November marks 173 years since the birth of this talented Wiltshire writer whose life was so tragically cut short. Chippenham Library’s Local Studies Champion wanted to discover more about him.
Richard Jefferies (John Richard Jefferies) was born on the 6th November 1848 at Coate farm, Swindon, which now houses the Richard Jefferies Museum. His father was a farmer. His childhood had a great influence on him, providing many of the characters he later wrote about in his novels.
Between the ages of 4 and 9 he stayed with his aunt and uncle at Sydenham and went to a private school, returning to Coate during the holidays. His father would read and explain Shakespeare and the Bible and taught him and his siblings what he knew of natural history. Richard would collect bird eggs, he loved to fish in the brook, climb trees, was also a keen reader and had inherited his father’s handiness with tools. A letter he wrote to his aunt mentions his having made a sundial so he could tell the time.
At 16 he and a cousin ran off to France, intending to walk to Russia. After crossing the Channel, they soon realised that their schoolboy French was not good enough and they returned to England. Before they reached home they saw an advertisement for cheap crossings from Liverpool to America, so set off in this direction, but after buying the tickets they had no money for food and were forced to return home.
I don’t think that I’m alone with my interest in historical crime and punishment. I was interested in seeing if I could piece together a criminal history of someone picked completely at random. With this in mind, I looked through one our archives from the Wiltshire Constabulary, a ‘Divisional Criminal Photographic Album, with particulars of crime and personal details. 1900-1916’. the date range I chose ensured that I didn’t breach the 100 year closed file rule; this allows anonymity which in this case is quite a sensitive subject.
I decided to choose a female prisoner, Mary Jane Oland, born on the 1st May 1870 in Kempsford, Gloucestershire- just over the county border. Mary was the daughter of a shepherd and his wife, Thomas and Harriet Oland. It appears that she was of average education; as well as can be expected for a labourers’ child, she would have definitely attended the local village school.
It is unclear why, Mary, turned to the life of crime, but it appears to have stemmed from a mental health issue. A taboo subject, especially during this period. Marys’ first conviction was on the 28th June 1883 at the age of 14, shockingly, she was bound over by Swindon Magistrates for an attempted suicide. To investigate this devastating start to Mary’s downward spiral, I looked at the Swindon Advertiser- newspaper reports often give a lot more detail than a criminal register or calendar of prisoners. On Saturday 30th June 1883, it was reported that Mary had cut her own throat in an attempt to avoid returning to service near Bath. She had stated that she had been cruelly treated by her employer Mr C Williams, a farmer. Prior to the incident, Mary had appeared to have gone AWOL with another young employee, a boy, whom she had taken to Bristol and Box over a period of about four days. Was this just an attempt to run away? There was no criminal intent by poor Mary; it was so obvious that she was unhappy.
The following year, Mary was accused of stealing items of clothing in both Swindon and Marlborough, these offences were swiftly followed by two offences of burglary.
By the age of 16, Mary was breaking into dwelling houses and stealing jewellery. Her previous convictions of theft had seen her do hard labour, in those days this would have meant supervised physical work outside the prison walls. This new conviction gave her a custodial sentence with which hard labour was included. Mary was incarcerated in Devizes Bridewell Prison, where there was a large, multi-person treadmill installed. This treadmill was driven by the prisoners for long sessions and the wardens could tighten the screws to make the treadmill harder to turn. Hence prison wardens being dubbed ‘screws’.