Now that I’ve got your attention, I will be disappointing some of you by revealing that when female prisoners were described in a house of correction’s records as being “lewd women”, this did not mean that they were prostitutes, but rather that they were unmarried mothers, who had been imprisoned because they and their offspring had become a burden on the parish rates. The term came from a clause in an Act of Parliament of 1609 (7 James I, c4) which stated that “lewd women” who had children outside of marriage could be imprisoned for a fixed term of one year in a house of correction, if they could not support their illegitimate offspring.
For most of the eighteenth century, the old houses of correction at Winchcombe, Berkeley, Cirencester, Lawford’s Gate Bristol and Gloucester Castle rarely used the expression “lewd women” to describe unmarried mothers, but the 1609 statute was evidently being put into practice, as females were being imprisoned for a fixed term of one year, for having an illegitimate child which had become chargeable to the parish. The somewhat old-fashioned description of unmarried mothers seems to have become popular again when new houses of correction were opened in 1791, at Horsley, Littledean, Northleach and Lawford’s Gate (and, for a few years, there was a house of correction as part of the new Gloucester County Prison). This may have been simply because it was a short and easy way of describing the offence for which such women were incarcerated. At the same time as the expression “lewd women” became popular, the number of unmarried mothers who were sent to the new houses of correction also increased significantly.
Sir George Onesiphorus Paul, who, after becoming county sheriff in 1780, had been the main force behind the building of the new county prison and houses of correction, addressed the magistrates at the county’s Epiphany Quarter Sessions, in January 1809. He gave an account of the progress of the new penal establishments, and had drawn up some figures showing the types of prisoners sent to them, the average length of sentences, etc.
Regarding the houses of correction, Paul spoke at some length about the plight of the females who in recent years had been imprisoned under the statute of 7 James I as “lewd women”. These women were the only inmates of the county’s houses of correction who served a sentence of one year, most other prisoners being freed within six months. In addition, Paul commented that more unmarried mothers had been imprisoned in Gloucestershire under this statute since the opening of the new houses of correction than in the whole of the preceding century. Paul also believed that Gloucestershire was imprisoning far more unmarried mothers under this statute than any other English county. In London and Middlesex, he knew that the Act was “dormant and disregarded”.
Paul suggested that the reason for the increased use of “this unmanly clause” was nothing to do with morality, but was largely due to parish officers taking advantage of the ample accommodation offered by the new prison buildings, which allowed them to transfer the financial burden of supporting illegitimate children onto the county rates.
Paul must have hoped that his speech would deter Gloucestershire parishes from sending so many unmarried mothers to the houses of correction, but the practice continued up until the passing of the Poor Law Act of 1834. However, the County Gaol Calendars for Gloucestershire show that from around 1810, sentences of six, four and three months were given to “lewd women”, as well as the usual one year. In addition, while the majority of these women were still sentenced to serve one year, by 1820 many of them were being released early.
After 1834, no more “lewd women” appeared in the gaol calendars. The responsibility for looking after unmarried mothers and their children had been returned to the parish, under the guise of the new Poor Law Unions, which provided outdoor relief for some, and entry into the workhouse for the really unfortunate.
Note: Gloucester’s County Gaol Calendars, which include prisoners in houses of correction, are held at Gloucestershire Archives, reference Q/SG1 and Q/SG2.