Saturday, 24 June 2017

Mary The Cripple: Victorian Badass

Mary The Cripple: Victorian Badass

'Lost the use of her legs walks on her hands, not read, labourer.' 
So reads the description of Mary the Cripple from her prisoner description in 1834.

[Note: I know the word 'cripple' is now quite an offensive term, it is used here in a historical context and it is how Mary was widely known in her community by her peers.]
These blogposts are part of a series exploring offshoots from a book 'Notorious: Charlotte Street and 'The Lane' about two criminal streets in Victorian Cardiff.

To me Mary The Cripple is an absolute unsung legend of Welsh history. Mary's disability was probably one she had since birth, possibly poliomyelitis, and it meant she had withered legs and could not walk. She's described as either crawling on the floor or using a wheelchair or carriage to get around. Despite being a disabled woman living in the early Victorian period she managed to carve out for herself a forty year career as the head of a small criminal empire first in Newport and then in Cardiff. Her first arrest is recorded in 1834. A year later she got sent down for keeping a brothel and she was still procuring girls in Cardiff in 1876, 41 years later.

Mary was not alone of course. She was the central figure of a large family. I know she is the central figure as the other members of the family are often described in relation to her. Her husband John Yarwood is 'Jack the Cripple' 'The Adonis of the Celebrated Mary the Cripple' or 'husband of the more notorious Mary the Cripple', her daughter Elizabeth is 'Bets the Cripple', her daughter Ann 'The Young Cripple'.
1841 March 13 Monmouthshire Merlin p.3.
Mary the Cripple was born into the life in 1808. Her mother Ann Hughes kept a brothel in Newport where her sister Catherine, aka 'Long Kit' or 'Katty' worked in the 1830's. Mary's given name was Mary Hughes but the name that later struck fear into many was her married surname of Yarwood. 'The Yarwoods' became an entity, a family gang, a tangible thing. If you were in law enforcement or up to no good in Newport in the 1830's-1850's or Cardiff from 1854 onward you would know the name very well.
1862 December 20th Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian p.3.
Our story begins in 1834 as Mary and John Yarwood are both imprisoned for 12 months for keeping a brothel, though Mary was kindly let off the 'hard labour' part of the sentence. She was just 27, he was 24.
The Yarwoods lived in Friar's Fields in Newport, a really shitty slum that was rife with poverty and crime. The only winners in Friar's Fields were the landowners, who got good rents from the densely populated houses, and criminals. Mary the Cripple survived off three main income sources: fencing stolen goods, brothel keeping and running a beerhouse (brothel) called The Three Jolly Boatmen.
Mary soon became notorious in the press. To them she was a 'disgusting creature', 'a crippled and depraved wretch'. She gave birth in the police station cells in 1839:
1839 March 9th Monmouthshire Merlin p.3.
Mary was no shrinking violet. In 1840 Mrs Mary Walford, herself from a thieving family, went to see Mary the Cripple after she had 'lent' her some items. Mary was not forthcoming with the goods and she set her sister Long Kit onto her like a guard dog. At court Mrs Walford describes:

"I axed Mary the Cripple for the bedstead wot I lent her, when she blows me up like fun, and calls her great sister Katty to wop me. So I ups with a stone, and shies 'in at Mary's big head, for I was in a boiling passion. With that out flew Katty, and pitched into me quite a rum 'in. First she pitches into me with a rig'lar knock-me-down, and down I goes.  Well, sur, after I had been wopped about just as if I warn't a woman, the strapping big hussy stops a bit, and then Mary the Cripple sings out "Go it Katty, a good 'in, and I'll pay costs!" Well, her sister wopped me till I was almost blind."

A year later and John Yarwood is passing off stolen iron to the Walfords and gets another year in gaol. In 1842 Mary and her sister Long Kit are arrested for encouraging two sailors to fight outside their brothel in front of a crowd. When her sailor was losing the fight Mary the Cripple was overheard shouting "Damn your eyes, Kate, hit him over the head with the candlestick!' When Mary was called up to court she had a solicitor with her, a very rare occurrence for the poor in this time. He first tried to get her off the charge as it said she was 'standing' at her door but that didn't wash. This is how they describe her court experience:
1842 October 8th Monmouthshire Merlin p.3.
Mary the Cripple, the 'blue-eyed hag' was obviously doing well for herself to be able to pay a £3 12 shilling fine straight away, roughly that was three months rent for a house. After she paid up Mary verbally abused the courts, police and the lawyers as she slinked off.
Mary didn't like the courts or the press and they didn't like her in return. Their efforts to 'drive this horrid pest from the town' failed considerably.
At the end of 1843 under the headline 'A Monstrous Family' Mary, her husband, her sister and her daughter Elizabeth Yarwood were all in court for stealing and receiving a stolen snuff box. Mary the Cripple was allowed bail- as she was pregnant at the time and they didn't want her giving birth in the cells for a second time! Her sister got three months for her part in the theft but Mary and John got off the charge.
In 1844 Mary the Cripple tried to get her competitors in the receiving stolen goods game, the Walfords, put away for theft. She got a boy to steal some iron and tell the police the Walfords had put him up to it, unfortunately it was found out Mary had coached the boy and the Walfords were released. The police then tried to charge the Yarwoods again for keeping a disorderly house but they shook off the charge and were released.
Mary kept making money. When she was called to court in August 1844 this time she arrived in her carriage with her entourage:

1844 August 31st Monmouthshire Merlin p.3.
Mary and John Yarwood eventually got round to marrying in late 1845 but the love with John could not last. in the summer of 1846 John raided another beerhouse in Newport with a small gang and also stole metal from a factory. As the police were about to dig up the stolen metal John Yarwood scarpered, went missing and the police couldn't find him. The press put this down to Mary's 'acumen and long experience.' John was missing for over a week until he was found cowering inside a house and arrested.
In the cells he pretended to be insane. Mary the Cripple hired doctors and solicitors to go and see the 'patient' but the ruse didn't work. John got 14 years transportation for burglary and was on his way to Millbank prison in London 8 days later and then to Van Diemen's Land on the cutely named ship 'Pestonjee Bomanjee'.
Mary's daughter Ann Yarwood, known as 'Little Cripple', started to get into trouble that same year. At 12 years old she was in court on a trivial charge:
1846 July 11th Monmouthshire Merlin
While John was pretending to be mad in gaol Mary took over the running of the beerhouse, she was called to court for allowing drinking there on a Sunday morning. One of the witnesses was particularly pissed off with Mary as she found her husband drinking in there with 'other married man and girls of ill-fame'. Mary got a fine and continued running the family business, receiving stolen goods, robbing and assaulting men at her brothel and keeping the beerhouse open all hours.
Her eldest daughter Elizabeth Yarwood aka 'Bets the Cripple' helped her out although the mother-daughter relationship could be strained at times. In May 1847 Mary charged her own daughter with breaking her furniture after a drunken tantrum. Bets the Cripple tried to hang herself in the police station cell but her mother didn't appear to charge her in the morning. Elizabeth was working hard as a prostitute all through this time:
1847 July 24
Mary the Cripple's brothel continued to bring home the honey. In March 1848 a ship's master was robbed of twenty sovereigns there and though he tried to follow the girl out he was blocked by two heavies. The money was never recovered. Twenty sovereigns was a massive sum, worth about £15,000 in wages today, and that was in one night. The money would have been shared out according to roughly agreed cuts between Mary as the brothel owner, the woman who stole it and the bullies in the house.
Mary was soon rich enough from these thefts, the majority of which weren't reported, to buy her own properties. This meant however that she was now a property owner and so she had to pay her poor rates to fund the sick and the destitute of the parish. Mary clearly believed that charity began at home because in 1848 Mary had refused to pay the Poor Rate Collector. When he had tried to collect the money Mary was so threatening and abusive that he had written 'Unrecoverable' next to her name in the book.

In 1848 Ann Yarwood, by now 15 years old, was also prostituting herself at her mothers house. In July, dressed in her 'tawdry finery' and heavily made-up, she was proving as formidable as her mother:
1848 July 22 Monmouthshire Merlin
In December Ann was arrested for stealing five sovereigns from a ship's captain. Her mother called her solicitor down and Ann was released.
In November 1848 Mary was caught red handed receiving money from one of her brothel bullies. She was denied bail and got a twelve month sentence in gaol, to hooting and shouts of approval at the court. Her bully Jacob Smith who stole it got a ten year transportation sentence. It was up to her sister Catherine and her daughter Ann to keep things running now.
The family kept things going well for Mary. In March 1849 two men who had gone to Mary's brothel on Saturday emerged Sunday morning minus the bread they had bought for their families, some of their clothes and all of their money. Ann Yarwood and her aunt Catherine aka 'Long Kit' were with Manchester Moll in August 1849 drinking at the British Queen beerhouse. They noticed that the barmaid, who had been tasked with washing some of Mary the Cripple's pawned goods, had the audacity to wear one of the dresses herself. They went up to her and demanded it back. When she refused they knocked her into a ditch and ripped the dress off her body, taking her money while they were at it. They got one month in gaol for the assault.

Mary's oldest sons had also joined the fray in the summer of 1850. Thomas and John stole a load of toys from Newport fair and were both imprisoned for two weeks and whipped. Thomas was 14 and John was 13.
Ann Yarwood continued thieving from shops and her clients through 1850, getting various periods in gaol. While Ann was in gaol in the summer she gave birth to a son Henry. He died and was buried on Christmas Eve just a few days after Ann was released.
Meanwhile Mary was out of gaol and managed to net £45 from a dupe in her brothel in October 1850. This brothel theft is the first time that her 10 year old daughter Catherine Yarwood was involved in a recorded crime, though what she did was unclear. The police raided Mary and shut down her beerhouse but the victim wouldn't appear to prosecute, he was either ashamed or threatened, so Mary the Cripple and the Yarwoods pocketed the equivalent of over £30,000 and opened back up.
Around 1851 Mary Yarwood got together with William 'Bill' Thomas, a heavy from Southampton. They would stay together for decades. Times were good for Mary and the Yarwoods. Excess was the order of the day. On census night 1851 both John, aged 14, and Ann Yarwood, aged 18, were sleeping it off in the Police Station. Ann Yarwood was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in August 1851 and was so pissed she was taken to the station on a stretcher. She leapt out of it halfway there and dislocated her leg.

Men kept coming to Mary's brothel and losing their money and possessions which were then sold on. Her daughters continued working the streets and getting drunk and leary in public.
In the early 1850's a change was in the wind for the Yarwoods. Elizabeth and Ann Yarwood had been going to Cardiff to work now and again, robbing sailors and drunks there in the quickly expanding port. They were attracted to Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane, dens of vice and thievery much like their home patch of Friar's Fields.

In the Spring of 1854, perhaps because they were getting too infamous in Newport, all of the Yarwoods decamped en masse from Friar's Fields and moved into Charlotte Street in Cardiff. Bill Thomas and Mary the Cripple took over the running of The Noah's Ark. The Noah's Ark was a hugely successful brothel, beerhouse and fencing business for stolen goods. Mary had probably been trading with the man who ran it for years already. It had entrances on Charlotte Street for the beerhouse and Whitmore Lane for the brothel. The owner Tommy Thomas, who's step-mother was one of the oldest brothel keepers in Cardiff, had moved on.
Cardiff 1851 'Farmer's Arms' marked in Yellow, Cardiff Central Station is bottom left.
A vacancy for vice had arisen and Mary and the Yarwoods filled it full with their expertise. In their new home town of Cardiff Mary the Cripple's family committed countless sins over the next fifty years as Ann, Thomas, Catherine and Abraham Yarwood grew into adults.
1855 April 7th Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian
The Yarwoods renamed The Noah's Ark 'The Farmer's Arms' but it was no wholesome country pub. This next part of Mary the Cripple's story, when she becomes 'Queen of the Cardiff brothel keepers' is picked up in Notorious: Charlotte Street and 'The Lane'.

The book 'Notorious: Charlotte Street and 'The Lane' is out at some point. More about the project can be found here.

There is an article on Mary the Cripple, I've finally gotten hold of it in August 2018 and it is a great source for her Newport days- the Cardiff days will be described in much more detail in my upcoming book but it is a great read if you can get hold of it:
 “'Mary the Cripple': the Yarwood family's life of crime and vice in Victorian South Wales” Gwent Local History 111 (2012): 18. T.Jukes"
There is also information about the Walford family online here:
The Walfords: The Worst Fences in Newport

Brothel prosecution: Monmouthshire Merlin 1834 July 5th p.3.
Mrs Mary Walford: MM 1840 March 14th p.3.
Monstrous family and theft: MM 1843 December 2nd p.3.
Iron theft: MM 1844 April 27th p.3.

Receiving money: MM 1848 November 3rd p.5.
Hare and Hounds: MM 1849 February 17th p.2.
Robbery of two men MM 1849 March 17th p.3.
Mary sentenced: MM 1849 March 30th p.5.
Assault by Ann and Catherine: MM 1849 August 11th p.3. and June 16th p.2.
Thomas and John Yarwood: MM 1850 June 1st p.4.
Ann Yarwood gaoled: MM 1850 August 10th p.4.
£45 theft: MM 1850 November 2nd p.3.
William Henry Yarwood buried Dec 24th 1850 St Woolos, Newport.
Catherine drunk: MM 1852 April 2 p.4.
Brothel Robbery: MM 1853 February 4th p.4.
In Cardiff: Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian 1862 November 15th p.6.

All newspaper images are courtesy of the excellent Welsh Newspapers Online site run by the National Library of Wales. This article in its current form is copyright Anthony Rhys 2017.

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