most likely to be over-represented among those who became versatile offenders. Rather than using public-order offences to deter women from an escalation to more serious crimes, police might have been using them to detain women who were serious offenders but difficult to prosecute accordingly. Nineteenth-century juries in Victoria – as in most jurisdictions then and now – were far less inclined to convict women than men. The knowledge that women with histories of theft and violence might continue to commit such offences with impunity may have encouraged police to harass these women after release.

But re-arresting them more frequently and segregating them from the support of family and friends may instead have instigated these women to partake in more crime. Criminologists refer to this as ‘labeling theory’ – in seeking to prevent crime, the community actually creates an environment conducive to more of it occurring. Contemporary studies show that female offenders experience higher levels of social exclusion than men, and that this contributes significantly to recidivism.

Importantly, the Victorian dataset showed considerable fluctuations in the proportions of versatile offenders over time, suggesting that such patterns are considerably influenced by socio-historic context. Whereas only 8.2 per cent of women entering Victoria’s prison system in 1864 would eventually commit different types of offence, this proportion reached a high of 77.6 per cent in 1917. The general trend was growth across time; from 1903 onward, the proportion of versatile offenders regularly matched or outstripped that of public-order only offenders. The overall number of women being imprisoned declined across the study period, perhaps meaning that those who were incarcerated became even more of an outcast group, accounting for the rising proportion of recidivist and versatile offenders in the twentieth century.

Janet Dibben, one of the women in the sample, wrote a poem about her experiences in Melbourne gaol. Alluding to the difficulties women faced in escaping the cycle of imprisonment once marked as an offender, Dibben opined:

When you go out it’s now beware,
The bobbies are watching you everywhere;
It’s when you go out, and when you come in
They want a stripe, and that is the thing.

Perhaps this was a sentiment shared by many among the approximately one-fifth of female prisoners our data suggests became more or less mired in a life of crime, disorder and outcast status.


See full article: Alana Piper and Victoria Nagy, ‘Versatile offending: Criminal careers of female prisoners in Australia, 1860-1920,’ Journal of Interdisciplinary History 48, no. 2 (2017): 187-210.


Alana Piper is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Griffith University in the fields of gender and criminal justice history. Her research is particularly interested in economically-motivated crimes such as theft, fraud, prostitution and fortune-telling. In the past she has contributed to The Conversation and History Workshop Online, as well as being a regular contributor to and convenor of the Prosecution Project blog. Alana is one of the Managing Editors of VIDA.

Follow Alana on Twitter @alana_piper.

Vicky Nagy teaches criminology at Deakin University in Melbourne, and is an honorary associate of La Trobe University. Her monograph about the Essex poisoning cases was published in 2015. Vicky’s research interests include violent women in nineteenth-century Australia and Britain, as well as more contemporary criminology issues around sexual violence, and online crime.

Follow Vicky on Twitter @vicnagy83.

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